How do I teach my horse to tolerate handling?
I have a semi-rigid list of “bad animal/human behaviors” that I just can’t tolerate. This list includes dogs that jump up on people, husbands that leave socks on the floor, and horses that don’t tolerate head to toe handling and touching. Horses are just too big to mess around with, their ground manners must be in place and they must be able to tolerate handling. It shouldn’t even be a discussion - horses need to know the rules and be OK with handling, every single day. This is critically important when their health and well being is on the line - taking temps, giving oral meds, treating wounds.
We have all spent some time with the horse that doesn’t like this, or won’t tolerate that, or steps aside if we do this, and definitely freaks the heck out if you do that. As owners, Grooms, and handlers, we have a responsibility to try and work through these issues as a matter of safety (and principle). For example, you have a horse that is head shy. You are at risk of getting bonked, your horse could move to avoid you and bonk himself, or when you really need to get a halter on, you can’t. Or, you have a horse that stomps and objects when your handle the udders or sheath. You will likely need sedation to clean these areas, but what if there is an injury in that area that needs cleaning and medication daily?
Can you touch your horse's ears without any drama?
How do we go about teaching the horse to dealing with handling - all over? Well, a lot of this involves desensitization, which is basically saying “I know it bugs you, but we are going to do this a little at a time until you get over yourself.” More formally, it’s training to reduce the horse’s response to some adverse action by repeatedly exposing your horse to that action. Some of it also involves establishing yourself as the boss horse and setting boundaries with very clear consequences - praise when the behavior is correct and correction when the behavior needs adjustment.
Does your horse take oral meds without a fight? What about without a halter? More on that topic here.
Here are some basic guidelines for the desensitization process:
- Use tiny steps. Instead of saying “Today I will clean his sheath”, think “Today I will approach his sheath area and reward him. Then think “Tomorrow, I will move one millimeter further or stay one second longer”.
- Work on it every single day. No exceptions. (Even when he’s perfected tolerating something, keep practicing.)
- Work on it for a few minutes or less. You can always scratch his favorite spot, approach is least favorite spot, and then go back to the favorite spot.
- End on a good note. Always! Getting into a fight will only take you back to square one.
- Praise, praise, praise. Often, a horse that gets his very own praise party will quickly learn that the irritating action (you touching his “whatever”) is worthy of a party and his issues will go away quickly.
- Only praise when he is calm and still. If you praise when he’s tossing around, he will get the wrong idea. The use of clicker training techniques is great here!
I love the clicker to help train good behaviors!
- You can also use the approach and retreat technique. For example, if he doesn’t like the clippers near his face, work them up his neck while turned off, then go back down his neck and reward. The goal is to only go so far as he remains calm and happy, then retreat. If you approach too far and he “wigs out”, a retreat at that point teaches him that you will back down if he goes nuts. If you approach too far and he “wigs out” and you stay there, it can quickly become dangerous if you enter into a battle of wills, of which it’s likely you will lose.
Desensitization also works for scary spooky weird things that possibly will eat your horse.
- Don’t press your luck with something if it’s just not going to happen despite working for weeks, months, and even years. Some horse have that “one thing” that they will never, ever, ever get over. For some, it’s ears, for some, it’s sprinklers, for some it’s shadows, you get the idea.
- Ask for help! It’s always a good idea to get help from a trainer or other Professional if you are not making any progress.
- Be safe when you are working on your horse’s “no” areas - don’t get trapped between him and a wall, don’t have “stuff” in the aisle that he can step on, and definitely don’t tie him up if his reaction could be less than stellar. Grab a friend to help you!
You can also train your horse to stand still for injections - more on that here!
What has worked for you?