I recently adopted a 5 year old Morgan who is terrified of the fly spray bottle. He tries to turn and bolt if he just hears it spray. I've gotten him to allow me to spray him on his left side but when I try to spray his right side he again, tries to bolt or if I'm holding him he'll act like he wants to rear up. Any suggestions on how I can help him?
Well, it is that time of year again, well at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. This is a common dilemma and one that is easily remedied using positive reinforcement. Horses, often times, don't seem to like the feel of the spray touching them. Then they start putting together that sound (of the spray bottle) means I am about to have the feeling of being sprayed that I don't like. Next thing you know they start identifying the bottle that leads to the sound, which leads to the feeling they don't like. It is a whole process of association. Utilizing positive reinforcement we can rebuild the association with fly spray to one that they look forward to instead of one they want to avoid. Since food is a very strong motivator it goes a long way toward building a new reinforcement history. Everything our horses do is because of an existing reinforcement history, either they are seeking something they want (positive reinforcement) or they are avoiding something the don't want (negative reinforcement). Every behavior your horse does or doesn't do is because of this associative learning. Okay, enough of the Psych 101 lesson...let's get down to what can be done.
So, Brandi, I suggest starting with a spray bottle filled with water so you are not wasting fly spray during the training process. I know the bigger problem is on his right side but I would suggest starting on the left side. We want to go through the small steps on the left side first since we will have the most success there and this will allow us the most opportunity for reinforcement. During this process we will be building a good association with the fly spray, so by the time we get to the more troublesome right side we have a little more...well, clout. You may also let him smell the bottle before you get started, sometimes this helps them settle a bit. I usually start by standing next to the horse with one hand on his shoulder or flank. Touching them usually has a calming effect but it also allows me to feel their level of anxiety. With the other hand I reach out and spray the bottle in the opposite direction. I try to make it as far away as I can reach at first. Since his reaction to the spraying seems to be a bit more severe, I suspect he may get a bit tense. Keep spraying until you detect the slightest bit of relaxation. Often times I feel it first in their bodies but it may be that you see the head lower slightly or the eyes and nostrils soften. When you sense relaxation you want to click and reinforce. You may use another bridge signal besides a clicker (verbal, whistle, etc) but I will refer to the bridge signal as a click for this post. It is important to keep in mind that your horse will remember what he was doing when he earned the click so you want to click on the behavior you would like to see repeated. In this case you want relaxation.
We are starting where he is most comfortable because it is one of the ways you can set him up for success. If you start with the troubled side you probably wouldn't get a chance to draw attention to the correct behavior since he is less likely to stand still. Also try to think what other things you can do to ensure his success. Does he have a place he is more comfortable? Is he better after a turn out or some exercise? You may fade these things out down the line but for now if it may help him to be more relaxed. Another thing I would recommend is to give him a choice. If you can work him without a halter and lead rope that would be the best way to start. Maybe in a stall or round pen or even a paddock. But at the very least have him in a halter with a lead rope but don't use it to restrain him. Keep it as slack as possible and allow him to wander to the end of the lead rope if he chooses. He will be more relaxed and progress faster when he feels he has options. When using positive reinforcement the horse is very interested in training since their is something in it for him so he will make good decisions as he builds a new reinforcement history.
Next, when he is consistently standing quietly for this spraying into the air, slowly begin closing the angle getting nearer to his body. You may also start with spraying it downward and slowly move it upward. Never move the spray bottle closer until he is absolutely relaxed with the previous step. Continue with this process. When he is ready for the spray to touch him I recommend starting with the lower legs. They are usually the least reactive to the spray touching their legs, however, they are individuals and he may respond differently. The idea is to start where he will be the most relaxed. By now he should have the idea that relaxation is what gets him rewarded so he will be trying to practice this new behavior. Continue with the same slow, gradual process while spraying different areas of his body. Reinforce for relaxation and good choices.
It is important to allow him time to process his lessons. Don't start out with the expectation of spraying him on the first day. All good training is a series of small, clear steps called successive approximations. I recommend allowing him to set the pace. It may be a few days or maybe a week. It is better to go too slow then too fast. I also suggest doing short sweet sessions. Keep them around 5 minutes and lots of food reinforcement. Since the presence of the fly spray bottle probably still brings him some anxiety at this point the short session can serve as a reinforcement in the early stages.
Okay, once he is rock solid on the left side it is time to start the process again but this time on the right side. The left side probably went pretty well since he isn't as worried about that side. However, the time spent on the left side will serve us well on the right. We have taught him how to behave when he is being sprayed, to stand quietly and not because he has no choice but because there is something in it for him. In the process he has learned that the spray bottle is a good thing, not to be feared. However, we should not assume the same lesson will carry directly over to the right side, often times it doesn't at first. I suspect he will progress quickly through the steps this time but, again, I let him dictate the pace. As you get him solid on both sides, I would suggest trying not to startle him by spraying him when he isn't expecting it. Maybe give him a bit of a warning shot off to the side. This way he know what is coming next. Even the most seasoned horse can still be startled by a sudden spray. When he is calm and confident about the whole process I suggest moving to actual fly spray. Keep in mind the smell may remind him of the old association. So take a couple steps back to start. This will help remind him of the new process. Also, this is petty much a no brainer but I want to remind everyone to never spray fly spray around your horse's face or eyes. Spraying a little on a washcloth and rubbing the areas will work better.
I made an assumption that your horse knows about the early stages of clicker training...if not there is a little more info on the first video in this free series: http://www.despookingyourhore.com
Okay Brandi, I know this sounds like a lot of steps but I just want to cover as many steps as possible. Your horse will probably fly right through some parts and slower at others but it won't be long until fly spray is a non-issue. As he has consistently shown he is unfazed by the whole process you may slowly start to fade how often you feed him for the correct behavior. I would still recommend feeding him now and then, as a way to say thank you but it won't be necessary to maintain his calm attitude about fly spray. If you have more questions or need some help along the way please let me know, I am happy to help. The same goes for anyone else reading this post. I would to hear your thoughts and comments. If you know of someone who is having a similar issue, please share this post with them via the Facebook, Twitter or email buttons below. Thanks guys!!