In this video clip I give Melissa some suggestions to help her hose-phobic horse get past his anxiety. I have found positive reinforcement to be the very best way to overcome spookiness issues in horses, it really helps them to choose to face their fears….and fear of hoses are no exception. To watch them make a decision to relax and let go of their worry is hugely reinforcing for me. Also, a huge benefit of the training is the level of the confidence that your horse will gain through the process. Offering something that your horse finds valuable will really grab his attention and help him to enjoy the learning process.
Before you begin working directly with the hose desensitization, I suggest you be sure he is solid with the bridge signal (clicker) as well as with the target training. Sometimes I just make an assumption that people know this part, so I forget to mention it! By getting a good start, and NOT cutting corners, you will make quicker progress. I am often heard saying “slow down, you’ll go faster” but it is true!! If you need more info on this process you may go to my blog post “Get your horse off to the right start for clicker training”. For an even better explanation of the science behind the training you may want to get my DVD and/or book “You Can train Your Horse to Do Anything”. I also forget that not everyone knows that I have a book or DVDs, so I thought I should mention it here just in case.
Whenever we are dealing with fear in our horses it is very important to keep the training within their comfort range, giving them time to slowly acclimate as we go. As I mention in the video clip, we need to look for signs of worry as well as relaxation. If a horse is standing looking soft and neutral, then he lifts his head as if something got his attention…that, to me, is the threshold that I want to recognize. This small action is communication pure and simple. It tells me that he may have become slightly concerned. I will not move forward with the next step in training until he looks totally relaxed again. Progressing nice and slowly will allow him time to acclimate. If we move too fast we will likely lose ground, as well as trust.
Some of the signs of relaxation might be…exhaling, relaxed head position or casual stance, soft focus, soft eyes, ears, jowls, lips and muscles, etc. These are not the only indicators, however they are some of the more common signs. Seeing some tension in any of these areas doesn’t necessarily mean that their mind is worried. My horse, Bugs has busy lips, they rarely look soft but it doesn’t mean he is uptight…it is just part of his personality. The same goes for the signs of relaxation. For example, a head down doesn’t necessarily mean a horse is relaxed. Horses are individuals so you need to know your horse and what his body language is saying. If this is a new concept for you, than I suggest you get an experienced horse person to help you recognize your particular horse’s body language. Also, watching him when he is turned out or interacting with his environment will also tell you a lot about your horse and how he deals with new situations.
I recommend you build relaxation into the criteria of every behavior you teach. Your horse may not be perfectly calm at first but you can look for little improvements. Bridging (clicking) and reinforcing for the smallest approximations toward your goal. After a while, being attentive and settled will just be a habit for him. However, it is important to only work on one criteria at a time. I recommend you start by working on one a particular element of the target behavior. Relaxation will be an ongoing criteria. So I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you focus on it completely, but keep a vigilant eye out for the times when it is offered. When you get a good approximation that is also calm I would draw a lot of attention to it by rewarding handsomely.
As with every new behavior, we really want to consider what we can do to set them up for success. Is there a place where your horse is more composed? Maybe the wash stall already has an unpleasant association, so starting somewhere else may help to put him more at ease. Hopefully you will get better responses and more opportunities to reinforce. Maybe he will be better after some exercise to take the edge off. Using a little common sense always helps!!
If you follow your horses lead by not going over threshold, while also using a high rate of reinforcement and keeping the sessions brief, you should be able to move forward without a hitch. If you go too fast and lose some ground, don’t sweat (we all do it sometimes), just take a step back and work a little slower, allowing your horse time to process the lessons. The next thing you know your horse will see a hose and think “hose=reinforcement”…you will be dragging him away from the hose! The video will give you a lot more info. Just holler if you have questions or comments!