Written by: Monty Gwynne

Teach your horse to actually enjoy having fly spray applied, one small step at a time.

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It’s summertime, and that means bugs, bugs and more bugs! So, it’s time to pull out the insect repellant. But what do you do if your horse runs the other way as soon as she sees the bottle? In this article, we will apply the principles of clicker training to fly spray application, so that your horse will actually enjoy the process.

Getting Started

Let’s assume that your horse will tolerate spraying, but is not really relaxed about it, moves around and would leave if she could. There are many ways to teach her to stand still using positive reinforcement and the clicker, but let’s explore using the technique of free shaping.

Here’s what you need to get ready to shape this behaviour:

1. Fill a spray bottle with warm water.

2. Find a secure pen or paddock your horse will feel comfortable in while you train.

3. Place your horse in the pen or paddock and take off her halter. When using free shaping, we are letting her choose to be sprayed, so she needs to be free to move to where she is comfortable.

4. Bring your treats and spray bottle into the pen. Your horse will probably approach you; if so, click and treat. If she will touch the spray bottle, even better. Click and reward for that too, as you want the horse to associate the bottle with good things.

Shaping the Behaviour

If your horse doesn’t approach because she is leery of the spray bottle, start by targeting the bottle. Use your fist as the target, with the bottle sitting on something nearby, and gradually move your fist closer to the bottle (while clicking and treating) until they’re right next to each other. Then see if she will target the bottle. When she is comfortable with this, carry on as above.

After your horse has approached, and gotten her treat, do not go directly to spraying her. As humans, we really are goal-oriented, and must resist this urge. Instead, follow these steps:

1. After your horse has approached and received her treat, turn your back and walk away. Spray away from her towards the ground. You can click and treat for her staying, or bets are she will follow you and you can click and treat for that too.

2. After doing this successfully a few times, see if you can you spray towards her, pointing the spray downwards not at her head. Aiming lower on the body is less threatening and less likely to invoke a flight response. Note that since you have raised your spray criteria you might need to add distance again before spraying towards her while standing close.

3. When she is comfortable with the spraying away and towards her, see how she is with the feel of the spray. Start by seeing if she is comfortable with the bottle touching her side before spraying. When she is okay with the bottle in your hand stroking her you can then try spraying a fine mist close to her while continuing to stroke her with your hand. See how this goes. Go slowly and start with a safe spot on your horse, perhaps the back or shoulder. If the feel of the spray is bothering to her then spray on your hand and just let a bit spray onto her.

4. Remember to do both sides as the response may be different from side to side.

5. Don’t try “get it done” in one session, especially if your horse has not had great times being sprayed before. Keep your sessions short. Use a high rate of reinforcement to start, and eventually build up the duration so you can spray the entire horse and only click and treat once.

Recognize the Threshold

A critical part to free shaping a behaviour is having the ability to read the horse’s emotional state and stay below what we call “threshold” so that you do not, in this case, cause her to leave you. So, remember to monitor your horse’s emotions and if there is anxiety, lower the criteria by moving away in order to make sure she is still comfortable.

You have to focus, be “in the moment,” so that you can recognize stress and relaxation in your horse. This in itself takes some practice. Most humans just want to go in and get the job done and not worry about the fallout from going over threshold and scaring the animal. Clicker trainers recognize threshold and do everything they can to stay under threshold to start with to achieve optimal learning.

Building on the Behaviour

Soon, when your horse sees you with the spray, she will come running. In fact, if you time it right, you could shape walking towards the spray as the desired behaviour. If she walks towards the spraying, she is rewarded. This builds into: you spray, she walks forward into the spray, you click, stop spraying and treat. With clicker training you can decide how you want to teach the behaviour, so don’t be afraid to think outside of the normal box.

For now though, be patient and start small. Decide what you want in the way of behaviour, progressively raising the criteria as you monitor emotions, until your horse eventually reaches a point of total relaxation while spraying her. For the next steps in the process please see www.horse-canada.com/pony-fairy/spray-away