Train Your Horse to Relax in the Wash Rack
Many horses don’t like or don’t understand the wash rack and getting wet. Whatever the reason for the nervousness, it’s important to train your horse to relax in the wash rack. Horses need to see and experience different things to become well-rounded citizens, if you will. They also need medical care, which can be messy and needs a wash rack. Bathing is not an absolute necessity for our horses, but it’s a part of most horses’ lives. The wash rack experience for a horse should always be positive and relaxing. It’s your job to build trust and help your horse become desensitized to water.
Train with kindness, not flooding
- Many of us have seen a “colt starting” or “trailer loading” session where a horse goes from feral to perfectly trained in an hour. I have seen many of these in person – and they are a prime example of flooding.
- As a horse training technique, flooding is the worst. A prey animal, whose instincts are to stay alive, is asked to cope with a confusing and scary situation until they “get over it.” The result goes beyond fight and flight and into FREEZE mode. They have given up, and the stress it takes to get there often involves panic, massive sweat, and rapid breathing.
- The horrible idea behind flooding is that the horse learns to cope with a situation and will eventually adapt to the stressors. The concept of flooding causes the horse to ultimately decide the situation is not stressful by shutting down. But of course, it is stressful.
- But what happens before the horse freezes? They are subjected to massive mental and physical anxiety. Nothing about this technique is kind, and many accidents await during this process. Case in point, a horse repeatedly banging his legs and shoulder into a trailer to try and escape.
- Why would you force a horse to confront fear and confusion when there is a better way?
Positive reinforcement and desensitization is the kind alternative
- Desensitization helps horses become confident by learning piece by piece. Nothing is overwhelming. There is no force, there is no trauma, there is no physical and mental stress. Tasks are disassembled into small pieces, and new things are exposed in short bursts without pressure.
- Positive reinforcement is a safe and fun horse training method based on trust. Horses get rewards for desired behaviors. Once horses understand that actions equal rewards, they are motivated to repeat and build on the behavior.
- Combining desensitization and positive reinforcement can teach your horse the STEPS to a desired outcome without force and fear.
Help your horse succeed with these horse training tips
Make the washrack a safe place
- A horse may balk at the wash rack for many reasons. Do your best to be a mind reader and address those issues before you begin any training sessions.
- Is the footing grippy and not slippery?
- Can your horse see other horses?
- Are there frightening noises?
- Are muck tubs and brooms and other hazards near legs?
- Can your horse turn his head and look around a bit?
- Is there something behind the wash rack that’s scary?
- Quick-release straps are mandatory.
- Tidy up the space and make it as safe as possible before you continue.
Spend short bursts of time working with your horse
- There is no time limit on horse training. Instead, focus on the puzzle pieces, taking each task step individually. When you can string the pieces together, your horse will understand and all of a sudden – success.
- Take four or five minutes of your day to work on a step. Reward, reward, reward, then do something else. There is no reason to pressure your horse to do something repeatedly. The less you press, the more your horse will understand that your question is not a big deal.
- Some steps of a task will take 4 minutes. Others may take days or weeks. Don’t press your luck; stay kind and positive the whole way.
No bad vibes
- Horses know your attitude and mindset. Your horse will mirror your feelings if you are stressed, snippy, annoyed, or anything other than calm and patient.
- Prep your horse for successful training sessions
- Your horse’s attention won’t be on you if they are hungry, antsy, or need turnout. Before any training session, give your horse a full belly of forage, exercise, play, and interaction with other horses.
Keep wash rack hoses tidy for maximum safety
Step-by-step instructions for wash rack relaxation
- Break your training plan into steps to get to the barest bones of wash rack interactions and getting wet. Depending on your horse, you may need to be this detailed, or not. You may want to break up training portions like this:
- Your horse stands near the wash rack and relaxes.
- Your horse can stand closer.
- Your horse stands in the wash rack.
- Your horse can be groomed and handled in the wash rack.
- Then add water, step by step.
- Your horse sees a hose.
- Your horse sees a hose a little closer.
- Your horse sees a hose that has water flowing.
- The hose touches your horse, but is not turned on.
- The hose is turned on and touches your horse’s legs.
- You may need to separate the two scenarios so water desensitization happens away from the wash rack. Or, you can combine the two.
- Notice your horse’s reactions. Watch for fear and stress, and back up a step if necessary.
Many horses appreciate a nice soft pat for a job well done.
How to praise your horse after they relax in the wash rack
- The only time to go overboard with anything horse training is with praise.
- Speaking of praise, you don’t have to use treats. I learned this method from a book, using a clicker and treats. You can opt for a soft pat, kind words, a scratch, or any other form of reward and connection that your horse enjoys.
- Reinforce the task steps as your horse learns more steps. For example, even if your horse is reliably comfortable around hoses, reward when there’s a hose around. Willy-nilly.
- Over time, your horse will learn how to learn. You won’t need to bully or flood your horse into doing anything. Horses learn confidence when positive reinforcement is a training tool.
More on desensitizing your horse to water
- It’s tempting to bathe all of your horse when you reach the point of getting their lower legs wet. Resist! Ease your horse into a full bath over time, working up to it in steps.
- Use warm water when desensitizing to make bathing more comfortable.
- Add shampoo and products when you know your horse will stay relaxed for the rinsing.
- Some horses become ticklish when wet, and may stomp or fidget. Help your horse by using soft sweat scrapers, the kind with the rubber edge) to minimize drips and tickles. You may also find your horse wants to be toweled, or curry combed when wet to help minimize the ticklish feeling.
Now go forth and reward!
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