Teach Your Horse to Accept Fly Spray Calmly
By Josh Nichol
When warmer weather rolls around, I frequently encounter people who have trouble getting their horse to accept fly spray. I explain to them that the first step in solving this common issue is to think about it from the horse’s perspective. Horses can become worried by anything strange or unfamiliar, and from their point of view, fly spray is a triple whammy of weird. The horse has to contend with the sound the bottle makes, the feel of the spray, and the smell of the ingredients, all of which can trigger their fight or flight response.
The way I help them acclimate to this assault on their senses is to first teach them to soften their head slightly downwards in response to a light feel on the lead. Please notice that I said “soften”, not “lower”, which is an important distinction. Softening means yielding calmly into relaxation, and that relaxation is what I am looking for here, not just a downward movement. It is important to understand that a horse can learn to lower its head while still holding tension, and that is not helpful to them or to us, so try to look for signs of relaxation when the head lowers — an easy flow in response to your pressure, a tranquil eye, soft ears, etc. If you’re not sure if the horse has truly softened or just lowered its head, release your feel on the rope and see what happens. A horse that is not soft will often bounce its head right back up when you let go, whereas a soft horse is likely to hang out in that relaxed posture for a bit.
Once the horse will soften to a gentle feel, we work on softening the same way when a mild pressure (like a flag in your other hand slightly shaking) is added, being sure to release that pressure the moment they soften. When you do this correctly, horses quickly come to understand that they can “control” pressure by staying calm and relaxed. Learning to think through pressures, rather than simply reacting to them, is very empowering to the horse, and teaching them how to do this is invaluable for training purposes and for keeping us safe when our horses encounter potentially worrisome things out in the world. Starting off with something like a flag that you can quickly turn “on” and “off” can help your horse learn to think through new pressures — like fly spray — in the same way.
The next step is to introduce a spray bottle as your “pressure”. Start off with just water in the bottle, as it has no unfamiliar smell and you won’t be wasting expensive fly spray. Start off spraying well away from the horse, ask him to soften his head, then stop the spray when he does. Give him a break and some praise. Gradually work the spray closer to the horse, and work on things like rubbing the bottle on him with the same technique. Eventually, you get to where a bit of spray is touching one leg, you ask the horse to soften, then release and stop the spray when he does. If you time this well, your horse will believe that he stopped the spray by softening his head, and he will gain great confidence from this. Being able to “control” the spray makes it a lot less scary to the horse, and soon, you will be able to spray more and more of his body without him getting worried about it.
This “advance and retreat” method, where you remove a scary pressure/object in response to the horse softening, can be used for many things, including a horse that raises its head to avoid the bridle (though always be sure to check for dental or other pain issues if a horse does that), or a horse that is afraid of clippers or being blanketed. Understanding this technique can take you a good way down the road to better horsemanship.
Here is a video illustrating some of the steps described in this article:
To learn more about Josh Nichol’s Relational Horsemanship approach, check out his website: http://JoshNichol.com