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Horse Problem - Gunshot Sounds - How to desensitize a horse to gunshot sounds









QUESTION: Hello Sylvia. I have a question for you, if you don't mind. What do you do to desensitize a horse who spooks at loud noises, such as gun shots? As they are unpredictable! I took my horse and husband out in the woods. My husband had his pellet gun and was playing around with target practice. First, my horse jumped and ran. I did some lateral lounging and calmed him down. Eventually it didn't bother him. But I don't know if it was the startle or the noise that scared my horse. I am pretty sure if he heard a gunshot out on trail any time after that, he would react close to his first reaction, spooking and running. I have desensitized him a bit with plastic bags and tarps, as I am trying to build his confidence. Do you suggest anything else? I read about your training tips on spooking, etc. They have helped a great deal. I think my dog coming out on trails has also helped desensitize my horse to noises. Thank you so very much for your input and your web site as well. It has helped a great deal!

REPLY: I've never worked on desensitizing a horse to gunshots before, though I'm sure the same desensitizing concepts apply there. I've passed this question along to a natural horsemanship trainer colleague of mine, Ed Dabney, who has shot off of horses (plus he did a lot of major movie/horse mounted stunt work, including training those horses to be desensitized to gunshot sounds). Here's Ed's excellent advice answer:

    With gunfire you are dealing with two issues, volume of sound and distance from horse. Any horse could probably handle a low volume sound at a great distance from them, so you start there in the gunfire training. I will turn the horse loose in the round pen then move 100 yards away from the round pen and begin firing percussion caps only with no powder load. (You need a black powder percussion pistol for this.)

    I'll fire a few and watch for the horse's reaction. If there is little or no reaction, I'll move 10 or 20 feet closer to the round pen and fire a few more, watching for a reaction from the horse. I'll continue this process moving closer with every few shots. As I shoot, I'll aim the pistol in different directions so it sounds different to the horse - up, down, right, left, and toward the horse but never directly at the horse. If I ever see a reaction of fear or panic (running around with head up and big eyes), I'll move back farther to the previous distance and fire more shots from there until the horse ignores the sound.

    Once I've worked my way up to the round pen fence and the horse is pretty much ignoring the caps firing, then I'll go just inside the round pen and continue firing. As long as the horse is not bothered I'll continue to fire and move closer to him. At this point I might put a 12-foot lead rope on the horse to see if I can support him to stay with me while I fire more caps. If the horse ever starts to panic and run around, I'll go back farther to the last place where we were successful and do more firing until the horse becomes calm.

    By the time I am standing right next to the horse, firing caps, he has now heard several hundred caps fired and has become comfortable with the fact that nothing bad is going to happen to him when a cap is fired. When I'm standing next to him holding the lead rope, I will be standing beside the shoulder facing forward and will always aim the pistol away from the horse. I will fire while standing on both sides of the horse.

    After the horse is comfortable and ignoring the firing with me standing right beside his shoulder, I will go back out 100 yards from the round pen and begin the entire process again, this time firing 1/4 loads or about 6 grains of black powder as poured from a powder measure. Now the horse will not only hear the shot, but will also see the smoke. I'll continue this gradual "moving closer/firing 1/4 loads" process until I am once again doing this while standing next to the horse, holding the lead rope.

    I'll repeat this entire process next using half loads (12 grains) then 3/4 loads (18 grains) then full loads (24 grains).

    Once this is complete, the horse will have heard several hundred shots fired of varying intensity and should be unperturbed by this gunfire in his neighborhood and close vicinity. Now I will mount up in the round pen and fire caps only from the saddle until the horse is comfortable and standing quietly while I fire caps. Next I will fire 1/4 loads from the saddle pointing the pistol off to the right, left and rear. I'll continue firing 1/4 loads until the horse is standing calmly. He might jerk his head a little when the shot goes off, but he should not move his feet. If he starts to move, you can check him with very slight rein pressure; that is acceptable. From here, I'll repeat this process with 1/2 loads, then 3/4 loads then full loads. By the time I am firing full loads from the saddle, the horse has probably heard over 1,000 rounds fired and should be quite comfortable with gunfire from saddle.

    This entire process should be done over a period of several weeks in a number of short sessions. This should only be attempted with a solid, well-trained and well-mannered, mature riding horse. Stay safe, be careful, take plenty of time, shoot more than you think you need to and know that you can always back up to the last place that was successful and work more there.  - Ed Dabney -

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