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by Downunder Horsemanship

Training Tip: Horse Terrified of Plastic Bags

Question: My husband brought home a cute project mare. She does well at all the Fundamentals exercises, but she has a deathly fear of plastic bags, only when a human is involved, though. She strikes and rears if it is going to touch her. We have had four or five three-hour sessions and it’s a no-go. A wild brumby is easier than this mare. – horsepoor913

Clinton’s Answer: Be sure that you’re being thorough with each step of introducing the plastic bag to your mare. This Intermediate level exercise is broken down into four stages that progressively build the horse’s confidence about the plastic bag. Do not move on from a stage until you’re sure she’s a hundred percent confident with the bag at that point. You should begin the exercise by walking away from the horse with the bag, followed by desensitizing the airspace around her, progress to touching her with the bag and finally desensitizing her head to the bag.

Remember that desensitizing (asking the horse to stand still and relax when you approach her with a stimulus) works really well only when it is used in combination with sensitizing (asking the horse to move her feet in a controlled way). You could spend five hours desensitizing a horse to a plastic bag, but without sensitizing it won’t do much good. The sensitizing exercises give her a reason to want to stand still and relax. Pretty soon, she’ll actually start to look forward to the plastic bag because it means she gets to rest. So be sure to use the plastic bag to desensitize the horse between each sensitizing exercise you practice. You will find that she will get quieter if you spend five minutes with the plastic bag between sensitizing exercises than she would if you worked on it for two hours straight.

There are some horses that are just extra sensitive to the plastic bag and will still have a little bit of jumpiness towards it, even after you have spent several days desensitizing them to it. With these types of horses, I use the plastic bag in a different way. In your case, I’d use the horse’s fear of the bag to move her feet during the sensitizing exercises, especially Lunging for Respect Stage Two. Step out in front of the drive line and shake the bag up near her eye to get her to turn.

The trick is, when the horse starts to get lazy and ignore the bag, let her. Nag her with the bag until she completely ignores it, then let her stand still while you desensitize her with it. It’s almost as if the more you want her to stand still, the more she wants to move. But the more you want her to move, the more she starts to ignore you and the bag. In this situation, you’ll become a Nagging Mother—the more you keep nagging the horse with the bag, the more she decides that it’s not worth taking seriously.

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