Desensitisation for Horse Archery

For this week's blog we are very fortunate to have Hayley Chambers-Holt, from Outback Equines and Flying Fletches Queensland member, talk us through how to desensitise your horse for horse archery. Have a read of Hayley's wonderful blog below and feel free to let us know in the comments how your desensitisation is going.
Desensitisation for Horse Archery, by Hayley Chambers-Holt

Horse Archery is an exhilarating sport, and a huge part of a good horse archer is also that they have good horsemanship skills. Getting your mount used to the sounds of the bows and arrows is one of the most important aspects of horse archery so you know your horse is relaxed, calm and confident on the courses, and not ready to take off or spook just when you are ready to take your shot!

The process of correct desensitisation helps your horse to become more confident in his environment and is an important process. Unnecessary stress can be put on the horse if you do not use correct desensitisation methods when needed.

So how do we start?

Habituation, generally in the form of desensitisation, is used to de-train fearful responses. Horses that need desensitisation generally have fearful reactions to certain stimuli. For successful desensitisation to occur, flooding should  be avoided, and the horse should be  exposed to lower thresholds of fear that gradually increase in stages, with habituation and relaxation required to be established at each stage until the flight responses in the horse has fully subsided. In other words, go slowly and build up noises/movements and the pressure of the exercise in little stages or increments.

I recommend using Progressive Desensitisation to habituate your horse to archery and make sure you can touch him all over with your horse archery equipment. I also sometimes choose to start with whips/ropes/flags first because if they are already confident with these things they generally take to the bows/arrows very quickly.

Once you can rub and gently bump your bow all over the horse (and I mean ALL over him - his neck, head, ears, shoulders, belly, rump, girth, flank and on both sides of his body), you can start rattling the arrows in your quiver or along your bow all around him. Giving him some treats and scratches while you are doing this will go a long way towards giving your horse confidence in the exercise. He will learn to understand that this exercise is great because there is food involved!

Once you can do all of this, you want to start shooting your bow around your horse so he hears the sound of the arrows hitting the target and slowly move closer and closer to your horse until you are directly beside him. Sometimes even starting this while your horse is eating his dinner and your are doing ground archery practice close by is a great way to teach your horse the association between something positive (food) and something he hasn't seen or heard previously. It doesn't take horses long to work out that they like horse archery when there is food involved!

Slowly work towards shooting the bow from your horse at a halt, then walk, then trot, then canter. Having either a helper on foot to reassure your horse and pat him/give treats, or also an older, quiet, more experienced horse to stand or walk alongside your horse to give him confidence will help also. I strongly recommend lots of dry runs on the barrier courses where you are practising your loading drills at walk/trot/canter without actually shooting. Teach your horse to keep rhythm despite what you might be doing on their backs, and despite the noises going on with your equipment.

Another trick is to shoot either on the ground or from your horse's back at a halt at the very end of their regular training sessions. The horses start to learn that the archery is the easy part and once those 6 or so arrows are loosed, the rider dismounts and put the horse away for a rest. Again, a positive association is formed with the archery skills.

During the process of habituating your horse to horse archery it's very important that you stay relaxed and breathe! Many owners hold their breath or take shallow breaths when their horse is a little nervous. Take the time it takes to build confidence in your horse - some horses take to archery in only one session, and others take a number of sessions before they are truly relaxed to the going's on of the archery world.

Happy Shooting,

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