New Experiences: De-Spooking Clinic

With PD the police dog on his heels, Bill Richey releases a smoke bomb, while the clinic riders circle them.

Held near Hickory, N.C., the clinic was given by Bill Richey, a mounted police officer who has trained police horses for more than 30 years. I say trained horses, but Bill will tell you he actually trains the riders. Like Caesar Milan, he finds that it is often the rider’s fear and reactions that are the problem, rather than the horse’s innate fear. Download a PDF of this article here.

Despooking or desensitizing clinics are not new to me. I’ve attended several taught by natural horsemen. And there were similarities in that they systematically expose a horse to increasingly stronger stimuli. But this clinic was entirely on horseback with no initial ground work. The class works as a group, leveraging equine herd instinct.

We started with drill team maneuvers work at a walk, which allowed the hoses to become accustomed to each other. It also gave the riders experience riding in tight formation while following instructions.

The initial obstacle was a piece of plywood lying flat on the ground. The riders formed a single file line and attempted to walk over it. The goal was to keep the horses in motion, repeating the exercise until both horse and rider were bored. Only then did the instructor introduce another obstacle.

Bill used a horse’s natural herd-animal instinct to his advantage. They tend to follow the leader, so if one horse went over the obstacle, the other horses usually followed. And each time the rider and horse completed the obstacle, they got calmer about it (desensitized).

As the clinic progressed, the difficulty of the obstacles increased. On the first day we were walking by smoke bombs spewing out orange smoke and riding through a hanging curtain. Then Bill set off flares and we walked through the smoke. Horses perceive smoke as solid, so they were initially reluctant to approach it or walk through it.

A narrow bridge became a teeter totter, once the horses were calm about the bridge. I had sworn I wouldn’t attempt the teeter totter, but by then I realized the problem was me, not my horse. I was scared. But, because of the clinic’s slow, incremental pace of the clinic, by the time we faced the teeter totter, I was more confident. My horse did it first try with no problem.
We practiced walking through a line of fire using a similar approach. Initially we rode around it in a circle as a group. Then, when each rider thought they were ready, they walked their horse through it. 

My first riding teacher believed that horses learned by watching other horses, and that theory seemed to work in this clinic. Whether it was because the horses were learning, or because the riders gained confidence by watching others riders succeed, riders became more confident as they circled the fire. Every rider was eventually able to walk their horse through the fire.

The other unexpected obstacle was a large barking German Shepherd police dog. PD, a former police dog, has been trained to look and act ferocious as he approaches horses, but he never actually attacks. This was incredibly useful training to accustom horses to dogs, something we may all face no matter where we ride.

At one point, we encountered a police cruiser with blaring sirens, flashing lights, and loud horns – and PD in the car and barking loudly. The riders lined up in a row, side by side in the middle of the arena. The car started at the one end of the arena, moving forward slowly. Then it would stop and move again, sometimes faster. By the second day, there were lines of fire between obstacles and smoke bombs beside obstacles.

The night before the clinic started, Bill gave a lecture on self-defense for riders, showing how to avoid trouble by not letting a suspicious person approach. Tell someone your horse bites, say you are in a hurry, but ride on, and pick up your pace. If need be, use the horse’s body to block a potential attacker by swinging the horse’s hindquarters around. I frequently ride alone or with another female friend in an isolated state forest, and on scarcely populated farm land, so I really appreciated the techniques and advice.

Bottom Line
Desensitizing helps teach both horse and rider to be more confident and helps build trust. We experienced unusual and “scary” stimuli and gained confidence as we successfully conquered each obstacle.

One could do some of these exercises at home, with caution, but you’ll miss out on Bill’s advice and lively sense of humor. He made sure that every rider and every horse was safe. Plus, it’s not that easy to find a line of fire to practice on. Or a police cruiser. I can’t wait to do the clinic again with another horse.