Bombproof Your Horse the Mounted Patrol Training Way with Horse Desensitization

Ever wonder how mounted patrol training teaches horses to stay calm, even in the face of chaos? Here, we pull back the curtain to show you horse desensitization techniques used in mounted patrol training by the Jackson Hole Police Citizens’ Mounted Unit, made up of volunteers who patrol downtown streets and special events.

We’ll show you how to incorporate elements of the mounted patrol training, including horse desensitization, into your own program to teach your horse to stay calm when he encounters a scary situation. We’ll give you ground rules, training basics, and step-by-step techniques learned from mounted patrol training using horse desensitization.

Ground Rules

  • Put safety first. If you feel in danger, dismount from your horse. Work your horse from the ground until he’s comfortable. Note that some exercises and disciplines should be taught only by a professional mounted patrol trainer.
  • Watch your pace. Expose your horse only to what he can handle. Proceed at a pace that helps him succeed.
  • Never train alone. When you train, make sure someone is around, even if it’s a neighbor watching from afar.
  • Be patient. Mounted patrol training is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Practice these steps as often as your schedule allows.

Training Basics

As you work with your horse, keep these training basics in mind to optimize your success.

  • Be positive. Your mind-set, outlook, energy, and anxiety level affect your horse more than any other tool or technique. Ride over and through obstacles as if they’re no big deal, and your horse will adopt the same attitude. If you have fun and view the training as a game, your horse will, too.
  • Focus on your destination. When you’re in the saddle, your horse will follow your gaze. Pick out a tree, a sign at the far end of the arena ? any object in the direction of your destination ? and focus on it.
  • Use the principle of pressure and release. With all forms of equine training, the basics of pressure and release apply. Maintain pressure (e.g., hold the lead rope taut, maintain pressure on the bit, or apply a leg cue) until your horse gives you the slightest approximation of what you want. Then release the pressure, and reward him with a rub.
  • Pause for the moment of learning. Learning happens when you release the pressure at a specific response from your horse. Then pause long enough for the lesson to sink in.
  • Use your horse’s sense of smell. When approaching a new obstacle, horses may pause for a sniff. This is part of the acceptance process. Smelling an object indicates that he’s willing to consider dealing with it. After he seems satisfied, ask him to continue forward across or through the obstacle.

Mounted Patrol Technique

Here’s how to begin desensitization training with your horse the mounted patrol way. (Before you begin, warm up your horse in your usual manner so he is prepared for training.)

Step 1. Introduce from the ground. When first introducing your horse to any obstacle, do so from the ground until he seems comfortable. If it takes him 45 minutes to simply place one foot on a tarp, fine. Help him win. Be confident and firm, but never force or pressure him; you don’t want him to associate tension with the obstacle. The level of adrenaline is inversely proportional to learning: Adrenaline up, learning down. Adrenaline down, learning up.

Step 2. Sack out your horse. Desensitize your horse’s entire body ? over, under, in front, and behind. From the ground, rub his whole body with various objects, and allow him to hear all the sounds they make. Start with an inflatable toy, then graduate to plastic grocery bags, garbage bags, and tarps. (For more object suggestions, see Step 5.) When he accepts an object from the ground, repeat the sacking-out process under saddle (shown).

Step 3. Ride over the obstacles. After you’ve worked all the obstacles from the ground, ride your horse over them. Go easy at first, then, over time, ramp up the difficulty. Walk over the obstacles, then trot over them. If your horse refuses an obstacle, follow a more experienced horse. If your horse becomes anxious, take a break, and play a game. Toss a ball among riders, or knock a soccer ball around the arena with brooms.

Step 4. Use smoke bombs. For advanced desensitization, smoke is an exceptional tool. It teaches your horse to trust you enough to penetrate a wall he can’t see through. Light two smoke bombs, place them far apart, and send your horse between them from the ground. Then ride in a line of horses between the bombs. As the horses relax, move the smoke bombs closer together, and make several passes.

Step 5. Design your own obstacles. Build your own obstacle course using a little imagination and items from your local hardware or dollar store. Collect such items as inflatable toys, tarps, plastic garbage bags, blankets, flags, pool toys, balls, road cones/signs, lights, sirens, flares, old tires, leaf blowers, plywood, wood pallets, drums, and horns.

Jayme Feary is a writer and horseman based in Jackson, Wyoming. He’s a member of the Jackson Hole Police Citizens’ Mounted Unit and The Long Rider’s Guild.

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