Although we would all like to think so, our horses aren’t all perfect. Just like people they each have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies that make them unique, which can be challenging for us as the humans who love them. They can get awfully nervous about the littlest things for such big creatures. Over the years I’ve noticed that one of these things tends to be the big, bad, scary water hose.
Most horses are accustomed to having a bath, but there are some who do not react well to the hose because they are not used to it and find it inherently scary, or they have been abused in some manner with it (you would be surprised). I have seen reactions vary from some light fidgeting to a full-on horsey panic attack. Success in this scenario is all about desensitization. Here are some useful ways to get your anxious horse ready for a bath:
1. First thing’s first: if you don’t have another handler to help you, don’t just tie your horse up and expect things to go swimmingly, regardless of how well your horse ties. You need to be able to move with your horse if necessary so that they don’t hurt themselves or destroy something. If you have an extremely nervous horse, start by simply uncoiling the hose by the wash stall (or wherever you bathe your horse), and walk them by until they’ve been desensitized. Make sure you do this on both sides of the horse. Once they’re used to it, it’s good to have someone else move it enough so that the horse notices it’s in a different spot, and walk them by again until they calm down. Try to do this a few times so that they know the hose isn’t going to hurt them just because it’s in a new spot.
2. Take the hose (turned off) and gently move it around your horse. Start from farther away and begin to move closer as the horse begins to react to it less and less. Do this on both sides, the front, and the rear (being careful in this instance not to stand directly behind the horse with a scary moving object). I like to drag the hose around the horse so that they get used to the sound. Eventually you should be able to drag the hose between your horse’s feet without causing a problem. This process may take longer with some horses than others, but it will be worth it to teach your horse that there is nothing to fear. Ideally, you should be able to touch your horse with the hose (again, turned off), before moving on to the next step.
3. Time to turn the water on! Some horses are desensitized enough by this point to actually give them a bath, but other horses are still scared or don’t like the cold water. If your horse isn’t reacting well, start by moving the water around them without actually touching them. Let the water hit the ground around them for a while until they’ve stopped reacting to it. Again, this should be done all around the horse.
4. Touch the water to your horse’s feet. They may begin to dance around a little, but stick with it until they’ve gotten used to the water touching each of their feet and can stand still during this step.
5. Move the water slowly up each leg until the horse is used to the sensation on each leg, similar to the previous step.
6. At this point, I like to let the hose run on the horse’s chest, back, and rump until they’re used to each, respectively. Some horses, like mine, don’t like the feeling of cold water running down their bodies so this is an important step for them to be desensitized to. We are looking here to train a horse to stand still for this entire process so this is a big step.
7. It’s generally not a great idea to just hose your horse’s whole face (I doubt any horse would actually enjoy this—most people don’t), but it can be a good idea to turn the hose onto a light spray mode—or put your thumb over part of the end—and hold it up so they can get used to the water droplets gently falling on their face. Be careful not to get water in your horse’s ears.
8. By this time, your horse should be well desensitized to the hose so you should be able to do your shampoo and conditioner. Until you can trust them, it’s a good idea to have someone hold your horse while you bathe them.
I used to work with a horse who’s barn-mate was terrified of the hose. That horse’s owner would simply tie him to a fence and have at it, making the horse’s fear jump from one to ten in a matter of seconds. She would tie him up really short so he would have nowhere to go, and he would swing his hindquarters back and forth repeatedly, smacking the fence with it every time he switched sides. If he was not tied, he would run circles around whoever was holding him and trying to hose him. This is a horse who had clearly never been desensitized to the hose and was being forced to have a bath without first understanding that he wasn’t going to be hurt and that this could be a pleasant experience.
Desensitizing can be a long, slow process, but it can prevent a lot of frustration during bath time. My horse, Moose, used to hate baths when I first got him. I realized that this was because he didn’t like the feeling of water dripping off of his belly, so watch out for this with your own horses. He’s used to the sensation now, but I used to have to use a sweat scraper on him constantly to keep him from getting too nervous. He’s never been a big fan of the hose, or really anything that sprays anything at all, but he’s gotten used to everything over the years and has learned to grin and bear it. It’s taken a lot of time and effort to get him where he is now with baths, and most of the time I didn’t have another handler to help me. If you are an experienced and confident handler that’s ok, as long as the horse isn’t completely losing their mind.
Take the time to observe and identify exactly what part of the process your horse isn’t comfortable with and maybe address that singularly as opposed to going through each of the steps. Bathing can and should be a fun and rewarding part of your relationship with your horse. Taking the time to work an anxious horse into being desensitized to a bath can be a great bonding experience, not to mention a necessity for many in the show ring.