Saturday, May 9, 2009


I have honestly watched frustrated people yell at their horse "why aren't you listening?? I told you to stand still!!" while washing their panic-striken horse. I wanted to walk up to them and point out that their horse is not listening to what they "told" him earlier because he does not understand english...but it was probably a bad time.

First off, just a little point: don't wash your horse if it is not absolutely necessary! A horse's coat has a lot of natural oils and dirt that are essential to his well-being, from keeping insects off to protecting him against the elements. Washing all those minerals and dirt off is like my taking away your coat in mosquito season while we're fishing on the lake. Or while we walking in the rain. Not exactly ideal. So if you do not absolutely have to wash your horse (such as for a show), don't do it. If your horse is sweated up and you feel he needs a rinse, at least skip the shampoos that can strip his coat of much-needed essentials. And allow him to roll afterwards - his coat needs it!

Okay, so back to the topic. Most horses hate having water sprayed over them. They fidget, they rear, they won't come within ten feet of the wash rack. Why? They're is not because they are stupid. The best thing you can do is to achieve a high level of trust* between you and your horse. A high level of trust in you = a high level of trust in your leadership = your horse follows your leadership. Just as an example, my flighty Quarab will be poking along when he spots the Velocoraptor (aka funny looking rock) hidden in the bush. If he's not following my leadership, if I have not earned my place as leader in his book, he's going to take leadership into his own hands and book it for the nearest spot he deems safe. However if I have earned a sufficiently high level of trust for him to trust my leadership abilities, he'll flick an ear back at me, ask if it's okay, I'll reply with an "yea no worries bud, I'll keep the Veloco at bay", and he'll relax and move on, no questions asked. Same follows for the washrack. If he can trust my leadership, he can trust whatever I throw at him. He might not particularly enjoy the water, but he can be relaxed being sprayed because he trusts that his leader - me, will keep him safe from the water dragons lurking in the hose. Our off-track Thoroughbred Link was extremely fidgety in the washrack to the point of rearing and kicking at us...sort of a problem because at the time we purchased him he had to be washed daily (ring worm...long story). As we worked quietly and patiently with him though he learned he could stand still no matter what we threw at him.

So, how do we earn that trust? By working quietly around our horses. Acting predictably (no slapping for "misbehaviour"...that's unpredictable in a horse's books), quietly, and patiently. Using approach and retreat rather than forcing them into some situation. Playing with them in such a way that they gain trust in us, where they can learn to read our body language, understand what we are asking, and thus trust us because they can read us. Just hanging out with them! Chilling with your grazing horse or just rubbing him quietly out in the pasture or in his stall is one of the biggest yet easiest trust-earning tasks you can do - spend un-demanding time together, time where you do nothing but enjoy one another's company. As a side note though, always make sure you are maintaining a balanced level of respect in your relationship with that trust. Establishing trust does not = no respect, allowing your horse to march all over you.

As far as the actual water issue (which resolves too as you earn that trust), start at the legs and work your way up so that the horse has a chance to acclimatize itself to the water. Use lukewarm water if possible, rather than bone-chilling teeth-clattering water. Use approach and retreat. Retreat when the horse seems uncomfortable (ie. remove the water from that particular area), approach when he is relaxed (ie. move the water back up to the "uncomfortable" area as he is calm)...and keep doing so, moving the water further and further over the horse's body each time. Take a break (even turn the water off, but at the least remove it completely from the horse) when the horse does particularly well and stands calm and relaxed. Above all, remain relaxed yourself! A yelling, negatively-charged and tense predator hanging at the end of the horse's leadrope does not exactly encourage relaxation in the horse. Look at it from the horse's perspective.

*Just as a quick aside, having trust in you and having trust in your leadership are not the same thing. A horse can trust that you are not going to hurt him, but a higher level of trust is necessary for the huge bunny rabbit to have trust that you can keep him safe from Velocoraptors (aka plastic bags, funny-shaped rocks, cars, grass poking at funny angles...etc) hurting (read: killing) him.

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