Monday, August 13, 2012

Trust and Training

I took Tessa in the to wash rack again yesterday.  I washed her tail while she clamped it down, every muscle quivering.  She stood mostly still, lifting a hind leg in protest now and then.  The water was warm and I was careful not to spray her too hard.  Still, she was tense and unhappy.  The minute I unclipped the cross ties, she tried to bolt out.

She has been at the same barn for over a year.  She has been in the wash rack every week for the last year, sometimes more often.  The last two weeks, she has had her tail washed every day.  She has been praised profusely when she stands still, she has had carrots in the wash rack.  She has been tacked, untacked, groomed and fed treats in the wash rack.  We have moved slowly from spraying water nearby, to hosing off feet.  She has never had water sprayed in her face or ears (at least not with me...I can't say what her previous owners did).  But her fear of the wash rack persists.

So is it trust?  How can you build trust?  I get that it takes time, but how MUCH time?  Will she EVER trust me or will my lack of confidence erode any foundation we start to build.  How can I set us up for situations where she will look to me as a leader, without accidentally setting us up for failure?  I have read every natural horsemanship book out there and though I love them, sometimes it's hard to put in practice when you don't really know what you're doing or how to apply it to your particular situation.

With no trailer and no access to outside trainers (not allowed at our barn), I'm really starting to feel frustrated.  Thanks for listening to me vent and for offering so many good ideas in the comments.

On a good note though, we did secure a trailer ride for August 25th to a nearby jumper barn where we will be having a jumping lesson at a new arena.  Big day!!


  1. I'd suggest breaking things down into very small increments. For example, with the wash rack, just leading by it, or into and out of it, without nervousness, would be a first step - much praise. Only move on to the next step when she's happy and comfortable with that step - and in my experience, if you go slowly and build each step with praise, she'll learn that she's safe and comfortable with you. It might all progress in a single day, or it might take a number of sessions - and if she gets worried, take her right back to a level where she's comfortable again and then try the next step later. Every time you take her too far out of her comfort zone, that will destroy trust unless she's got a lot of trust in you already. Take it at her pace, and just continue to build the steps. Sure you can make her comply and do something she's very worried about, but that's not the same thing as building trust, and if she does get used to it it'll just be by shutting down, which I don't think is what you want.

    Good luck!

  2. Patience is the key. And envisioning the outcome you want verses the one you don't want. Our thoughts are very powerful - this is something I have to concentrate on so hard to achieve. :)

    Kate has some great suggestions. Good luck!!

  3. Kate has great suggestions.

    My two cents (you know I have them) - Bonnie gets very upset/nervious when I tie her in the wash rack and hose her off. However, if I take her outside and simply hold the lead she just relaxes and stands still. I can tie her to a fence post and hose her off too. It's the rack. I used to be a place where the rack was completely white in colour - bright white - she would immedately start the nervous wet poops, swaying, everything. Nothing I could do would bring her back to me. So I just hosed her off outside.

  4. Agree with Jeni, for some reason some horses have a fear of a confined space with water. I've seen a lot of horses that you can wash easily outside of a wash stall but put them in one, and watch out... Lucas was one, could wash him for hours outside but he was scared in a wash stall.

  5. Eh, some horses just really don't like wash racks, but what you're doing with trying to make it a good place to be seems like the right idea.

    As for trust, I think your expectations might be a little too high at the moment. You've only had her what, a year and some change (I can't recall)? Trust takes a lot of time to develop and can't be rushed. My trainer has a very hot and spooky OTTB, but he would walk off a cliff if she asked him to because they've just spent the time together building up that bond (8 years).

    I know it's frustrating, but you're on the right track!

  6. Federal Way isn't too far; want to come down for a playdate? You could work on learning some skills without having to worry about over facing your mare.

    1. Yes please! It's funny you should mention this because I just came up with the idea of going and taking some lessons at some other barns to see what else is available and to get confidence on other horses. My email is if you want to send me an email so we can coordinate!

  7. You can build trust by approach and retreat while allowing your horse the option of leaving. Let her move her feet. Hose her in a larger area, holding the lead rope with one hand and the hose with the other. It might look like you are lunging her in a tiny circle. Hose one rear foot briefly and if she stands still quickly take the hose away, repeat. If you hose briefly enough you can catch her standing still in order to take the hose away. The key here is not to stop while she is moving, but not to put so much pressure that she cannot tolerate it. When she stops moving her feet, take the hose away and let her relax. Keep repeating the approach and retreat until she can stand still while you hose the top of her hip. Then go to the other side and start over. When she stands still as you hose either side, move back a little so you can touch her hip with the hand that is holding the lead rope while holding the hose with the other hand. Eventually you will be able to wash her tail and dock. The key is to stop hosing when she stands still, and to gradually approach the problem area while allowing her a way out.