‘Bombproof’ or Shutdown?


Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner rides English and Western, has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and several others. Visit her site 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.

amy ponyTrust 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.

Amy Skinner

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.


  1. Nice article, and a pet peeve. I have seen far too many shutdown horses that people praise for being bombproof. I have two in my barn that came here shutdown. Both are now relaxed and happy, with loads of personality. They are less “obedient” but far more communicative. On the flip side are a lot of horses pushed into competition without proper prep or exposure, and explosive has become the accepted norm in some sports. There’s no substitute for the time taken to develop the trust you take of!

    • This is so spot on!! I compete at obstacle challenges, I want my horse to look at the obstacles, I want them to ask questions and I want them to trust me with the answer. I ride a young mare who by nature is fearless and enjoys the puzzles involved in doing an obstacle. I also ride a 22 year old gelding who has lacked confidence his entire life and by doing the challenges he has become more confident and more of a partner. In my training I am careful to not over drill my horses. I have lost points because my horse sked me if we were safe, that’s okay with me. When I take them out on the trail I want to depend on them.

  2. As a long time instructor / trainer in multiple disciplines and a Tellington Method practitioner I totally agree with this article and will be sharing it often. Well written point well made.

  3. Excellent. Rider fear is what I am working on. My horse and I went back to the beginning and started again to build trust and respect. It’s our journey.

  4. so very true. I began part boarding a horse this past few months and he bolted on me a couple times. I fell off and got hurt really badly. But I persevered and continued to ride, though I was afraid most of the time. But we now have a much better relationship, due to all the work we have been doing together, (hours of groundwork) and now, even though he still shies and gets scared on ocassion, I am better able to handle it and calm him down before it gets too far. And although a work in progress, I know we will get there in the end

  5. Well now I find so much better about my definitely NOT bombproof horse. The upside is, when we are on the trail he tells me if there’s a deer or bear long before we get to it. He does not miss a thing.

  6. I am so glad to read that others feel the same way I do about bombproof horses. I love my horse’s personality, and I always enjoyed his inquisitiveness about things and being alert on the trails. Many times I should have listened to him instead of relying on my decision solely. We ride on the trails on average about 200 miles a month. I believe when you spend that much time together you can build a bond of trust, and spooky objects are met with confidence and not fear.

  7. in bygone days ( and particularily in driving horses which in itself can be more dangerous than riding,) more accidents occurred with ‘quiet’ bombproof horses because when they DID react it was violent and uncontrollable, where a frightened but trusting well trained horse could be reasoned with, I have always believed that a trusting horse is safer than a brainwashed one.

  8. I bought a bombproof gelding that had been used as a trail horse for 12 years. He was quiet but what bothered me was that he was inside himself, withdrawn. He would follow the leader but was reluctant to lead. I’ve had him 6 years now. He has gradually become more alive. He seems more engaged, outgoing and content but I noticed he has become more spooky. This article helped me understand that its not his fear that is causing the spook but the fact that he is noticing things and reacting. He is no longer deadened inside. He trusts me, listens and I can handle the spooks. He also is happy to lead and very alert. (but not fearful).

  9. What gets me is when you meet a 3 year old who is doing everything in the arena (way too young to be a “finished” horse). You see dead eyes….walking zombies. People praise how “bombproof” and “quiet” this miracle horse is. My guess is that the horse was flooded by “desensitization methods” from a very early age and had to shut down to preserve sanity. My horses are all ages and backgrounds…I don’t ride them to death so they “behave” for students. I’d rather they stay alert with their character and personality intact. The students learn to handle little issues. It makes them better riders too!

  10. Love this article! I so agree. The worst case I’ve seen of a ‘bomb proof’ horse coming out was an older trail horse purchased from a dude ranch in WY by one of the boarders at my barn. Bandit was so shut down that he would just stand alone in the field, not interacting with the other horses. The first few months were fine. Then, Bandit’s owner started doing some ground work and obstacle courses, and all hell broke loose. Bandit refused to be caught, and when they did catch him, he reared and bucked and fought like a wild horse, refusing to be mounted or ridden. His owner was an older yet experience horseman, but after months of work on the ground, Bandit was still an unrideable rogue and given away to a horse dealer. So sad for this poor horse who had given years of his life to the dude ranch and carried many people ‘safely’ over miles and miles of trail.

  11. My horse is definitely NOT bombproof. When we are on the trail and come to difficult terrain, she and I have a discussion. Sometimes I win and we go on, sometimes she wins and we turn around. A friend on a trail once told me to force her down an unfamiliar trail, but I said that I trusted my horse and if she refused, there was a good reason for it. We later found out that there was a vicious pack of feral dogs in that part of the forest. Lucky probably tells her horse friends that her human is bomb-proof, my trust in her is absolute!!!!

