Counter-Conditioning and Systematic Desensitization for Learned Fears in Horses

Updated: Dec 9, 2019


When horse behaviour consultants resolve fear-based behaviour problems in horses, they often do so by using counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization. Together, these two techniques can help horses overcome fears and phobias – without risk of making the horse’s problem worse or creating new issues.

Counter-conditioning means to change how the horse feels about something they have learned to fear or dislike

If a horse develops a fearful response to a stimulus (an event or thing), this fear can be changed by using counter-conditioning. This is done by repeatedly pairing the fear-inducing stimulus with something the horse finds very pleasant - usually tasty food. Done correctly, it results in the horse developing a positive emotional response to the previously feared or disliked stimulus.

Systematic desensitization means to progressively expose the horse to the stimulus, in small but increasing amounts that don’t trigger the fear. Done correctly, this results in the horse not being frightened when faced with maximum exposure to the stimulus.

For example, if a horse was afraid of plastic bags, you would start far enough away from the horse that the sight of a plastic bag folded in half in your hand didn’t elicit a fear response. Gradually you would get closer, carefully observing the horse to make sure you were progressing at a pace that didn’t trigger fear. We are looking for ‘attention without tension’ at each stage in the process: the horse notices the item but does not become anxious or fearful when they see it.

The ‘Peanut Butter and Chocolate’ of Behaviour Modification

Done together, counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization work well for helping horses overcome fear to a wide range of things. The stimulus is presented at a low enough ‘volume’ so that it doesn’t trigger fear or stress, and each presentation is also paired with the arrival of something the horse finds enjoyable. Very quickly, the appearance of the ‘scary’ thing begins to predict something good - the tasty treat! Lifelong Practice

While emotional responses to stimuli can be changed, the memories associated with that stimuli can never be erased. For example, a horse’s emotional response of fear when faced with an injection can be changed, but the memories of being afraid during previous injections cannot. Therefore, horses who have undergone behaviour modification work for anxiety or fears should be managed to avoid relapse, and their owners should regularly, and carefully, expose the horse to the previously feared stimulus, for the duration of the horse’s life.

To be successful at using counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization:

  • the practitioner should strive to keep the horse under threshold during training sessions (‘attention without tension’, no signs of anxiety or fear)

  • the pace of training and level of exposure must respect the individual horse

  • frequent, short sessions (e.g. 5 mins a day, 5 days a week) achieve better results than long or infrequent sessions

Methods to avoid when treating fear issues in horses

The use of ‘flooding’– exposing the horse to what they fear, at maximum intensity and without opportunity to escape – should be avoided. The use of flooding is not recommended by animal behavior professionals, due to its potential for physical injury to horse or human, and increased risk of behavioural injury to the horse. Flooding can quickly worsen existing learned fears, and create new behaviour problems in the horse.

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© 2020 Lauren Fraser. All rights reserved.

Lauren Fraser Equine Behaviourist | British Columbia | Canada

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