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Bombproof or Shut Down

Published: 4/9/2014
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a 24-year old instructor at Bay Harbor Equestrian Center in Bay Harbor, Michigan. She rides English and Western, has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and several others.
With this article, we welcome Skinner as a regular NickerNews guest columnist. Look for more of Skinner's Journals & Journeys soon!

Read additional articles by her here.

By Amy Skinner


The word seems to be a favorite among horse owners. People love to brag about their bombproof horse. Top-name clinicians make gobs of money every year selling desensitization methods and tools.  Horse people spend their time desensitizing to anything and everything:  plastic bags, flags, tarps, ropes, you name it. 

Desensitization is a powerful tool, and if you are going to ride safely or get a job done, it serves a very important purpose.  But there is a fine line between desensitization and an absolute deadening of the horse. I believe the reason this line is so often crossed is simple:  Rider Fear.

I'll break this down a bit more.  A huge demographic of riders in this country are inexperienced and ride at a beginner to novice level, with little understanding of the inner workings of a horse's mind.  That doesn't make them bad- we all have to start somewhere, and I believe that a blank page is a beautiful thing! 

What does make that dangerous, however, is when the human's inexperience leads to fear, and fear usually leads to a need for control at any cost.  They may fear that if the horse spooks on a ride, they may not be able to ride it out, or will be unsure of what to do. 

Many people spend endless time and money searching for the "dead broke" horse who will never spook, buck, rear, etc.  The horse that rides like a machine and just plods away happily.

Sadly, this horse does exist, but usually at the cost of the horse's mental well-being.  Think of the sour old rent-a-horse many of us have ridden down the trail, or the dull school horse who follows the horse in front of him regardless of what noise the rider may be making up there. 

These horses have been "desensitized" to death and have learned to ignore everything. They have shut down inside.  This horse is the antithesis of what good riding is about:  lightness, partnership, and trust.  

Trust is much more important than desensitizing.  It isn't possible to expose your horse to every scary thing out there. And who would want to?

What I look for more than anything, is for my horse to work with me, and over time while developing this lightness and partnership, he begins to trust that I can get him through anything. 
It doesn't mean he is no longer afraid of tarps, bags, etc, but it means that when he is with me, he will start to look to me to help him out and feel safe.  That also means I have a tremendous responsibility to keep him safe and not put him in a position where he could get hurt or expose him to too much before he's ready.

I'll share a story that I think proves my point.  A local horse rescue, Second Chance Ranch and Rescue, run by Dr. Pamela Graves, had asked me to come out and help them load an older mare into the trailer to send her off to her new forever home. 
This old mare fit the description of "bombproof."  She wasn't afraid of anything.  She was also about as braced as they come, stiff, upset, and one of the hardest horses I have ever had to put in a trailer.  It was as if this horse had had the life completely dulled out of her over time, and to protect herself she had shut down.  

No amount of flagging, spurring, whipping, etc, will bring life up in a shut down horse, at least not much or for long.  There were moments where she seemed to open up and looked like a new horse: starting to soften and become alert.  She would lick, chew, and blow, and seem happy.  Then she would shut down again and get rigid as a board. 
[Photo at right, Elijah Moore at work.]

Needless to say the times when she attempted to load onto the trailer were when she was softening.  When she became braced again, her mind and body as if tied in knots, would have nothing to do with me or the trailer.  She worked in an out of this softness for a few hours, and while she did load in the end and trailered safely, the knowledge that she carried a lifetime of "bombproofing" with her still weighs heavy on my mind.  Undoing this dullness could take months or years. It wouldn't happen all in a few hours.

I think this old mare is a good example of the result of "bombproofing."  Nobody knows her exact history, but we don't really need it, because the horse tells us where she is.  The bombproofed horse learns to shut out outside stimulus, and the human exchanges life and a willing mind for the illusion of safety: a dull, mindless drone of an animal. 
It is the utmost insult to the horse. If we are to pay respect to his nature, we owe it to him to develop better riding skills so we can stay with him when he is afraid or upset, and better feel and timing to bring his mind back to us.

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4/10/2014 Dr. Steve Peters
Amen, Great topic and article. Nice job of commenting on this important issue. Well covered and well said. Often what is misread as a docile, gentle horse is a damaged, overstressed horse. Unfortunately many trainers earn their living by getting horses to shut down through learned helplessness to satisfy novice riders whom have a lack of confidence and lack of connection with horses.
4/10/2014 Julie
Wonderful....over the past few years, I've been wondering about this and this article just helps to confirm how I was already feeling. That "bombproofing" shuts down the horse's ability to think for themselves. Riders just end up being up on a horse that has checked out on life. Very sad place for the horse to be.
4/10/2014 Kim
Great Article! I agree with Dr. Peters statement, "many trainers earn their living by getting horses to shut down"; the nose to tail horse going down the road with a group of new or novice riders. Everyone does need to start some where, we all have fears and need to work through them, often it is at the expensive of the horse. In turn at the expensive of the rider, giving the rider a false confidence of being able to ride any horse. Creating the dreaded cycle of building confidence, then losing it with a horse that hasn't shut down, but has lots of life in it's feet, and a mind to go. A very enjoyable article for me to read!
4/10/2014 Amy
Thanks for your kind words, glad you enjoyed the article! I felt it was a big and very misunderstood issue, and tends to get horse people a bit confused, especially when their "gentle horse" like Dr. Peters said becomes dangerous, like the mare in the article!
7/18/2014 Beate
Amy, thank you for this eloquently written article describing how some owners have changed the beautiful spirited horse into a "drone like animal"! Sad to say but I see this type of horse everyday at the private stable where my adopted rescued 9 yr old Arabian Mare is boarded. The "drone" horse nickers when he sees me and I talk to him & give him loving head scratches; he nickers to his owner only when he again had no hay in his feed box for a whole day or more :(. The daily reminder of a horse with trained-out spirit gives me "back bone" to stick to my plan to first gain my Arab Mare's trust and acceptance of my leadership and lot's of "basic" groundwork; am also ignoring the comments of the drone horse owner why I have not saddled up and ridden my rescued horse in the past 8 months since I adopted her :).
3/7/2015 Mary Lee
I have always been impressed with Amy's insight and wisdom for such (forgive me Amy)a young rider and trainer. I am very lucky to have Amy as my trainer. Every lesson, every time we ride together I learn something new that makes me a better owner and rider. Over this past year, I have read this article several times to fellow riders and are amazed how many had they thought they had a "safe/bombproof horse". Horse and rider need the trust and confidence in each other to create a successful, safe and happy partnership. Thank you Amy for reminding us of our responsibility to our wonderful horses.

"There are no problem horses, only problem riders" - Mary Twelveponies