Saturday, June 6, 2009

"Get over it" vs. work around it

Ok, where's the line? When do you decide to work around a horse's irrational fear of something versus making the horse work through it and desensitize?

Dixie and I have been plugging along doing pretty well. I didn't make it out to see her for three days this week - an eternity for me! - and she was HAPPY to see me yesterday. Whinneyed and ran to the gate. That made me smile a lot!

Here's our current problem. Fly season is warming up here, and I stopped on the way yesterday and bought a bottle of fly spray. I knew Dixie didn't like spray bottles - she dances around when I Showsheen her mane and tail - but I didn't know how terrified she is of fly spray.

I clipped her to the tie chain, got a brush, brushed her down, and got the fly spray. I thought she might not like it, so I had her touch the bottle with her nose for a treat a few times. She was a little wild-eyed but she cooperated. Then I pointed the bottle away from her and slowly squeezed the trigger and she flipped out. She surged to the end of the chain, pulled almost as hard as she could, and froze up in terror.

I'm not sure if this was a mistake, but here's the next thing I did. I told her to settle down and very slowly and deliberately sprayed her chest. She almost broke the halter, and she was as scared as I've seen her in a long time. I immediately backed down and waited for her to calm down. And waited. And waited.

Eventually, after I put the fly spray down behind me, I got her to relax and come take a frosted miniwheat from my hand. She refused to touch the bottle again, and if I was holding it she was near panic. Poor thing!

But the flies were buggin' her! I sprayed the brush, set the bottle down, carefully wiped the brush over a leg, and repeated. She was still on high alert, still not daring to move a muscle, but she let me do it.

So what do you think I should do now? Should I get a spray bottle of water and really work on desensitizing her, or should I just use a rag to apply fly spray?


  1. Peanut used to be this way, not quite as violently terrified, but I was trying to spray him once when I was holding his lead and he managed to pull free and canter away from me. I don't really remember what happened, but somewhere in there he hit me in the face with some part of his anatomy, knocked my glasses off, then took off.

    Here's what I was told at the time: horses accept spraying better when you start at their toes and work your way up. So, that's what I did. I would never start spraying him anywhere but on his hooves at first.

    It's been years, and he finally stands for spraying. It took a long time to get him to the point where he doesn't care, and I did rub the spray on him at times too. As in, he would be comfortable to a point with spraying, I'd rub the rest. Then I'd spray a little higher next time, etc.

    I once had someone tell me that the way to get a horse over it was to put them in a stall and just spray them with a hose until they don't care anymore. I don't really like the sound of that approach.

    But that reminds me, how is she for baths? Is she that different for spray bottles vs hoses?

    I know she was a stacked horse, but I don't remember you saying whether she was sored. If so, do you think that they might have used soring ingredients in spray bottles? In which case, starting at the feet might be interesting...

  2. You're on the right tracked with the water idea--it's a LOT cheaper than fly spray for the desensitizing process. This is one Clinton Anderson method that I like (I'm not a big fan, tho he's better than some).

    First: do NOT tie her up! Part of the panic is not being able to escape. Use a smallish space where she can move as much as she wants: a round pen, or even a stall. Make sure the footing is good and that there is nothing that can hurt either of you.

    Spray your water bottle. (You could even start with just mimicking the sound with your voice.) LET her move away, but don't stop spraying until her feet STOP, even for a moment. Then, stop spraying and reward her, if only with soothing words and strokes (doesn't always need to be food--and if she's that upset, she might not even take the treat, anyway).

    Keep repeating the sequence until she understands that when she stops moving, you stop spraying.

    Eventually, you add a spray or two after she stops, building up to normal spraying. But for now reward every "try" with the cessation of spraying.

    It sounds like it'll take several sessions (lots)of baby steps before she finally "gets it." In the meantime, all the time you're working around her, carry the bottle, and make little sssh-ing noises with your mouth.

    Good luck!

  3. We have one at our barn like that...bolts from the stall even if he hears you spring another horse somewhere else!

    we have purposed to work on this for safety sake and also for his.
    We keep a spray bottle on his door is only water..but each time we move around him we touch him and spray it...but i choose to walk around with it and use my "mouth spray imitation noise first" that actually works better and he does not know when the cold mist will hit as I am making the imitation noise first.

    he is also deathly afraid of water from a, I got a little hose and carry it around to torture(touch) him all the time and often walk him through the water while it is running.