  12. I worked in racing stables for close to fifteen years; horses in work are completely different. Why should they behave for us when we sometimes walk them past a horse-killing sparrow?! I fell in love with so very many of the horses in my charge, but one bolshy little horse stole my heart…he had the strongest and brightest personality I had ever come across. I looked after him for close to five years, four am starts every day to muck him out, hand walk him with another thoroughbred before he went on to the track with a succession of different riders. Casper use to come home with a naughty gleam in his eye and an exhausted rider almost every day, before I would take him for a swim and another walk before feeding and grooming. Suffice to say he had a great but twisted sense of humour and a vivid imagination. He won a lot of races in Sydney in some of the top races, and when he ran he gave it everything he had, winning by up to six lengths. When his syndicate ‘retired’ him at the age of nine, I took him on. I figured I knew him well after spending a good four or five hours a day, I had taken him to all his races and thought I knew all his little tricks, and was able to read him like a book. I was so excited at owning my favourite boy, I gave him a couple of weeks off to settle down, did some groundwork with him for another couple of weeks, then hopped on him. It was an amazing feeling to be finally riding him! And then he exploded into a volley of bucking and rearing, and my whole world was shattered. He was so hyped after his performance he decided it would be fun to bolt with me, slowing down only long enough to pull of a rodeo Buck, leaving me on the ground. I know all the wisdom of getting straight back on, but to be honest I was too frightened. What had caused him to lose confidence in me so quickly after all we’d been through over the years. I have ridden since I was around four, and the look on his face when I caught him unnerved me…it was full of glee but carried a definite promise of a repeat process if I dared to mount him again. The violence and sole intention of getting me off his back ASAP was new to me. For the first time in my life I was afraid of a horse, and unfortunately he was mine now.
    And so I persevered. I went to see him every weekend, fed him, shod him, had his teeth done, his saddle fit confirmed and a vet check (this seemed logical to me, having had daily access to vets, farriers, dentists, physios etc). May seem like overkill to some, but I wanted to rule out any pain or discomfort before I would ride him again. After a month of trying to reestablish confidence in each other! I tried again (in an arena with no other horses but plenty of advice from backseat riders who had come to see the show. I think I lasted a few seconds longer than the first time;Casper never fails to perform for a crowd. But he walked straight up to me this time and allowed me to catch him, looking like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
    So I decided to try something else. I went up the next time in shorts, gave him a couple of carrots then bridled him while he stood like a rock. I deliberately didn’t wear my helmet as I didn’t want to tip him off. Like the thousands of hours we had walked together , he was bright and alert but relaxed; incidentally I had never seen this little horse show any signs of fear. After walking for around ten minutes I led him some benches near the arena (fortunately we were alone) and slipped on his bare back with a rub to his neck, and went for a peaceful Sunday stroll.
    He seemed to notice I was on him about five minutes, then gave a big sigh and started to look for ways to amuse himself. He refused to pass his own rug on the fence as it was clearly plotting to rip his legs off. Being bareback allowed me to pinpoint the exact moment his back relaxed and I felt so proud of us both when I asked him to walk past it and he did so with no hesitation. We had a perfect ride that day, completely in tune with each other. I could sense he wanted to go faster so I let him canter on a loose rein, and was able to feel his back tense up which gave me time to spot whatever interesting thing he saw and was likely to react, which I had been oblivious to with a saddle . I didn’t bother with the saddle much after that and as he has a sway back and a very comfortable sway back and incredibly smooth paces, we regained our bond and spent many happy days on the trails and took a few classes together with some amazing trainers. He is a naturally outgoing, fun loving and confident horse and not saying he never bolted again, but they were isolated instances and I don’t feel they were malicious – he was just full of the joys of spring! I was just very careful about who I allowed to ride him. And after all, any horse who is happy to be called in from a lush green paddock surrounded by his mates to walk beside me without a head collar can’t possibly feel no connection to me, right? Just takes time and carrots!

    • Please excuse my grammatical and punctuation errors, as well as the double ups. Had surgery this week and a bit muddled from the painkillers. Writing this kind of tome on an iPhone with auto correct also doesn’t help!

  13. I have a draft cross gelding like this right now. How do I work with it. I understand the line between bombproof and trust, my paint gelding can do just about anything however when he is unsure he will stop and think about it. But that’s just him and who he is, I trust him and he trusts me,but I just can’t seem t figure out how To work with the draft. Even lunging doesn’t work, he will end up continuing to trot in circles with almost no way to stop him. Hes ride able but dull and I really like a horse that thinks.

