So much of working with horses, or really any animal for that matter, is teaching them how to respond to new “threats” in life. Teaching a horse to respond in a healthy way keeps both the horse AND the rider safe. Think about trail riding and any jumping competition- most of the obstacles that are encountered are designed to test the horse’s ability to respond in a safe and healthy way. We took a look at Stacy Westfall’s recent video on teaching a foal about the clipping experience and there were a few great takeaways that apply not only to horse care, but to horse training as well!
The earlier a horse becomes comfortable with new experiences, the easier it is to train him/her. That’s why desensitizing a foal to common experiences like shaving is so important. A foal that learns to respond and adapt to experiences young is going to be much easier to train and correct behavior with.
As you’re teaching your foal a new experience or introducing them to a new potentially “scary” thing like shaving or shoeing, start with baby steps. What Stacy Westfall does in this video is so key because she starts with the sound from a distance and lets the foals get comfortable with that. Then, she comes a little bit closer. Later, after the foals are comfortable with the next steps, she THEN goes up to the foal with the shaver. It takes time and whether it’s for grooming, or for maneuvers, we all forget that we need to take things in small chunks. The positive reinforcement is a strong foundation and if you rush it, you’re really only making it harder on yourself in the long run!
Make It Fun
Notice how Stacy makes it a pleasurable experience for the foals? When she finally gets to the point of touching the horse with the shaver, she doesn’t actually start shaving at first. She’s rubbing the horse down and just having the back side of the clippers touch the horse. The horse thinks this is just a really noisy massage! Again, this is positive reinforcement and desensitization at the same time.
Keep Up The Fun!
Notice how when Stacy finally starts the actual shaving, she is using both hands. One hand is doing the clipping itself, while the other hand is rubbing and patting the horse. Because she’s desensitized the foal so much already, she doesn’t need to use her free hand to help hold the horse in any way. Instead, she is helping the foal continue to experience that good, positive feeling.
What could be a very scary thing for many animals, can actually become a positive experience. If someone came swinging at you with a loud, buzzing object that had blades, you would back away too. It’s important to approach horses with the realization that most daily care and maintenance activities can be a positive thing for them, if we let it. It’ll also allow us to get much more cooperation out of our horse. Remember, any new experience can be a positive one!