    They may always be warry..but they don'have to be dangerous!
    Good luck!

  4. Sara - she's surprisingly OK with baths. She started out moderately terrified of the bath stall - maybe 7/10 - but I just took it very slowly and acted like it was no big deal whatsoever and she's ok with it now. (She actually likes to lip at the stream of water from the hose - so cute!) I'd say yesterday she was a 9/10, on the brink of breaking the halter or attacking the bottle.

    She was sored, yeah. People who know them say they "burn" their horses. Sigh. However, I don't think they spray chemicals on when they sore - too dangerous to the human handlers. I do wonder if part of the extreme fear reaction is that it smells chemically.

    EvenSong - I'm reading the new Temple Grandin book, and after I posted this I read some stuff about fear vs curiosity. I think you're exactly right, and I should take her in the round pen and work on this where she can choose to flee. Pressure her with sprayed water til she pauses, then release as soon as she does. Good plan, thank you!

    Kaci - hahahah, I call it "torture" too! Graham will ask what I did with Dixie, and I'll respond that I brutally tortured her with SHAMPOO and that horrible icky WARM WATER. I'm so cruel! Obviously I should just feed her treats nonstop and quit abusing her, hahahha.

  5. I do the roundpen (or long lead line) approach with this kind of thing. I find that it always works better if you're quiet, calm, and pointedly focused. Spray, like mentioned, until she stops. You may not be able to spray her, and can spray near her. Stop when she does, and I sometimes say 'good girl'--but for the most part, I'm quiet. Because this ISN'T a big deal, and sooner or later they'll feed off of you. If you're gushing all over them... 'YOURE SO GOOD! OMG YOURE A PRINCESS!!!' ...I find it takes much longer. Emotion, in the animal world, is weakness. And horses don't want weak leaders!

    I always, always opt to work through a problem then around it. The more problems like this you work through with dixie, the more she'll start to think it's okay to trust your judgment ALL of the time, not just sometimes.

    Good luck! Be safe ;)

  6. Gabe was the same way when I got him...absolutely TERRIFIED of the spray bottle. He acted like I was spritzing him with acid, it was bad and he was DANGEROUS.

    I second the suggestion to not tie her up, except I probably wouldn't put her in a confined space, just because of the danger that could present to both of you should she really flake out and get you cornered. With Gabe I started with spraying him in the paddock (water in the bottle!) with his halter and lead on. Standing at his shoulder I started with his front legs and every time he moved away to get away from the flesh-eating acid, we circled, very small circles, all while I continued to spray. When he stopped circling and trying to avoid the sprayer, he got a treat and a pat and I brushed his legs. You HAVE to stay close to their shoulder and keep them on a small circle or it ends up with them just flying backwards across the paddock.

    He is much, much better, but it's taken nearly a year to get to this point. Small, slow steps. I can spray him while he's tied now...he wiggles a bit and protests from time to time by cocking a back leg, but he no longer tries to flee.

    Just use a wipe on repellent while desensitizing, no sense wasting all that pricey spray!

  7. I agree with both DIJ and Jenn--I should have been clearer...In either the round pen or a smaller space (stall) I would keep the halter and lead on her, so that, although she can move around me, I could still keep her head tipped towards me, standing even with her shoulder, and her hindquarters moving around or away. I would think if Dixie's that afraid of the spray, she would not invade your space, but I have one that will move into pressure, so with mine I would have to be extra careful not to let her push into me.

  8. Hey yall- I updated in a new post cause it was just TOO wordy. We really made good progress, I think, but it was rocky at first!

    DiJ - I really learned the value of being quiet when I picked up clicker training. Animals are usually listening to our body language, not our words, and I rarely verbally say anything except a long low "goooood girl" or a whistle or cluck to get her attention. Calm is always a challenge, but I'm getting better!

    Jenn, EvenSong - I'm afraid to push her too hard because she's so terrified. I don't want to get kicked or trampled, sure, but even more than that I don't want her to feel betrayed by me. I ended up just breaking it down into smaller and smaller pieces and I think we made really good progress today. I've got to keep at it though!


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