You’d think that horses would instinctively know when we’re trying to help them through training. Even though sometimes they do, when it comes to fly spray often they don’t. Horse health care, however, is an important part of any horse owner’s training, showing, and horsekeeping routine. Whether you’re a trail rider or a competitor, these horse tips and ground training routines will enhance the overall grooming experience, create a healthier horse and enable you to bond with your equine partner.
Teaching a horse to stand for fly spray gives us a chance to train our horses to better respond to our cues, which is going to pay off in lots of ways beside fly spray. And we have an opportunity to help our horse over a fear. Many times the horse who’s worried about fly spray is also a little headshy. So this one lesson will solve at least two problems.
If you’re a long-time reader of John Lyons’ Perfect Horse, you know that training has a starting point and a goal, and we can’t start at the goal. When we first began to train our horses to step into the trailer, for instance, we began with the “go forward” cue and we were nowhere near the trailer. Our objectives were to develop control and teach our horse in a way that made learning easy for him. After he learned the lesson, then we could introduce a distraction, such as the trailer.
When it comes to fly spray, the spray isn’t the problem. It’s a distraction. So when our horse is pulling away and dancing around in the barn aisle trying to escape the fly spray mist, we should ask ourselves what cue we wish he were responding to instead. If the horse really knew the cue well and had practiced it enough, he’d be able to obey it even when threatened with fly spray – or other distractions like a visit from the vet or balloons from a birthday party.
Most people say that they want their horse to stand still. The difficulty is that we can’t force a horse to stand. We can offer him the opportunity and encourage him to stand. When he understands the pattern, we can add a cue to it.
Encouraging him to stand involves controlling our horse’s movements. Specifically, we have to be able to tell him to step forward if he backs up. We have to tell him to step back if he walks forward. And we have to be able to move him to the left and right.
When he moves, we counter his movement. By repositioning him, then leaving him alone when he stands quietly, the horse learns to stand still.
That works fine when there’s nothing going on, when it’s a warm day and we’re grooming him at the wash rack, for instance. But what about when he’s excited?
When horses are excited, they naturally move. So when we ask our horse to stand when he’s revved up or worried, we’re asking him to do something unnatural. We can’t add intensity – yelling at him or jerking the lead rope. That would only increase his need to move. Instead, in addition to telling him where to move his feet, we have to be able to tell him to calm down. We do that by cueing him to drop his head.
When horses are excited, they naturally raise their heads. And when they’re calm, they relax and drop their heads. But dropping the head is not just the consequence of being calm; it can often cause the horse to calm down. By following the steps on page 12, you can teach your horse the “calm down” cue.
Now we can more accurately answer the question: What do I wish my horse were doing instead of avoiding the fly spray? I want him to drop his head and stand still. And you have a way to tell him that’s what you want.
Let’s assume that you’ve taught those cues thoroughly. Now you’re ready to bring out the fly spray, right? Not so fast. A few added steps in the lesson plan will help things go smoother. We’re going to do a little sacking out, or headshyness training, first.
Mention “sacking out” to different horsemen and various images come to their minds. When we talk about sacking out, though, we’re talking about systematically exposing our horse to something scary, but in a way that’s safe and builds his confidence.
We’re not desensitizing him – we’re not trying to get him used to things, since we can’t get him used to everything that’s ever going to worry him. And we’re not going to overdose him, scaring him until he “gives up.” Instead, we’re teaching him what to do when he gets worried, and we can only do that by having him under good control and worrying him, then relieving his worry, in small stages.
We’ll tell the horse what we want him to do, then introduce a very small stimulation. We want him to notice it, but not get excited or move his feet. Then we’ll remove the stimulation, which rewards him for staying calm and continuing to obey us.
For this lesson, work in a safe, uncluttered area, like a corral. Avoid places where the horse could back into something that could scare or hurt him, such as a wheelbarrow.
Put a snaffle bridle on the horse or a halter and lead, depending on the level of control you may need. The bridle will give you more control, especially if your horse is headshy or has a tendency to pull away. In addition to giving you more control, it’s kinder for the horse, since he’ll pull less hard and for less long. When you’re working with a halter, there’s a tendency to pull the horse around more or for him to pull you around more. The horse gets the message you want clearer and quicker when you use a bridle.
Begin by reviewing some leading lessons, asking the horse to go forward, move his hips or change directions a few times. That gives him a chance to settle down and you a chance to review the control cues with him.
• Teach your horse to drop his head on cue.
