How many times have you wished your horse could understand English so you could teach them to tolerate grooming? “Believe me, this fly spray will get rid of those pesky bugs…just relax and I’ll help you!” or “Once we get all that gritty dirt and sweat off, you’ll be soooo much more comfortable.”
We all want our horses to look and feel their best, especially when we start taking them to shows, demonstrations or competitions. A clean, well-groomed horse trimmed to perfection presents a very pleasing picture to the judges’ eyes. The problem is, teaching our horses to tolerate grooming can leave us frustrated, wet, late, and covered with the grooming products that should be adorning our equine partners. Even worse, someone may end up seriously injured.
The horse’s point of view
Why is it so difficult for a horse to tolerate grooming? Are bathing, spraying and clipping really that bad? The key lies in understanding the horse’s point of view. Think how strange these activities are to our horses. Many of what we consider the most basic concepts (how about riding a straight line, or in a perfect circle?) are human ideas, and literally have no purpose or context to these animals. So they also have no idea why we would spray strange stuff on them, point a hose at them with cold water spouting out of it, or why that buzzing, vibrating machine is about to cut off some of their hair.
Rather than just forcing your horse to tolerate grooming, (which is very stressful, and even dangerous to you and your horse) you need to teach him to trust you and relax as you groom him. Horses must be desensitized to bathing, clipping, spray bottles, and yes, even brushes and combs. Fortunately, with a few key principles and a good, effective plan, anyone can teach these lessons!
Let’s start with six important ideas to incorporate into each of these lessons.
1. Stay safe, no matter what! By taking the time you need to teach your horse these lessons to tolerate grooming, your safety is enhanced. So plan ahead, schedule the time you need to carry out these exercises without rushing, and then follow through!
2. The way you approach any experience with your horse influences how he/she feels about it. Because horses are both prey and herd animals, they check out how we perceive our environment, and often take their cues from us. So don’t tiptoe around as if you don’t believe she can relax… act casual, like you know she can do it! Fake it, if you must!
3. Horses are prey animals. If your equine partner thinks the spray bottle is the “infamous horse-eating sprayer of doom” she will try to do what prey animals do best: take flight. If she’s tied and unable to act on that most primal impulse, she may decide to fight instead. These responses are not those of a “bad” horse, just a scared one. Don’t punish; teach instead.
4. Horses behave in a very direct cause and effect way.
• “What happens when I pull back? Can I get away?”
• “When I paw anxiously, does he stop spraying me?”
• “If I throw my head up high, can I get away from that buzzing thing?”
When horses evade something successfully, they will repeat the behavior. So whenever you can safely prevent your horse from avoiding something, do it!
5. Timing is important! The best time to teach your horse to quietly stand and tolerate grooming, bathing, etc., is when he’s tired and wants to stand. Teach these lessons after a good ride, not before!
6. As a prerequisite to our lessons, your horse must willingly and comfortably accept your hands anywhere on his body. He must also accept saddle blankets, etc. Remember that a horse’s skin is about seven times more sensitive than ours, so keep your touch firm but pleasant. To prepare your horse for these lessons, teach your horse to be comfortable with brushes, combs and hoof picks before moving on.
Start with sprays
Let’s begin with spray bottles (fly spray, stain removers, “polish” applications), since this is the easiest of our tasks.
• Outfit your horse with a well-fitting halter and a 10’ to 12’ long lead rope. Do not begin this work in a confined area (a small paddock or round pen is ideal), and above all do not tie or cross-tie your horse until you are absolutely sure he is comfortable being sprayed. We’ll explain the lesson from the horse’s left side, but be sure to teach it on the right, too.
• Stand facing your horse’s left shoulder point at approximately a 45º angle, holding the lead rope loosely in your left hand and the spray bottle in your right hand. Fill an old bottle with water for this exercise so you don’t waste expensive sprays. Keep your body relaxed, in a “this is no big deal” posture, point the bottle away from the horse and briefly spray a short burst of water. The position (and distance) of your body should protect you in the event your horse kicks out or strikes. This extreme reaction is possible, so you need to be ready.
