Saturday, June 4, 2011

Horses: The "Bombproof" Horse

Sara Baker & Oh Misty Spur aka Rain
OK, so not all "Bombproof" horses are as great as Sara Baker's Rain -- but many are!

Since a few people have written asking about buying a horse, and have asked about "Bombproof" horses and what they are, I hope this might help.

If you've decided to buy a horse for yourself, or maybe it's for your son or daughter, either way for whatever your reason - good for you!

Winston Churchill is known to have said, "There is something about the outside of a horse, that's good for the inside of a man."

And yes, President Ronald Reagan is also known to have said, "There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse."

Subtle difference yes, but my belief is that both great men got it right. I can say with great pleasure that the feeling that I've always gotten from horses has been wonderful.

It has been that way for me since I was a kid on my Grandfather's ranch in Kunia on Oahu. And yes, it has never left.

From the days when I was volunteering my time at the Camp Pendelton's Base Stables almost 35 years ago, to the days when I had volunteered at a therapeutic riding program for handicapped children - yes, the feeling hasn't changed for me.

In fact I felt good inside just the other day when I was looking over a new horse that we got in around here. But for me, the best example of how good a horse can make you feel is when I think back and remember the looks on the faces of children.

The looks on the faces of those kids during those riding sessions was really the best reflection of how a horse can make you feel good all over. Their wide smiles, their wide eyes, it was an innocent happiness that only God could have been responsible for. Those kids were just in Heaven aboard those old horses.

At most therapeutic riding facilities, the horses are selected using a short criteria of being older and being "bombproof."  

So what's a "bombproof" horse? Well simply put, it is a horse that has been desensitized and is subsequently calmer.

It is generally accepted that most horses can be desensitized using methods like "sacking out" where a trainer waves and touches a horse using a gunny sack to get the horse to a point where the startle responses in the animal is deadened. 

After a horse has been exposed to a wide variety of situations, what is called sensory stimuli, the horse should be much calmer as a result. By introducing horses to new and potentially scary things, trainers and riders can teach their horses that these situations are nothing to worry about.

And that my friends makes for a more positive riding experience. Why? Well, because that desensitizing will make the horse more confident and safer to ride.

The goal when "bomb-proofing" a horse is to slowly and gently introduce a horse to things which might frighten it, while at the same time without actually frightening the horse. 

During the process, it is important to remember that horses are conditioned after centuries of evolution to be afraid and flee from unknown or mystifying objects.  All so that a "bombproof" horse will be able to approach a variety of situations with simply calmer and less excitable.

So how's it done?

Well the "bombproofing" process starts by either restraining a horse in cross ties, or having a horse stand tied, or by maybe turning the horse out in a small round pen and working them ever so slowly. This is done slowly and not rushed.

Each session lasts for no more than 20 minutes, with the introduction of only a handful of items. Generally, when training a horse, people think about situations and objects the horse might encounter.

Some common "bombproofing" items may include using the "dreaded" blue tarps, colorful waving blankets, clothing like coats or jackets, flags, canes and umbrellas, hoses and extension cords, the unexpected water sprinkler, loose boards, the clamor of boards dropping, cans, and of course distinctive sounds like car horns, bells, walkie-talkies, and whistles.

In Cowboy Mounted Shooting, we should remember that horses must also be trained to handle gun shots from a rider and so on.

Police horses will also be trained to be calm. They must be able to endure everything from sirens, loud speakers, portable radios like "boom-boxes," to angry tones of people yelling, to people suddenly approaching them and wanting to touch them, to babies crying, and of course fire-crackers and gun shots.

"Bombproofing" techniques are used extensively with Police and Security horses because the horse will may exposed to many different crowd situations. A mounted officer has to have a horse who won't get excited during a stroll in the park or during a riot when chaos is breaking out.

Racehorses must be trained with a mock up of a starting gate, the bells, the movement, the excitement that happens in the starting gate, especially when the horse next door is having a fit.

Rope horses of course have to get used to movement of ropes over their heads, the dally, and the of course sitting in the box. Some horses fear the box!

In the case of a physical object, the trainer approaches the horse from the side with the item in hand, moving slowly and confidently. If the horse expresses unease or nervousness, the trainer speaks in a low very reassuring voice and may retreat until the horse calms down again.

Force may only have the opposite effect of what you're trying to accomplish.

It may take several tries to bring the object up to the horse. Once that happens, the horse should be allowed to smell and see it. The next thing is to take the object and rub it over the horse's body. This shows the horse that there really is nothing to fear.

For my horse Murphy, it was the dreaded 'blue tarp!" Waving loose in the wind, or covering something as big as a boat, he was horrified. After much work, he accepted that it was not that bad after all and he learned that it was not a predator.

The next step was to get him to walk over one. That was extremely frustrating to the extent that he knew it wasn't going to hurt him, but it was unfamiliar ground.

Sometimes it helps to bring out another horse which is already accustomed to the items. One horse may help put the other horse at ease. Walking across water or across a wooden bridge comes to mind. They have to learn that the object they fear is harmless.

Horses are trained to handle unusual sounds and smells through a slow increase in how much you expose your horse to it. It's the same way as when they learn to accept different objects. It takes time, and of course patience.

It can take months to train a "bombproof" horse, and "bombproofing" may be combined with other training like say learning to sit in a box as a Rope horse needs to do. Most horse trainers agree that working slowly and gently is the key. For long term retention, slow and steady makes a bigger impact on their memory.

To me, whether it's a cow horse or a trail horse, whatever your use is for your horse it doesn't matter. All horses should be "bombproof" for safety concerns.

For me, I like older horses when it comes to using them for children. Older horses just have more patience and take more in stride. They are easier to "bombproof" in my opinion.

A "bombproof" horse will be able to approach a variety of situations with a better attitude. They will have confidence and be less stressed. And that alone will make the rider and people around the horse much safer.

Enjoy your horse!

Tom Correa

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