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Bathing my horse is a ‘face-off’…help!

By RAY ARISS /Horsetrader columnist - November 4th, 2010 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY! How do you get a horse to tolerate water on the face when bathing in the wash-rack?

HEY SANDIE: The hardest part of this challenge is to recognize how truly simple the solution really is. What we need to do first is to separate getting his face wet with having to be tied and holding his ground. I suggest that you work on the latter first by tying him up away from the wash rack to a tie ring or some sort of a connection that will give in a pen or arena. Keeping him on a line attached to your hand will also work providing you feel safe while doing it.

Try to unsettle him any way you can. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as he recognizes that when he does evade the fear by pulling away he is still going to be attached.

You can get as creative as you’d like (i.e. shaking a bag, waving a tarp, etc). The one thing you don’t want to do yet is unsettle him with anything that has to do with water.

Once he holds his ground and TOLERATES the stimulus, we need to continue the desensitization experience into acceptance. Tolerating is not good enough. You know you have moved into acceptance when he not only holds his ground but begins to relax, soften his eye, flop his ears, drops his neck, cocks his hind leg, sighs, and licks and chews. Any or all of these expressions are signs of acceptance. Then, and only then should you consider moving to the next step.

We are now ready to get his face wet. I suggest you don’t move your horse into the wash rack just yet first, we want to make sure that your horse does not associate the wash rack with anything negative. It’s all about the preparation leading to the issue or challenge that counts. This is no different than trying to load a horse into a trailer, especially if he already has a preconceived notion about the outcome. Trying to load a horse into a trailer by continuously practicing loading, does not always make it better. Sometimes you have to go away and reinforce your foundation in order to progress. The wash rack is no different. I have heard of horses losing their lives equally in the wash rack as well as the trailer. So it’s important to take the extra steps.

Ideally a horse’s first bath should be with a spray bottle full of water. This is why I suggest the following: Simply fill a spray bottle full of water and spray him initially in the “stream” setting from a safe distance on his neck or shoulder. As he becomes accepting, work your way up to his head. The stream helps you stay accurate with where you place the water. Be careful to stay away from his ears, eyes, and nose initially, until he becomes accepting. Once you feel that he is truly showing signs of S.W.A.P. (Sweet, Willing, And, Predictable), you can get closer to him, and change the “stream” setting on your water bottle to “spray”. At this point you should completely and entirely spray him down from ear to rear. This should include eyes, ears, and nose as well. Repeat this until he shows the signs of acceptance previously mentioned. It is important that to keep water out of the inside of the horse’s ears so we do not transfer from bather (human) to bathee (horse). The spray bottle gives us a great opportunity to teach your horse this lesson. Spraying the ears, using the “spray” setting, will give the horse the perfect opportunity to figure out that by turning his ears backwards will block the water from coming in. This will be an important lesson to learn in the event someone carelessly hoses his face without thinking of the consequences of that action. This simple step can very well prevent a tragedy!

The next step is to hold the lead line attached to your horse in one hand, and a long hose in the other. I recommend you do this work in a pen as well if possible in the event your horse gets loose. Start by spraying his body, making sure there are no signs of anxiety or tension. Work your way up his neck all the way to his throat latch, and keep spraying until he is accepting of it.

Turn the volume of water down from the faucet until you get a soft shower. Proceed to shower his face away from his nose and ears targeting his eyes and forehead. Keep the water as consistent and continuous as possible on his face even if he chooses to move. An advantage of doing this away from the wash rack is, the horse is allowed to move while he figures things out without feeling like he is evading the wash rack. The purpose of the lead line and halter is not to keep your horse from moving. All you are trying to do is to stay attached to him while maintaining straightness as he figures out that all will be well. He will learn that it is possible to breathe while being blinded by the water.

Continue this process until once again he shows signs of S.W.A.P. before ever moving to the wash rack. The horse needs to understand that he controls the water and the experience, the moment he embraces it. It is to his advantage to hold his ground and live through the experience in order to make it go away. This may be one of those empowering experiences he may learn to enjoy the most.

Sandie, you have a great opportunity here to help your horse understand that the fear of the unknown can be all the motivation he needs to move forward with the rest of the challenges in his life.
With horses, as with humans, anything that threatens our senses will create the butterflies in our belly that, in many cases, causes us to avoid moving forward.

Reassuring or proving repeatedly that whatever follows those butterflies enhances the quality of our lives, changes the label or meaning of those butterflies. The fear of the unknown should become an exciting motivator that moves you forward with your choices in life.

So, Sandie, here comes the easy part. You can now walk your horse into the wash-rack and repeat what you have learned with confidence, assured that he will feel that getting his face washed may possibly be the best part of his day.

As always, trust your instincts and think safe,

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