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Fly Spray and How to Teach a Horse to Accept It

By Shawna Karrasch

Well, it is that time of year again, well at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. 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.
I suggest starting with a spray bottle filled with water so you are not wasting fly spray during the training process. I would suggest starting on the left side of the horse. 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. 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. 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.
Another thing I would recommend is to give the horse 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 there 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. 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 pretty 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 be a better solution.
About the Author: Shawna began her career training animals not at the barn but in the pools at Sea World of California with killer whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. Shawna worked 10 years to become an animal behavior expert and perfecting her skills of a successful positive reinforcement training foundation. In 1992, Shawna saw her first Grand Prix in Del Mar and from there, wanted to learn more about how horses were trained, and was fascinated by the possibility of applying Sea World’s tried and true system to horses. Teaming up with prominent Show Jumper Vinton Karrasch, Shawna took her new training methods to top trainers John and Beezie Madden to further grow and progress these successful training techniques. Today, Shawna runs the On Target Training operation out of San Marcos, CA.