I recently read the following problem on a group page, posted asking for solutions. We have all seen many variations of this issue, it’s fairly common.
The question (paraphrased) was: how do I desensitise my horse to pass calmly through a hot tape electric fence gate? In this case the horse was afraid of touching the hot tape, for good reason as it’s meant to deter contact. Here’s my response.
Rushing through tight gaps is the issue. What is bracketing the space can be anything.
The gap doesn’t zap your horse. The fence/hot gate does, as it should, when it is closed. You don’t want him desensitised to that unless you don’t want him to stay behind it when shut.
A horse that says ‘no’ and/or rushes through a gap because it’s scared of being zapped, will do the same through any tight gaps it has anxiety about. Eg narrow doorways, over uneven ground, under lintels, into and out of trailers, over kerbs, across waterways, and jumping obstacles as a few examples.
Horses are claustrophobic by nature and many have to learn to be ok in negotiating tight proximity where they have to pass under, between, over or through.
So to stop the rushing, or balking, you need to generalise all tight spaces, and set up a pattern of behaviour that the horse knows is safe and that is going to solidify a safe passage.
In nature, when a horse is scared he will run as fast as he can until he feels he is far enough away to be safe, then will turn, face, and look to assess if it’s safe. In order to assess he needs to be able to think, not just react, and so can you see that a horse in flight is hard wired, when he stops turns and looks, to switch his thinking ‘brain’ on instead of his reacting instinct (flight stress responses)?
So something you could do is set up a whole bunch of obstacles. Barrels to squeeze between. Low jumps. Tarps you’re walk over. Pedestals, bridges, short railed corridors out of poles at various heights.
Then choosing the easiest one for your horse, have him cross through it at a walk, and turn, face up, look at what he just passed through, and WAIT. Look for signs he feels ok- if it was stressful he may rush through, then freeze on the waiting part, but eventually he will show some attempt at resetting his parasympathetic nervous system – a lick and chew, lower head, blinking, yawning, some sort of sign that he feels better. If the first obstacle isn’t scary for him he may not go any of those things because he didn’t feel stressed out to start with, in which case watch his ears for changes in focus- if he can look and think about other stuff calmly and is not fixated on the thing, or trying to avoid looking at it (both signs of stress which need to be waited out) then ‘good boy’ and go do something else for a bit, and then rinse and repeat.
The WAIT is crucial, esp when first training this. There are two immediate benefits. The horse needs to really process that he survived the crossing, especially if he was scared about trying to start with, and even if not scared gets the reward/release of resting as an immediate consequence afterwards.
Even when trained, for every single gateway I ride my horses through, I turn, face and wait a few moments afterwards. This is immensely useful and a powerful pattern to train. Usually on going through a gate I need to first open it, then to close it behind me. This takes a moment or two. A horse that stops, turns and waits enables this to be easy. It’s especially handy if leading three or more horses and negotiating a gate if they all automatically know to pass through, turn, and wait. Then everyone gets through one at a time, and I get to close the gate with no rushing or entanglements.
You can teach this in hand to start with. Make sure you can send your horse forwards and can yeild his hind to turn and face you first. When that is solid, try it over/through the easiest obstacle until it’s no problem. Then the next. And the next. By the time you get to your electric gate he will already know the answer when you ask him the question.
So to fix the issue you need to generalise it.