Habituation & Sensitisation

 

Habituation and sensitisation are two sides of the same coin. Either you are doing one or the other. The horse either becomes more reactive to something (sensitisation) or less reactive (habituation).  These strategies help the horse to survive as they learn to ignore what isn't important and learn to react quickly to what is important. 

 

Habituation:

  • When introducing something new which is potentially frightening, through repeated gradual exposure they learn to ignore it as is not important or threatening. 

  • The most long-lasting effects are produced by short, repeated exposures.

  • They need the freedom to move away and escape to avoid flooding.

  • You need to habituate your horse to the object in all situations needed as habituation is context specific.  

  • Once you habituate your horse to something you have to present it every now and again or the horse could go back to its original fear, this is called spontaneous recovery.

 

Sensitisation:

  • Sensitisation is the opposite of habituation. It is where the horses fear increases. The more often the object is presented the more fearful the horse becomes.  

  • Sensitisation occurs in all situations the object is in and it can be generalised to other similar objects.

  • Being sensitised causes increased stimulation to everything else. An example of this is when out hacking your horse is fearful of a motorbike.  Then after he sees one he is more ‘on his toes’ and will react fearfully towards stimuli which normally would not be challenging for him.  

  • When a horse is sensitised he cannot learn!

  • Sensitisation escalates quickly as in the horses mind their fleeing behaviour saved their life.

 

To give our horses good life skills it is important to habituate them to experiences, objects etc that they will need to deal with. The best way to do this is through herd habituation. It does what it says on the tin, you habituate the herd as a group. This provides scaffolding and means horses are more likely to have a go and not be fearful as they gain confidence from being with their family/friends. It is vital that they are able to move away and escape if they need to, to avoid flooding. Set them up to succeed by making sure that they are not hungry and and are loose in the field where they feel safe for the first introduction. Then you add the object in other needed situations if necessary. It is best if the horses are free to explore the object in their own time, they will often advance and retreat. They may even take a break and come back later having slept on it (memory processing happens during sleep). Gradually the intensity can be increased making sure to not make the horse feel/behave fearfully. Examples of increasing intensity can be moving the object more vigorously, closer to them or making it bigger.

 

A point to note is that some trainers use sensitisation to deliberately make the horse more fearful and so reactive. This makes the trainer look ‘great’ (not in my eyes) as they only need to lift the flag, whip etc (choose your weapon) and the horse reacts super quick. It is not ethical to deliberately make our horses scared. We should be doing the opposite and habituating them to flags not using the fear of them to force the horse to do something. Sometimes horses will stop reacting and freeze. Just because a horse is not SHOWING fearful behaviour does not mean he is not FEELING it. 

 

Desensitisation is common in certain horsemanship circles. However, it is often used where you are first introducing something but if the horse is not sensitised first then how can you desensitise them? If you are introducing something new and you don't want them to respond then it is habituation. In situations where the horse has become sensitised and developed a fear you would be better off counter-conditioning where you pair the object with something positive to change the association. 

 

I hope this helps you to understand how to use habituation, avoid sensitisation and work out if trainers are actually doing what they say they are.

 

Feel free to watch the videos below showing examples of herd habituation with the Meadow Family. Peace out.

  

 

The Meadow Family see novel objects in their home for the first time.

Buddy & Jackson see a plastic bag for the first time.

Buddy habituated to the cone.

The family see a rug for the first time.

The herd begin to habituate to a balloon.

Herd habituation with human help.

© 2019 Meadow Family Rescue & Rehab

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