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Clean-up from a washrack scare takes time

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - November 5th, 2009 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY!: A mole hill turned into a mountain when I gave my horse his first bath. My 2-year-old stud colt, just out of pasture, walked right into the wash rack. It was fine until I turned the water on. Then all hell broke loose — including him. Now I can’t even get him near the hose. How do I clean up this dirty little secret?
Vivian Wysor, Fort Lauderdale, Fl.

HEY VIVIAN: What happened to you has happened to everybody at least once. We all share that secret. (Don’t tell anyone!) For starters, I’ve got to tell you that you have a great colt, because he gave you the benefit of the doubt when you first asked him to trust you. Let this be the last time you ask anything unwise of your horse, and we may be able to dilute this experience.

BEFORE you tried to wash your horse, you actually had three separate challenges:

1. Leading
2. Tying
3. Bathing

AFTER what happened, you now have a fourth: trust.

Each challenge must be addressed individually, starting with leading. Lead your horse to an arena or pen away from the wash rack. Because he is young he might not move forward. If he stops, keep pressure on the line and pull him sideways off balance so he takes a step. At that precise moment, release the hold and allow him to walk in the direction you are going.

Once you are in the arena, you’re going to work on getting him to move his hindquarters around his front end. It doesn’t have to be perfect as long as you get him to move. This is going to be one of your rewardable exercises. This might be easier to teach than backing up, initially. This is the exercise you will use to reward your horse if he refuses to move towards the wash rack.

The next challenge is tying. The longer the rope, the better. You will teach the horse that he can move or even pull back. Like in any good relationship, it doesn’t matter where either of you go as long as you stick together. The way you will help your horse understand this is by creating a scenario where, if the horse feels the need to flee, he can do so without severing your relationship — very much like his experience in the wash rack. You can hold the line in one hand and unsettle him with the other by holding anything that will cause him to feel fear and move.

Your task is to continue with him without letting up until he stops on his own and shows signs of acceptance (stand, lick, chew, soft eye, drops head and or sighs). Unless the horse shows signs of aggression through this process (where you feel any threat at all), continue what you are doing until the horse is okay with it. At this point, you can actually simulate tying. By that, I mean that the horse will think he is tied solid, but you will make sure he is NOT. For example, loop the rope over a rail, check by pulling the rope so that it feels tight, but if you add extra pressure it will slip. Be careful not to let the rope bind and get stuck. This should give the effect of dragging around a ball and chain. (another common phrase used in relationships!)

Remember, we are not trying to get the horse “not to pull.” We are just trying to get him to understand that (1) he can and (2) if he does, it’s not a good idea. As long as he has freedom of choice, he will eventually appreciate our suggestion.

If the horse becomes aggressive and you feel threatened, then the game takes a different twist. Unless you’ve dealt with horses with this type of behavior, I suggest that you stop and find professional help. This work will go to the wall or fence, and even then can be very dangerous — so beware.

I prefer tying over a post and rail fence because when you put the rope over the rail and loop it around the post a couple of times, not only do you get the right amount of drag, you eliminate the possibility of the rope binding. You can also buy a smart tie at your local tack store.

Once you feel the horse is accepting to whatever stimuli you’ve chosen to unsettle him while tied, you can move on to the next step.

My favorite way to give a horse his first bath is by getting my biggest spray bottle and filling it up with water and spraying him down from ear to rear. This will include ears, eyes, muzzle and everything else. I start with a stream from far away and move to the mist later when he settles. I will literally get him soaking wet. By the time I get ready to hose him down, he will have experienced the end result before we ever get started. I suggest you start with hosing him down in the arena with a long hose so he still has the option of moving while being hosed down.

Once he seems accepting to that, you can put all three stages together on your way to the wash rack.

First: Lead him into the wash rack, not forgetting the rewardable exercise attached to it if he refuses.

Secondly: Simulate tying. If he pulls back, back him a few steps or turn on the forehand as his reward able exercise. Then offer him another chance to walk back in.

Thirdly: Turn on the hose and spray him down like you did in the arena starting with the legs and finishing with the neck and head. Remember to turn down the volume. Bathing him with the sprayer in the wash rack for the first time might be a nice transitional experience before the hose. There are also mist sprayers for your hose that you can use so your horse can see and breathe comfortably, if you happen to have a real scared-e-cat that overreacts.

You can break this process up into a few sessions, or it can be done in one day. We’ll call it a judgment call.

Last but not least, by the time you wash all your troubles away the most important element, “his trust in you,” should be replenished.

This process may seem an overkill for some. I understand that a swift spray in the face until they’re totally soaked may sometimes be all it takes. After that being said, we all know that horses have literally killed themselves over less. Remember, we’re not trying to get the horse clean, we are trying to reestablish the relationship. Furthermore, it’s a foundation that you’ll be laying down for future challenges to come.

Vivian, I hope this all makes sense to you because your horse will appreciate the extra time you take on his behalf.


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horseand human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco, Calif., at his bustling Starbrite Riding Academy, where he currently has 50 horses in various stages of training, including Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Paints, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Mustangs and more. Ray attributes his training success to the support of his wife and partner, Pippa, and a system he calls S.W.A.P., to which he credits his multiple championships in several disciplines. His passionate understanding of the “human-horse” relationship was evident when he took on the challenge of training a wild Mustang and — in just 100 days — produced the highest-priced adopted Mustang ever — $50,000. Does your “horse-human relationship” leave you with a question for Ray? Click here to submit one!

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