Where I live, summer days are hot and humid. After long, sweaty rides, I like to use a hose to rinse the sweat off my horse in a wash stall and then scrape him down. This works fine for all of my horses except my new mare, a 10-year-old warmblood. For some reason, she hates the water. When she can, she avoids the water stream and if she can’t move away, she tensely tolerates being hosed off. Giving her a real bath is out of the question—I feel like it would stress her too much. She has never really thrown a fit but I feel like she is a time bomb waiting to go off. What should I do to ease her anxiety over running water?
An aversion to the spray from a water hose isn’t uncommon among horses. In fact, I have a horse who once behaved very much like your mare. His name is Bellagio—we call him “Geo” for short—and he is a 7-year-old warmblood. Initially, Geo hated the feel of water on his body, especially around his sides. He would even react to the sound of the hose nozzle clicking on and off. Needless to say bathing Geo was a chore—it was like trying to wash a cat!
However, I managed to help Geo get through this problem, and now he fully accepts being hosed down. When working with him, my main focus was to help him accept and understand what I was doing, which gave him confidence and established a relationship of trust between us.
Many times people do things in a way that might accomplish a given task—getting a horse bathed, clipped, mounted or whatever—but only by asking the horse to tolerate what is happening. That means having to repeat lessons over and over because the horse is not really coming to the situation with a feeling of trust. It’s far better to work toward understanding and acceptance: When a horse trusts you and accepts what is happening rather than simply tolerating it, you establish a foundation for handling future training challenges.
To develop an eye for the difference between acceptance and tolerance, become an observer of all horses being handled by anybody. This is putting into practice that old saying, “Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can.” As you watch the horses and people interact, ask yourself, “Does that horse accept and understand what is going on, or is he barely tolerating it?” I’ll bet you’ll find that many more horses are tolerating what’s being asked of them rather than accepting it.
I am happy to report that by helping Geo become confident and to understand and accept what I was asking of him, he has become totally relaxed and cooperative at bath time. By getting past tolerance to acceptance, he has become my trusting partner. Take a look at my lessons with Geo and imagine the many ways you could use this approach, from training a horse to accept the spray from a hose to overcoming other training issues.
1.If a horse has any worry about the water stream, I direct it away from him. Here you can see from Geo’s body posture that he is ready for anything. In this situation, it’s important that he has room to move and that he has a high regard for my personal space. A horse can quickly figure out that if he runs you over, the hose stops spraying. So make sure to establish boundaries before you start these exercises. Even if your horse has already learned to respect your space, be sensible about protecting yourself: A front foot can strike out in a second if a horse feels trapped. Remember that you control how much pressure the horse is feeling. So take your time, read the behavior by observing your horse’s posture and be ready to direct the water away from him.
2. I take another step forward. Now the hose is spraying Geo’s body. Notice that I am leading him with my left hand and spraying with my right. I want him to be moving for these first few touches with the spray. If I’m directing his movement back and forth in front of me, I’m still in control. If he is standing still and I go at him with the spray, then I will likely be trying to manage a hose and a scared horse on the end of the lead. Although in the end you want your horse to stand quietly, don’t try to get him to remain still in the beginning; Allow and encourage some movement. If a horse is scared and you confine him, he will go into self-preservation mode. That means he will first freeze to build up to an explosion and then try to get out of there with flight—and if he can’t, he will fight. Avoid all of that with a method that starts with planned movement to dissipate the need for the powerful engine of survival to kick in.
3.As Geo moves back and forth in front of me, I pass the nozzle under the lead and spray his other side. I may do this quietly for five minutes or more. Each time, I reduce the amount I ask him to move and gradually insist he stand still a bit longer to accept the spray. Notice that at the beginning I direct the water toward the horse’s shoulder and rib area—it’s best to start spraying parts of his body that are less sensitive than the front legs or the face. Build your horse’s confidence incrementally, and gradually move the spray out of his comfort zones.
4.Now you can see I’ve increased the spray and have begun covering a greater area on Geo’s body. As he gets better with this, I ask a bit more of him by spraying for longer periods of time and on more parts of his body.
5.Trusting Geo more, I move closer as I would when giving him a bath. Here I stay near his shoulder and control his nose with a short rein—not tight but short. With my hand on his neck, I can feel the tension in him. If he stays relaxed I keep going. If it feels like tension is building up, then I may move him and start again. By this stage I am insisting he stand quite still. If he needs to move, I would move him back to the spot where I want him to stand.
6.Now that Geo is soaked and I’m at the end of his session, I will bore him with another five minutes of lightly moving the hose toward and away from him, turning it on and off to get him accustomed to the initial water jumping from the hose. Also notice that I am standing in a dry area that could use some moisture. This exercise saves me from having to pass the irrigation hose over this spot later today. We are lucky that our ranch is located in a region with lots of water. I know that is not the case for everyone, so if water is limited a nice sponge bath will do.
WATER HOSING BASICSKeep these points in mind when teaching a horse to accept being sprayed with a water hose: • Before you begin to address this issue, make sure the horse respects your personal space. • Use the “approach-and-retreat” method. Present the stimuli (in this case the running water) to the horse, then when he shows even the slightest compliance in accepting it, reward him by immediately taking it away. • Don’t tie your horse or otherwise severely confine him. Allow him some ability to move to avoid triggering his fight-or-flight instincts. • Remember that water temperature is important—you don’t want to shock the horse with cold water at first. I use warm water, but in a hot climate you may want to start with water that is lukewarm until your horse is confident. Of course, in time cold water will be more appreciated on humid, hot days. • Especially at first, use a gentle stream of water rather than a pounding spray.
About the author: Jonathan Field is a trainer and clinician from Abbotsford, British Columbia. His program, Jonathan Field Horsemanship: Inspired by Horses, teaches the skills necessary to build a relationship with horses. Field grew up riding both English and Western and worked as a cowboy on one of the largest cattle ranches in Canada. Field regularly does presentations at events like the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento, California.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #467, August 2016.