Ear Phobia! And other scary things
**Sorry this is so long**
So, my new horse is a little spooky. Not horribly, but just enough to be annoying. =)
From age 3-8, he had been basically a pasture ornament with an elderly mare and didn't really experience much excitement. I bought him a few months ago and my barn has about 8 other boarders and 8 lesson horses. Needless to say, he's been seeing a lot of new things! Whenever there's something new, he'll shy from it until he's passed it like 10 times. He's had a couple "HOLY COW RUN AWAY!!!" events too.
Aaaanyways, my trainer recommended that I "give him the bag treatment" to get him used to strange noises/movements. Basically, she said to get bags (paper, plastic, grain bags, grocery bags, etc) and have him sniff them, walk over them, allow them to lay across his back, rub him with them while crinkling them, etc, etc.
So, I tried it. And he was great! After 5 minutes he would walk, trot, and canter over them. I had them draped over his back from withers to rump and he walked around while they fell off. BUT if they got anywhere near his ears or face or chin...FREAK OUT! He'd toss his head, do an amazing turn on the haunches, and run the other direction.
Tonight, I tried again with the same result. I then ditched the bag and just rubbed my hands all over his ears, face, and chin. He didn't really like it, but eventually he started getting snuggly and let me do whatever I wanted. But, the second I got that bag near his ears...RUN!!!
1) do you think I should continue with the bag thing?
2) do you have any other suggestions for building his confidence with new scary things? Or desensitizing him to scary things?
3) do you think that I could be doing any harm with the scary bags? He really trusts me and I don't want to lose that. He hasn't shown that he's afraid of me at all, just the bags. He always comes back to me looking for a pat or cookie.
I don't think you will cause harm with the bag thing if you are not forcing them on him in any way. It sounds like you are trying to let him accept them when he is ready to, which is good.
I think it it important to get him okay with things being around his face, ears, eyes, neck. There are blankets that pull over the head, hoods, fly masks, clippers, and many other things that horses are regularly expected to have on and around their faces. starting with a crinkly sounding bag might be a bit ambitious. Maybe start with a towel or cloth. Get to where you can rub him gently all over the face - make it like a massage. Then see if you can gently cover up parts of his face with it (eyes, ears, etc.). Don't force it - make a fun game out of it. Try different things to touch around his face that are less scary than a bag. When he accepts many things without concern, try again with the bag, but try to hold it so it doesn't make much noise at first. try to just rub it quietly over him like you did the cloth. Over time, you might be able to allow the back to make a bit more noise. Eventually, you might want to touch him with a set of unplugged clippers all over his body as well, and practice putting pull over blankets and hoods on him. Even working up to using a set of clippers on him at some point would be good. You never know when you might need to use one of these "scary" items on your horse.
I know you will likely never have a reason to put a bag on your horse'sj face, but getting him to where he can trust you enough that he knows anything you do to him will not hurt him is really imporant.
I see what you're saying that maybe the big plastic grain bag was a little ambitious! He's perfectly fine with his fly mask, over-the-head blankets, brushes, towels, etc. I've even played a game with small hand towel where I'd throw it and try to hang it on his ears. He didn't mind at all! But then again, I use small towels on him everyday to wipe his nose, etc. Maybe I'll cut the bag down to like 1/8th of its size for actually touching onto his head.
Some horses take long time to get used to the plastic things and scary objects close to their face. I did it with mine. One was OK in couple sessions, other was shaking for quite a long time when it approached her head. Try to do it very-very slow and not making any noise - just bring close enough. And start with approaching his nose, so he can see what is coming. Then move to the side of head. I also did give them carrots and petted like crazy every time they let me do it.
The key to him accepting the bag around his head is approach and retreat. Rub the bag on his withers and gradually make your way up towards his neck but DON'T SNEAK AROUND HIM! Use rhythm in your body and have your body language be very relaxed. Whenever you come to a spot where he tenses up, puts his head up, shakes his head, or otherwise becomes unconfident stay at that spot and wait until he relaxes, then retreat to a spot where he is confident. Or, whenever you hit an unconfident spot take the bag away really fast and back to his withers. Move it up, then quickly back, up and quickly back. The main thing is that you DON'T want to take the bag AWAY when he is tense. Otherwise you are teaching him to be tense! lol.
I think bags are great for desensatizing. With the babys I use a bandana that I have been wearing so it smells like me and play hide and seek with it covering the face, ears nose. When they get good at it I will tie it around their ears and play pirate, bandit, washer women or what ever after awhile they like it. Guess I should take some pics of it, kinda cute. I trail ride so I try to get them accustomed to anything we might run into. Plastic bottles making that crackling noise, opening a bottle of pop with its pffft noise. Velcro being pulled etc. you get the idea.
Added info: I just remembered with a QH we used to have we started out feeding her from the plastic grocery bag. That worked wonders. Just hold it in your hand with some feed in it while she eats.
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