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A bombproof horse is a horse which has been exposed to a wide variety of situations and sensory stimuli, making the horse much calmer as a result. By introducing horses to new and potentially scary things in a controlled situation, trainers and riders can teach their horses that these situations are nothing to worry about, making their horses more confident and safer to ride. Bombproofing techniques are used extensively with police horses, along with race horses, horses which will be shown, and children's horses. Ideally, all horses should be bombproofed for safety.
Bombproofing is also known as desensitization or sacking out. The goal is to slowly and gently introduce a horse to things which might frighten it, without actually frightening the horse. During the process, it is important to remember that horses are hardwired to be afraid of unfamiliar items, with centuries of evolution telling them to flee from unknown or mystifying objects. A bombproof horse will be able to approach a variety of situations with confidence, making riders, other people, and the horse much safer.
The bombproofing process starts with either restraining a horse in cross ties, or turning the horse loose in a small, enclosed ring. Each session lasts for no more than 20 minutes, with the introduction of only a handful of items. Generally, when training a horse, people think about situations and objects the horse might encounter. Some common bombproofing tools include: tarps, umbrellas, hoses, bells, sticks, watering cans, things with strong odors, and distinctive sounds. Police horses will also be trained to be calm around crowds, while racehorses may be trained with a mockup of a starting gate.
In the case of a physical object, the trainer approaches the horse from the side with the item in hand, moving slowly and confidently. If the horse expresses unease or nervousness, the trainer speaks in a low, reassuring voice and retreats until the horse calms down again. It may take several tries to bring the object up to the horse, at which point the horse should be allowed to smell and see it. Next, the object is rubbed over the horse's body, showing the animal that there is nothing to fear. Sometimes it helps to bring out a buddy who is already accustomed to the item to demonstrate that the object is harmless. Horses are trained to handle unusual sounds and smells through a slow ratcheting up of exposure, in much the same way that they learn that individual items are harmless.
It can take months to train a bombproof horse, and bombproofing may be combined with other training, as the horse learns ground manners and eventually comes to accept a rider. Most horse trainers agree that working slowly and gently is the key, rather than hurrying the horse along. Although the process may become frustrating, the benefits of a bombproof horse are well worth the effort, as the horse will be able to confidently handle unusual situations, and a bombproof horse will also command a higher price when it is sold, if this is a concern.