Desensitising to plastic bags and other objects.
No matter what you do with your horses and ponies, every time you interact with them, you are training. You will be creating a memory. All future behaviour is shaped by past experience, both good and bad. It’s called Classical Conditioning. Bad experiences or memories will cause a fear/flight response. All good memories improve relationship and builds in trust.
This article is going to try to show you that when you set out to train, it should have fun qualities in it for both you and your equine partner as well as being useful for the future.
Often times, horses fear a lot of things. Movements or noises in their immediate environment can cause startle, which is based on fear. I am going to suggest a few things which will help them become more solid and less nervous- and even bring out that wonderful quality called play!
I teach horses to target objects for reward. Flapping plastic bags for instance. Hold a crunched-up bag in your hand and let your pony investigate it. When they do say “yes” and give it a pony nut. Gradually allow the bag to get bigger, always slowly and reward for all interactions. Do not go too fast because we want to change any nervous feelings into being bold and inquisitive. If you frighten the pony, then you are going too fast and are being greedy. Be aware of your pony’s emotions and keep them calm and investigative. Keep going in tiny steps with this bag
until you can flap that bag about and your pony still wants to touch it with his nose end. Move away a little bit…. can your pony follow happily and even start to chase plastic bags? Beats having them chase him away any day!
Gradually you will be desensitising your pony to flapping plastic bags in hedges and rustling noises around him. The addition of the food reward and the use of the marker word “yes” means that the pony understands its decision was a good one and you will be counter conditioning. Use the word “Target” when he touches it. Keep repeating that word every time he touches it. It will then gradually become a cue for your pony to walk towards something and touch it with his nose. Always reward that touch or interaction with a bit of food or a good scratch. It will keep the behaviour strong
The end result we want is a pony who no longer feels fearful of these noises, colours, sights or sudden movements.
You can then hang bags all around your ménage or put big ones on top of jump stands and ask him to target them. You can slowly introduce other objects for him to learn to target, like umbrellas, big gym balls which you can train him to kick or push around. The list is endless. My horses target road cones and wheelie bins so they feel great out and about on the roads, especially when they find an object to target in the village. I always carry food so that I am ready if a training opportunity arises.
Your pony will love feeling so much more confident and you will be so much better for training your pony to problem solve situations instead of reacting with nervous of fearful feelings.
Have fun training with your pony and remember that the slower you go with this type of training, the faster you will get there. Keep sessions very short and highly rewarded. Just repeat them whenever you can and start to build confidence and play into training.