How Do I Train My Horse to Accept Fly Spray?

Dr. Nancy Diehl shares her thoughts on using clicker training to help a horse get used to having fly spray applied.
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How Do I Train My Horse to Accept Fly Spray?
Topical insecticides can help provide more immediate protection against the disease. | Photo: iStock
Q: Can you tell me, step-by-step, how I can use learning theory to get my horse to allow me to use a spray bottle on her to apply fly and insect repellant?


A: First I would like to be clear none of this is of my own invention. It’s based on simple behavior modification theory and methods I learned from Dr. Sue McDonnell (PhD, Cert. AAB), Shawna Karrasch, and others, including students who ran with these techniques to do various behavior research projects.

The overall objective is for your horse to know that when he does something correct, he gets a reward. You will simply ignore unwanted behaviors. Begin by rewarding just the tiniest part of a behavior that you like, building from small steps into bigger expectations. This is called “successive approximation.”

You want to be able to tell your horse immediately that the little thing he just did was what you wanted. So to expedite this, you first must get your horse to associate a food reward, which is a primary reinforcer, with what we call a “bridge,” or a secondary reinforcer. A bridge is something that can be administered quickly and lets the horse know “that was right; the reward is coming.” A bridge can be a clicker, a whistle, or your voice saying something like “good.” A bridge will become just as rewarding as a treat, and allows you to be anywhere and figuratively reward the horse. Otherwise, the only way your horse knows he did the right thing is when you quickly shove food in his mouth … and you can’t do that quickly enough if you are anywhere distant from his face

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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