After you’ve thoroughly desensitized your horse to the lead rope and stick and string, you’ll use the Approach and Retreat Method to desensitize him to your hands touching his body and then your grooming tools. By approaching him and then retreating when he stands still and shows a sign of relaxing, you’ll build his confidence. When a horse relaxes, he’ll do one of five things: he’ll lick his lips, lower his head, blink his eyes, cock a hind leg or take a big breath. When he stands still and shows one of these signs of relaxing, you’ll retreat and stop rubbing him in the sensitive area. Sometimes a horse won’t show you any of those signs, but as long as he stands still for 15 seconds, you can take away the pressure. If a horse stands still for 15 seconds, he’s telling you that he’s not interested in running. He may still be a little frightened, but he’s starting to use the thinking side of his brain and has chosen to stand still.
Start by desensitizing his body to your touch. Rub his topline (withers, back, hindquarters and neck) with the palm of your hand in a circular motion with a lot of feel. The topline is the least sensitive area on a horse’s body, which makes it the easiest and safest place to begin the desensitizing process. Horses are the most sensitive around their head, down their legs, near their flank and under their belly because they’re the most vulnerable in these areas. If anything happens to these body parts, their ability to flee is taken away from them, and all of their vital organs are located near their flank and under their belly. So most horses are defensive about these areas being touched and try to protect themselves as best as they can.
In the initial stages of desensitizing, you’ll stay away from the horse’s head, and just rub your hands up his neck to his ears. Your first priority is to desensitize his body to your touch. Once you’ve accomplished that, then you can worry about desensitizing his head.
As you rub the horse, don’t stay in any one place for a long period of time unless you find an “Oh no, don’t touch me there!” spot. You want to be constantly moving your hand along the horse’s topline, touching him in as many places as you can. Be careful not to pat the horse in a “tap, tap, tap” motion with your hand. You want to sooth him by rubbing him— patting makes him feel uncomfortable.
If you find an area he doesn’t like you touching, continue to rub that area of his body until he stands still and relaxes. As soon as he relaxes, retreat and move your hand to another area of his body that he’s comfortable with. Then come back to the spot again and rub him. Repeat that process, approaching and retreating, until the horse no longer cares if you rub the “Oh no, don’t touch me there!” spot.