• Your horse may just stand there unconcerned. If this is the case, praise her with a pet or rub! Then begin to spray more frequently and with longer bursts, and gradually direct the spray closer and closer to your horse’s withers and back.
• At some point your horse will probably move away from the spray. Don’t try to keep her still: let her move if she wants to, but reduce the intensity and direction of the spraying.
• Keep spraying until she stops moving, even if it’s just momentary. When she stops all four feet, immediately stop spraying. Pet and reassure your horse and then resume the lesson. This teaches her that in order to make the spraying stop, all she has to do is stand quietly. When she does this comfortably you may move on to the neck, legs and finally around the head. Remember that your horse trusts you, so be careful not to startle her, proceed too quickly, or spray her directly in the ears, eyes or nose.
If you need to end this or any other lesson before she’s really relaxed and comfortable, find a positive note to end on, and continue on another day. She’ll keep getting better and better!
Once your horse is fully relaxed with being sprayed from either side, you can move up to the bathing lesson.
• Once again, begin with a halter and lead rope on your horse (untied), in a round pen or similar enclosure. Begin in the same position at his left shoulder and at the same safety angle of 45º, holding the lead in your left hand and the horse in your right hand.
• Keep the hose pointed away from the horse as you turn on the water. A helper is handy to turn the water off and on as needed, but an off/on nozzle would work too. Most hoses will spurt out water at first, making a sound like a “horse-eating snake”, so be ready if your horse’s flight instincts take over.
• If you try to fight with him and keep him still, you’ll just make matters worse. Let him move, but keep him on the end of your rope. You’ll also need to be mindful of where the hose is so he doesn’t get tangled in it and feel trapped.
• Make sure your spray is not overwhelming but rather a soft, gentle mist in the beginning. Keep spraying until the horse stops moving; when he does, close the nozzle to stop the water flow. (Hey! He can make the water stop by standing still!) Pet and reassure your horse before starting over.
• Gradually work the direction of the spray closer to the horse, until he accepts it landing on him while standing still. Stop, pet, reassure, and start again. Start spraying his front legs, and then move on to his chest, back, etc. Always start with the hose aimed away from the horse, and bring it towards him slowly. If possible, use lukewarm water, as very cold or hot water only makes the experience more unpleasant for your horse!
• When you can spray your horse all over from either side and he remains relaxed, you can begin to apply diluted shampoo with a sponge, and then rinse. Finally, familiarize him with the sweat scraper to remove the excess water.
When you can do all this while your horse remains relaxed and unconcerned, you’ll be ready to teach the next and usually most difficult lesson.
The clippers are coming!
In this lesson we desensitize the horse to three things: the clipper itself, the noise, and the vibration. You shouldn’t try to introduce all three at once, because it overwhelms most horses.
• Take baby steps by first rubbing your horse’s fetlocks, bridle path, muzzle, under his chin, and anywhere else you may wish to clip.
• When he is comfortable with this pleasant touch, rub him with a sponge, then a washcloth, a piece of aluminum foil, or anything else you can think of to desensitize him.
• Once he’s comfortable with these objects, start adding some noise. You can crinkle the aluminum foil, or add humming sounds while you rub.
• The next step is to rub him with the clipper itself – at this point, it should not be turned on, and the blades should be removed.
• When he’s totally relaxed, rub the clippers all over him and hum at the same time. Then turn the clippers on and rub all those spots again.
• When he’s as loose as a goose with the sounds and vibration, place the blades in the clippers. Clip the least sensitive area first (according to your horse) and work up to his most difficult spots. Don’t try to clip everything in one session; do a little at a time for the first few clippings.
Once you’ve taught your horse to tolerate grooming and accept spraying, bathing, and clipping, you can do all these things while he’s tied (providing he has already been taught to tie). The time you take to teach these lessons properly will result in a calm, glistening horse that’s ready to create the perfect picture in class. Give yourself a pat on the back for your good horsemanship, then go get ‘em!