How Do I Train My Horse to Accept Fly Spray?
Photo: The Horse Staff
Q. Can you tell me, step-by-step, how I can use learning theory to get my horse to allow me to use a spray bottle on her to apply fly and insect repellant?
A. First I would like to be clear none of this is of my own invention. It's based on simple behavior modification theory and methods I learned from Dr. Sue McDonnell (PhD, Cert. AAB), Shawna Karrasch, and others, including students who ran with these techniques to do various behavior research projects.
The overall objective is for your horse to know that when he does something correct, he gets a reward. You will simply ignore unwanted behaviors. Begin by rewarding just the tiniest part of a behavior that you like, building from small steps into bigger expectations. This is called "successive approximation."
You want to be able to tell your horse immediately that the little thing he just did was what you wanted. So to expedite this, you first must get your horse to associate a food reward, which is a primary reinforcer, with what we call a "bridge," or a secondary reinforcer. A bridge is something that can be administered quickly and lets the horse know "that was right; the reward is coming." A bridge can be a clicker, a whistle, or your voice saying something like "good." A bridge will become just as rewarding as a treat, and allows you to be anywhere and figuratively reward the horse. Otherwise, the only way your horse knows he did the right thing is when you quickly shove food in his mouth … and you can't do that quickly enough if you are anywhere distant from his face. You will be rewarding small correct behaviors with the bridge and immediately alerting the horse that "yes, what you just did there was right!"
I start by asking the horse to turn his head away from me; it's simple and it keeps his nose out of my pocket. I had a foal once who was so fidgety and insistent on tossing his head about that there was no chance of him focusing. So I first rewarded him for pausing. Now, at first that was like a millisecond of being still. But quite soon he stopped being all over the place and began to pay attention to me.
In the following steps, I'll be using a clicker. But you could also use your voice (same word, same tone consistently) instead. Here’s how to teach the bridge and a simple lesson, and link the bridge to a command:
- Stand next to the horse with food rewards. If the horse nudges at you for the food, just stand there.
- Once the horse stops nudging, then click and give a food treat.
- Repeat at the next moment he's not nudging.
- Next, click the second he moves his head, even a little bit, in the direction away from you.
- Repeat until he's completely turning his head away.
- This usually only takes a few minutes, but in this time you will have clicked and given a food treat probably 20 to 30 times. Remember, you are rewarding for each small bit of progress. You will be surprised at how far away he'll try to turn his head!
- During this time you can also give the command "away" or something like that at the moment the horse turns his head away and about the same time you use the clicker. Soon he will connect the word "away" with turning his head, the click, and the food reward. So later you can just say "away" and he'll turn his head away.
At this point you will have spent 5 to 10 minutes giving your horse a lesson that will be the basis for anything else you want to teach him. He has learned what the bridge is, that the bridge is a stand-in for a reward, and that if he tries new things something will be "right" and he'll get a reward.
Here is how I would approach teaching a horse that the spray bottle is a good thing. If possible, do this in a stall or small paddock with your horse loose. If you feel that's not safe, tie him or have someone hold him on a lead, but as loose as is feasible and safe. First use plain water, in case his fear or distrust results from either the sound, the feel of the spray, the odor, or all three. This is important: What you are teaching here is to stand still and to do nothing. That can be the simplest, but the hardest, thing for a horse to learn!
- First, start with the spray bottle in your hand and approach your horse, even if he's okay with that part already. If she stands still, click and reward.
- Then, touch him on the shoulder with the spray bottle, even if he's already ok with that. If he stands still, click and reward.
- Continue touching him all over, walking around with the spray bottle, waving it about a bit, and clicking and rewarding for each step if he stands still, even if this didn't bother him before. The previous steps to me are part desensitization (or getting her used to having the spray bottle around) and part getting him to look forward to you coming with the spray bottle.
- If the first scary thing to him is the sound of the spray bottle, begin by spraying at a distance away, clicking and rewarding for just standing still. This is where the bridge comes in handy, because you can stand far away and click and he knows at the moment what he did was right, and in a little bit the food reward is coming.
- Keep moving closer and spraying the bottle. For each step you get closer and he stands still, click and reward.
- If at any point he responds negatively to the spray, go back to your last successful step and do it again.
- Get closer and closer until you are spraying right next to him and then on him as he continues to stand still, clicking and rewarding. Then proceed to spray over each section of his body, clicking and rewarding for all the times he stands still.
Remember: You are moving in very small increments, with a click and reward for each thing you do that he stands quietly for. One of the fun things about this is for you to come up with the tiniest increment you can when your horse is really scared or resistant. For example, if a full spray is too much, try spraying into your hand to muffle the sound and spritz dispersal.
I know this might sound tedious, but it goes really fast. We successfully got a dangerous, rearing filly to stand without a halter for vaccinations in about a week of twice daily 5- to 10- minute sessions. I taught the simple bridge and away command to two, 6-month-old foals at the same time in about 10 minutes (that was super fun!).
Here are a couple really important tips:
- Keep the session moving. I find that a quick pace keeps your horse and you interested. In 5 to 10 minutes you'll be giving lots of reinforcements for each small progress made.
- It helps if your horse is hungry if he's not normally highly food motivated. You might divvy up his feed to give over several training sessions per day. Also, give only tiny food rewards—a couple of feed pellets or a tiny piece of carrot—each time you reward. This will help keep things moving along.
- Try to do multiple short sessions each day, if feasible, if you are working on a specific problem. Always end on a good note.
- Allow your horse as much freedom as possible, but do so safely. Wear protective gear if you need to.
- You can do this alone or with a helper working the clicker and/or giving the rewards. It won't take long for you two to get in sync.
- Remember that the horse is, in part, teaching himself, because you are letting him try things and then you are rewarding for him accidentally getting something right. This is not as random as it sounds because you are rewarding for each step in the right direction. He'll pick up on it.
The more you do this, the more productive each new session will be. Horses seem to "learn to learn." Also, because you are rewarding often for small increments toward your ultimate goal, and you are simply ignoring unwanted behaviors, this tends to be a very positive experience for the horse and it is very forgiving of mistakes.
Once your horse gets sprayed enough times and he learns nothing bad will happen, you likely won't need to use any rewards. That will hold true for most things he is scared of or resistant toward. With more complex tricks or maneuvers that you are building on, you might not eliminate the bridge or reward, but go to a system of intermittent rewards. We can discuss that more another time if you want.
About the Author
Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.
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