Thursday, March 28, 2013

Wash Stall Training Progress

Tuesday, I was somewhat short of time but wanted to get in short rides on both of the boys in the afternoon, so Red and I didn't work on the wash stall (see previous post on this), even though his legs and feet were nasty with mud.  There was no point in working on it when I might feel time pressure - that wasn't the right atmosphere for this sort of thing - it would hold to another day.

Yesterday, I did have time, so we worked on the wash stall again.  As I had suspected, the progress we'd made held well - breaks like this sometimes advace the training more than just keeping on working on it actively - it gives the horse time to process.  After one brief hesitation on the first try - I had to tap him on the side with the lead only a couple of times - he was taking nice steps, one at a time, backing a step or two at my ask and then leading forward again.  We led in and stood for a bit, then led in and I ran the water.  All was good.  I put him away for a while, and groomed Pie.

When we came out again, the moment of hesitation on first coming to the wash stall was even briefer - all I did was move towards his side and he stepped forward - no need to tap with the lead rope - you could almost hear him saying, "alright, alright, I get it".  After than he led right in, stopped and stood with the water running, and led out just about perfectly.  Ho hum - that's how it should be.  The next time I led in, and had him standing there, I started hosing his legs as if it was no deal.  He stood there on a loose lead, relaxed, and we completed the hosing.  Back to his stall as a reward.

The things I would emphasize that work for me: breaking it down into very small steps and being very specific about the exact thing you want at each stage; offering the horse choices and then rewarding the choice you want; timing releases of pressure the instant you get a response you want - the foot stepping forward, not the foot reaching the ground, for example - you're rewarding the try, not the completion of the action and can shape and perfect the response as you go; lots, and lots, and lots of praise at each small increment of progress; not trying to get everything done at once, or have things perfect; taking lots of breaks after short work sessions - if you're doing something in the arena, for example, just taking a walk around for a few minutes can be a break.  I'm always amazed how people ask horses to do something - there was a horse in the arena yesterday that wouldn't go in one corner, and the person riding never gave the horse a break, or any praise, but just kept asking for more, and more and more - I've seen people do this with trailer loading - the horse eventually gave in but the horse wasn't happy and never got the opportunity to make a choice.  I'm not even sure the horse understood what the rider wanted, since there were never any releases or rewards.

It isn't about getting the horse in the wash stall, it's about how the horse gets in the wash stall, how the horse stands in the wash stall, how the horse gets out of the wash stall, and most importantly, how the horse feels about things at every step of the way.

I wouldn't start work like this with a horse until basic leading and your personal space were well-established, and the horse knows how to respond to soft pressure by moving away from it.  Working in close with a horse that doesn't understand these things can be dangerous. I would also caution that a horse that is afraid, or nervous/anxious close to fear, would likely require somewhat different handling - I've had very good success with clicker training in these cases (clicker can be useful for other things too - I started my work with Red on hoof handling using clicker - his behavior when having his feet handled when I got him was dangerous - clicker is a quick way to convince the horse that maybe paying attention to something you want is a good idea).  Too many people assume a horse is just saying "no" when the horse is fearful or anxious - that's where many of the "make them do it" "training" techniques come from.


  1. I really like how you work with your horses. I read your blog all the time and you are quite an inspiration. I find that the clicker works well with my mare in scary situations. She knows the "touch it" command, so when she is afraid of something, I have her touch it and then she is okay with it.
    Great job working on the wash stall with your boy.

    1. Allison - thanks for your kind comments - I've had lots of good teaching, including most importantly from my horses - and I've had to learn how to do things differently from how I learned to work with horses. My horses say that I'm a slow learner, and they sometimes get frustrated with me, but that I'm slowly getting there - there's always more to learn and further to go - that's what I love about working with my horses.

    2. Allison summed up my thoughts exactly Kate. (The "touch it" command is such a great way to turn anxiety into curiosity.)

      Ground work is very helpful in highlighting our responsibilities in the saddle too. Success comes when you practice patience, awareness (being in the moment) and positive attitude.

    3. The horses really do teach us the most. I have just begun to dive into the horse world and I am soaking up information all the time! I often weed out stuff that doesn't or won't work for us, but I still love learning!

  2. I agree that if you break it down into small steps and reward the try then the horses seem to understand what is being asked of them. I find that once they are shown the right way they usually will do what is asked without a fuss. In my book it all comes down to being fair and precise. Sounds like Red is a wash stall star now.

  3. Rewarding a small step (even a lean) in the right direction is so important. I could not agree more with your technique and finesse. I have gentled a few horses to the wash stall in quite the same way that you described. In each case, I made sure the horse understood that he could always leave. As long as I did this, the horse became more and more willing to stay and then the desire to leave disappeared.

    I have been frustrated by people making extensive demands without rewarding the initial goal. For example, there was a woman (a tactless rider by anyone's standards) riding/schooling a lesson horse one day. This horse did not like to canter. After many attempts, she finally got him to pick up the gait, but instead of praising him, she said aloud, "and now you are going to keep going". She cantered him around and around. I was so angry that I could not contain myself and called to her, "so his reward for cantering is to keep cantering forever?". She was very angry with me, but I didn't care. She was ignorant to the horse's perspective and was probably only making him like cantering even less.

  4. Your last two paragraphs are perfect! If only everyone understood this.


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