A lot of people completely hate giving their horses baths because they know that the whole ordeal is going to be a struggle. The horse runs in a circle and constantly pulls away. Before long, the handler is soaked to the bone with soap suds clinging to their shirt, while the horse is spotlessly dry standing off having a good laugh.
Bathing doesn’t have to be a frustrating experience for you or your horse. If you follow my simple approach-and-retreat method that allows your horse to gain confidence in new experiences, you’ll have him begging to be bathed.
Success tip:Desensitize your horse to bathing after you’ve worked him, when he’s tired, hot, and sweaty. You’ll be amazed at how fast horses will learn to love being hosed off if you do it after a workout.
Prepare the horse for bathing by first desensitizing him to the hose and water, and give him a chance to accept the experience. Don’t tie your horse when desensitizing him. I can’t stress that enough. Anytime a prey animal, which the horse is, feels trapped and claustrophobic and can’t move his feet, he’ll feel his only other option is to fight (kick, bite, rear, lunge or strike). Instead, introduce your horse to the hose and water in an open area where there’s plenty of room for him to move his feet.
A 50-foot round pen is a perfect place to get started. Any sort of open space is what you’re looking for. You don’t want to be worried about your horse ramming you against a wall or panicking and pulling back against whatever he’s tied to. Round pens are ideal places to work horses because they allow the horse to move, but you don’t need 300 feet of hose to stay with him. Wherever you decide to work with your horse, be sure that the hose is plenty long so that you can follow him if he does move.
Don’t desensitize your horse to bathing in a wash rack or on concrete. Wash racks make a horse feel claustrophobic, and concrete, when wet, can get slippery and dangerous. If he’s frightened, his only option is to pull back against the halter and lead rope which could give him a serious neck injury.
Step 1. Stand by his shoulder. Stand by your horse’s shoulder at a 45 degree angle. If your horse would strike, you’re too far to the side to get hit. Or, if he should kick at you, you’re too far forward to be reached. Then tip his head so that his eyes are focused on you and you have his attention.
Step 2. Desensitize the air space. Start out by desensitizing the air space around your horse. The last thing you want to do is spray him with water right away. I usually start by spraying the ground around the horse’s back feet first. If your horse can’t tolerate the water next to his feet, there’s no way he’ll accept it on his body. You might have to start by spraying the ground four feet away from him. Find a starting point that your horse is comfortable with, and gradually work your way closer to his body. If he wants to move away from water being sprayed next to his feet, let him, but don’t take the water away.
Step 3. Follow him with the hose. Keep the water next to your horse. Follow him wherever he goes with the hose until he stands still and relaxes. If you take the water away from him when he’s moving away from you, you’ll only reinforce his wrong behavior.
Step 4. Reward relaxation. When your horse relaxes, he’ll lick his lips, cock a hind leg, take a deep breath, blink his eyes, lower his head and neck or stand still for at least 15 seconds. Once he shows signs of relaxing, retreat and take the water away.
Step 5. Repeat the process. Repeat the whole process again until your horse is completely comfortable with the water and doesn’t try to move away from it. You basically want to be able to spray water 360 degrees around him before you even think about touching his body with the water.
Step 6. Spray your horse. When your horse is comfortable around the water, start spraying water in the middle of his back, then work your way down his hindquarters and up his neck. Stay away from his head until his body is reasonably comfortable. Approach with the water, and keep it in the middle of his back until he relaxes. As soon as he relaxes, take the water away, and then begin the process again.
Step 7. Move to his back legs. When your horse accepts water being sprayed on his body, move on to his back legs. A lot of horses will be defensive about water touching their lower legs at first, but the higher up you go, the less defensive they’ll be. Remember, if you take the water away when your horse moves, you’ll teach him that to escape the water all he has to do is run from it.
Step 8. Move to his front legs. From the back legs, move the hose and water to your horse’s front legs, starting at the shoulder then going down.
Step 9. Switch sides. Switch sides and start to desensitize your horse’s other side to the water. Note that when you switch sides of a horse, you switch brains. Each side of the horse thinks independently from the other, so when you introduce something new to your horse, you have to treat each side as though you’re dealing with a completely different horse. Whatever you do on one side, do on the other. Standing at your horse’s shoulder, repeat Steps 2-8 on his other side.
Step 10. Move to his head. When your horse is comfortable being sprayed on his body, you can move to his head. When you do, don’t stand back and just spray him. Always give him the chance to accept new experiences. Horses aren’t necessarily worried about having water on their faces; they’re really worried about getting water in their ears.
When introducing water to your horse’s face, turn the pressure down on the hose to make it easier for him to accept it. Start out by laying the hose flat against his cheek, and let the water run down the side of his face. Then position the hose in the middle of his face and let the water run down. If he moves or lifts his head, keep the hose on his face and just follow him. Use the same approach-and-retreat method as before. Once he stands still and relaxes to the water running down his face, retreat. When he’s comfortable with low water pressure, you can gradually turn it up.
Clinton Anderson grew up in Queensland, Australia, learning to ride as a teenager and training with many of his country’s top horsemen. In 1997, he relocated to the United States to perfect his Downunder Horsemanship program. Under Anderson’s guidance, horses learn to respect and respond to their handlers, developing willing partnerships. To learn more about Downunder Horsemanship, Clinton Anderson Walkabout Tours, and more, visit www.downunderhorsemanship.com.