Systematic Desensitisation & Counter Conditioning (SD&CC)

Posted in: Equine Training, Positive Reinforcement Training, The Academy of Positive Horsemanship, Young Horse Training

Ellie SD&CC Butchers Curtain 4

Weather can have an adverse effect on our horses, especially when we are training with potentially threatening stimuli. Windy weather causes them to be generally more hypervigilent and therefore ultimately more anxious and reactive as a result of their vision and hearing being less less reliable for detecting potential threats/predators. I often class adverse weather conditions as one of the environmental elements to factor in to generalisation training once a behaviour is learned and on cue as part of ‘Distraction’ (The 3 D’s of proofing a behaviour – Distractions, Duration or Distance).

One of the first steps to helping horses become less spooky and anxious is to expose them via systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning (SD&CC) to lots of different novel, potentially threatening items.

This is my young mare who has been introduced to lots of potentially threatening items in her life so far. She has had some prior SD&CC training gradually exposing her to this butchers curtain on calm, non-windy days, after which she was able to stand very close to it at liberty remaining completely relaxed.

Ellie SD&CC Butchers Curtain 3Today was one of those windy Autumn days and naturally she was more anxious about the butchers curtain flapping in the wind today than she has been previously. Her body language changed from relaxed to more anxious (tense with a higher head carriage) from further away from the curtain today. So I spent some time SD&CC to change the unwanted fear response by associating it with positive, feel-good scratches.

What is Systematic Desensitisation & Counter Conditioning?

Counter conditioning means changing learning. It involves changing an emotional arousal response (such as fear) to a stimulus (such as the butchers curtain) by associating the stimulus with positive, enjoyable things (such as scratches or food treats).

Counter Conditioning is usually used alongside Systematic Desensitisation, which involves using incremental steps of exposure to increase the horse’s tolerance of the fear-producing stimulus. A less frightening version of the stimulus is used by increasing distance, reducing volume, size etc. As the horse counter conditions at each incremental step of exposure, the fear-producing stimulus is made stronger, bigger, louder, closer etc. All the while, the goal is to keep the horse below their emotional arousal threshold; ie. not to produce a fear response.

Ellie SD&CC Butchers Curtain 2With time and commitment, always working within the horse’s emotional thresholds, the fear will be replaced by relaxation and confident curiosity.








My 3 month How Horses Learn, Feel & Communicate course is beginning again soon. We cover all about Systematic Desensitisation, Thresholds, Counter Conditioning, reading arousal levels through equine body language, the emotional responses as well as learning theory and how to apply SD&CC protocols in this comprehensive course available to Members of The Academy.

The full course content outline and further information is available here

Join us as a Member today!