  14. This very subject has been on my mind for years, and I applaud how well and intelligently you addressed it. As a hoof care professional, I find that horses who feel respected and in whom trust has been cultivated, are the most cooperative when having their hooves trimmed. Team work in hoof care is essential for the safety of both horse and provider; it also allows for efficiency and builds one more good habit for the horse.

  15. My mare was a bombproof. She is a coldblood crossed mare and has a flegmatic character by nature but when given freedom she started to show her real character – not so bombproof anymore and not so cooperative when the human does not deserve it. BTW, I stopped riding and she changed a lot – for me to the better. She bacame much more ”alive” and pretty expressive in showing her feelings. I appreciate that much more than the pleasures of riding or other forms of using the horse for our own desires.

  16. There are horses born just naturally unflappable. Take my daughter’s young spotted saddle mare. We never did more than flip ropes all over her to desensitize her. Then we just got on and did most training on the trail with a calm older trail master horse. This youngster wasn’t nervous at all about riding open on a ferry boat the first time, nor crossing a traffic busy bridge for the first time, or even her first parade. She was curious and interested about everything – but not nervous at all.

    I think the ‘herd training method’ has been lost to the modern one person – one horse methods. Cowboys USED to produce calm deadheads by ponying them off older horses and working them side-by-side with the experienced stock. Other than desentizing them to ropes/lassos and being shot off of – they didn’t bother with anything else. The older stock horses taught the youngsters what not to fear

  17. When I was a kid my parents rescued the first horse I ever rode. She was very much bomb proof! But very protective of me. First time I tried jumping my foot slipped out of the stirrup and tangled in the reins, I fell under her and might have been killed but she stopped dead in her tracks. When my mom got to me (my mom was my instructor) she found Piggy with her weight on three legs waiting because one hoof was on my shoulder. If she had put her weight on me I shudder to think what would have happened! Another day I was pulling her from the field filled with the other mares at the rescue. I had just crossed the stream going through the lower part and started up the hill when suddenly the majority of the mares started running down the hill towards me. They were tightly packed and to my child’s mind it looked like they wanted to run me over. I stood there frozen and Piggy walked right in front of me, forcing the others to divert around us.
    She may have been dead broke but she loved me and she taught me lessons I will never forget. She died 7 years later and is buried on my parents property. I wish she was still here to teach my kids everything she taught me. She taught me patience because she wouldn’t move if you kicked her or shook the reins.
    Only thing about her past that we knew of was she was a white horse found in a pig sty and so dirty no one knew her color. The rescue didn’t think she would live another winter, my mom says I loved her back to life. I miss her so much.

  18. A shut down horse is the furthest thing from bomb proof. They are only trying to save their life-sanity. If the occasion arises where they feel they must save their life physically, they will be leaving town without you.

  19. A shut-down “bombproof” horse is a sad thing to witness. The horse exhibits no emotion or reaction and their eyes are lifeless. To me it is emotional abuse….the scars are all inward. Thanks for writing another wonderful article Amy! You definitely have some writing skills.

  20. I disagree with some of this. You see, I am an endurance rider who purchased Unbroke or abused projects, trains them out, puts literally thousands of trail miles on them – and uses them for beginner riding lessons. As a former track rider, I learned to just ride them through their spooks – and have never bothered to spend hours throwing tarps and other crap at them. I trained them out and made them bombproof by using the pony horse method. Leading them off solid older experienced horses through EVERYTHING first, then riding them while following pony horse through scary stuff, until finally they are ready for solo conditioning rides. They are alert, soft and will lead or follow. They are confident in themselves. Listen to me as the instructor or on the guide horse – as the beginners learn to balance and ride….

    Basically, you can turn a horse into a deadbroke, safe beginners horse by using the old techniques and herd mentality. They are not dulled by this old school training. They learn from the lead horse as nature intended

  21. Amy,
    I have a question?
    What is the difference between a trained horse and a bomb-proof horse?
    I look forward to hearing from you,

    • Hi Jonathan, I’m sorry I just saw this and am answering much later.
      A gentle horse and a “desensitized” horse are not the same.
      A gentle horse is relaxed and not afraid because he understands, through time and exposure and education. You see this often in nice school horses, carrying people who are learning and making mistakes that don’t trouble the horse.
      A “shut down” horse may be avoiding stimulus, or not registering it to survive. He has been flooded or over exposed to produce “no response,” which is different from calm response. This horse is dangerous because they have a threshold, and when this horse has had more than he can bear, he will react. People then say, “he exploded out of nowhere.”
      Hope this helps.

  22. Hi I bought a shut down horse, how can I train a horse like him, I can’t even lead him out of the paddock. Not a dominant horse, a shut down horse. No longer wants to be forced to do things, shuts down the moment you want him to lead. How to get a shut down horse to lead? He doesn’t trust people so , any dominant methods that people suggest what not help him in the long run. He is shut down.

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