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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

Is it desensitisation or is it flooding?

There are lots of different thoughts on the best way to get horses used to things and lots of misinformation around what is actually occurring from the horse’s perspective during the training.

Flooding is often sold as desensitisation but they are not the same thing. Systematic desensitisation involves progressive exposure to the new thing, using small, incremental steps to avoid pushing the horse into a fear response. Flooding involves leaving the horse with no way out of the situation and not removing the new thing until they stop reacting. Horses that are highly stressed can present with the easily recognisable explosive behaviour of bucking and bolting, but they can also freeze, get “stuck” and even drop to the floor to try and figure out how to get rid of the stimulus.

You might wonder why this is bad if you get to the end result quicker, but flooding can cause extreme fear and stress which can result in learned helplessness. This means the horse learns that, no matter what he does, he can’t make the scary thing stop so he just gives up, even if the situation changes and he can get away, he doesn’t even try. This is not relaxation or comfortable acceptance, this is a shut down horse who is learning that humans are not to be trusted.

As an example, a common scenario in which we see flooding is introducing a saddle and being girthed up for the first time, it is not unusual to send the horse out on the lunge bucking and bucking until they eventually give up. It is often the feeling of the girth and something moving with the horse that triggers the panic so there are lots of things you could do to break this down into smaller steps. Starting with some string or rope that you can undo easily, learning to recognise when your horse is starting to feel anxious and backing off before it escalates, using positive reinforcement to create positive associations etc.

There are so many scenarios in their daily lives where flooding can feel unavoidable. Flooding can look like hanging on to a horse’s head until they stop panicking so you can administer oral medication, shutting a horse in a stable when they really don’t want to be in there or taking their friend away when they have separation anxiety. If you have enough good experiences in your “relationship bank” so to speak, you can get through these situations without doing too much damage to your relationship. But if you choose to train like this most of the time your horse is not going to see you as someone who makes good choices for him.

This is not a post to say what is right or wrong, everyone is going to have a different line in the sand with their ethics. But I do think people should have the information to make their own choices instead of being told their shut down horse is relaxed and comfortable with the situation. Just because someone says their way is the only way doesn’t make it true. You might not know another way, but maybe someone else does.

While flooding can sometimes happen by accident or be necessary in the moment, it is something I try my best to avoid. Systematic desensitisation may often be a slower process but for me it is more than worth it if it preserves the relationship with your horse. 🐴

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