• Work on moving him forward, back, left and right on cue, so you can tell him to stand.
• Sack him out, beginning by petting him and graduating to rattling a plastic grocery sack around.
• Put warm water in a clean spray bottle, and spray the air beside the horse.
• Spray the horse’s legs, then shoulder and eventually the whole horse. Stop spraying before the horse moves away
When you feel that he’s relaxed enough, allow him to stand and pet him. Petting the horse is always the beginning of sacking out. When the horse stands perfectly for you to stroke him once or twice, then stop petting him and take one step away from him. That’s the pattern you’re going to use for this lesson, though you don’t have to step away each time.
If the horse is busy looking around for his buddies or not standing still, then calmly reposition him and ask him to drop his head. Pet him and then step away. After about five seconds, step toward the horse’s head and pet him again. When you can do that without the horse reacting by raising his head above normal resting height, you’re ready for the next step.
This time, you’re going to pet the horse with something soft in your hand, such as a washcloth. Position him and ask him to drop his head. Pet his head and neck with the cloth, then step away.
Be sure to take the washcloth away before the horse moves. If you think he’ll only stand still for three seconds, then only pet him for two. That way he’s performing 100% correctly for two seconds. If the horse moves, though, ignore it and begin again. You can’t scold the horse into relaxing and obeying a cue.
When the horse is comfortable with you petting his head and ears with a washcloth, try a towel. In addition to petting his head, wave the towel around, making sure not to over scare the horse. One movement, then withdraw the towel. Then two, and so forth until you can let the towel sail around the horse’s head without him getting too worried or trying to pull away.
Graduate to anything that you can wave around or pet the horse with safely. Try a plastic grocery sack, then a saddle pad or a feather duster. Avoid anything with a sharp edge that the horse might hit if he raised his head quickly. Work from both sides.
Here’s an important point: Only introduce the object when the horse’s head is down and he’s under good control.
When the horse is relaxed with all that, you’re ready for fly spray.
Start With Water
Thoroughly clean out a spray bottle and rinse it many times. You might eventually spray water around the horse’s face, so make sure no residue remains of whatever may have been in the bottle you’re using.
Fill the spray bottle with warm water and turn the nozzle to the soft mist setting. You might have handy a two-liter soda bottle, also filled with warm water, to refill your sprayer.
Begin by positioning the horse and asking him to drop his head. Then spray one or two quick sprays in the air away from the horse, about at the level of his shoulder. Pet the horse and stand quietly a moment, letting him know that’s all you wanted him to do.
If the horse startles, as he probably will if he worries about fly spray, then concentrate on asking him to drop his head, to move his hips or whatever exercise you choose. You want to make the exercise more important than the spray. You’re not going to discipline the horse or fault him for getting upset about the spray – just build his confidence that he can stand quietly, even when you’re spraying into the air.
If the horse pulls back, he’ll put tension on the rein or lead. Continue to hold that tension until he brings his head forward or drops it slightly, giving to the pressure. If he steps back or pulls hard, you may have to move his hips to get him to quit pulling and to give to the pressure. If that happens, then forget about spraying until you can get the horse to give to pressure easily.
Continue to work with the horse until you can spray the air without the horse objecting. Then position the horse and turn the sprayer toward him. Spray twice into the air (as you’ve been doing), then once onto his shoulder, then once into the air, as before. The idea is that the spray is gone before the horse can react.
Remember, though, the focus is on obeying your cues, not the spray. So you have to give a cue first. It’s normal for people to pay attention to spraying and react when the horse moves away. Be sure that the horse feels rewarded for obeying your cues.
If you’ve told him to drop his head, release the rein, but don’t take advantage of his good nature by spraying him endlessly. A few sprays at a time teaches him you’re not using the cues, and particularly the “head down” or ” calm down ” cue, as a means of trickery.
Build on this process until you can eventually spray the horse’s legs, then body, then neck. When the horse is comfortable with all of that, you can spray the air beside his head.
In real life, you’re not going to spray the horse’s head with fly spray. You’ll likely apply it with a cloth so that you don’t get spray in his eyes. But for the purposes of this lesson, you can continue to work with the horse until you can spray his head with water. That will come in handy should you want to let water run over his head, such as when rinsing after a bath.
Don’t expect your horse to be a robot, anymore than you would if you were the one getting sprayed. You want to build his confidence that the spray won’t hurt him. So you have to find a balance between being a taskmaster and having him obey your cues.