My green Warmblood True and I have been experiencing a lot of snow lately and don’t have an indoor.
We manage to walk on long hilly driveways, practice lateral maneuvers in the flat spots, ride in the pasture, and sometimes manage trot work in a small arena. But for the most part, winters require us to work on other tasks: grooming, vacuuming, clipping, trimming. And it’s certainly not a time when we can use water for baths.
A lot of riders tell me their horses refuse to be vacuumed. When asked whether the horse has been taught this process, most are surprised. Too often, we humans forget that these activities need to be taught.
But think about it—what self-respecting prey animal is going to let a big loud machine roll up next to him and suck the skin up off his body?!
There are three general schools of thought about scary grooming techniques, like vacuuming and clipping:
- Get the job done by any means necessary; the horse will figure it out over time
- Drug the horse into calmness so that machines can be used
- Teach the horse to accept—even like—these forms of grooming
You won’t be surprised that the third option is my choice.
Getting the job done any old way is exactly what creates problems in the first place. Usually, it means snubbing, twitching, holding up a leg, grabbing an ear, trying not to be kicked—all combined with a good bit of obscene language and plenty of grumbling. The horse is frightened by the entire experience even though he sometimes realizes halfway through that it’s easier to submit than to fight.
To my way of thinking, this sort of human behavior is unfair and dangerous. It also teaches the horse why humans can not be trusted.
Drugging the horse is not effective over the long term because it teaches the horse nothing. His brain is tranquilized and his senses are damped down so that he can’t learn. It too is dangerous—just have a chat with one of the many farriers who has drugged a horse for shoeing only to be crushed when the horse falls down.
And—OK, I hate to be a complete buzz kill here, but—since when is drugging an option for TRAINERS? We are supposed to be training, right? Drugs do not train; they are only an artificial means of pretending to train.
Sometimes sedation is necessary for veterinary work, but in almost every other application, the horse can learn to cooperate. He just needs some help from his people! Teaching cooperation builds horse-and-human trust, shows the horse he can allow unwelcome touch, transfers to mounted training and ground work, instills good ground manners, and establishes the handler’s position as the horse’s helpful guide.
Start vacuum training by taking control of the situation. In other words, don’t take the chance that someone will suddenly switch on the machine while your baby is nearby. You want to be the one to switch it on for the first time, under conditions that you create and maintain.
True started on a quiet warm day when no one was using the barn aisle. He was three years old. I led him to the vacuum and allowed him to sniff it thoroughly while I held his lead with plenty of slack in the line. He was willing to inspect the machine because he had never heard it turned on and didn’t yet realize the nature of the beast.
While he sniffed, I stroked and praised in a low calm voice. When he was done and standing quietly next to the vacuum, I gave him a treat and took him to his pasture. That was Lesson One: Quiet, calm, easy, short.
We did that several times, leading him to each side as well as the front and back of the machine. I also rolled the vacuum all around his body to show him it moved and might be positioned anywhere near him. Soon all this was almost boring to True.
At that point, I held the slack lead and talked calmly to Baby True while switching the machine half on while it was up near the barn wall. (Most horse vacuums have two switches for low and high settings. I only used one.)
It’s important not to tie the horse for this process—confinement will only increase his fear if he panics. Just hold the lead and move with the horse if he jumps or backs away. Let him choose his distance.
True jumped back off all four feet and snorted when the beast started up on its low setting, but I remained calm, still speaking in a low easy voice. Horses look to us to see how they should handle something new. Are you scared? Then he will be, too. But if you stay calm, chances are good that the horse’s fear will settle as well.
True stepped forward to inspect, and again I rewarded him for sniffing the machine.
We went through this process many times—once or twice a week after our summer rides. Gradually, True allowed me to flip both switches so that the vacuum was fully on in his presence. Gradually, he stood closer to it and stopped jumping back. With each successful baby step, he was rewarded, sometimes edibly, but more often with lots of stroking, rubbing, scratching in his favorite spots, and easy talking.
No vacuum lesson lasted more than five minutes. Brevity is important—we want to keep the experience pleasant, and to do that, it needs to be brief.
Once True was calm while the vacuum was turned on, I allowed him to watch it used on other horses. This was rarely an observational “event.” It was simply a by-product of True being in the vicinity, perhaps being brushed or tacked up while some other horse was being vacuumed.
He didn’t seem to pay much attention, but horses are known to use observational learning, so I have no doubt he was picking up clues that I didn’t notice.
All of this preliminary teaching occurs before you place the vacuum nozzle on the horse’s skin. He needs to learn the smell, sight, and sound of the machine first. When the time came for True to experience the vacuum’s touch, I began by holding the nozzle near his skin with the machine turned off.
The next step was to run the nozzle over his skin as if the vacuum was on—but it wasn’t. After that, I touched it to his skin with the machine half on, then fully on.
Each step has to be mastered before the next one occurs, so that the horse is truly comfortable before you move on.
Does this sound like a lot of work? It is.
Does it take a lot of time? Sure does.
Does it yield a trusting young horse who looks to his handler for reassurance and steps to the vacuum with confidence? YES!! And that’s the goal.
As with so many lessons in brain-based horsemanship, this one isn’t only about the vacuum. It’s about the interaction between horse and human, the mutual relationship they develop, and the team they form.
- Putting Smell to Work
- “Likes to Jump”
- Mistakes with Youngsters
- Training the Human
- The Bareback Years
Janet Jones will present “Brain to Brain: Cross-Species Communication between Horses and Riders” at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, on March 14, 2024. Come to the talk and enjoy the international Winter Spectacular Hunter/Jumper Horse Show too. Learn more and reserve your tickets at https://janet-jones.com/product/janet-jones-ticket-sales.
A version of this story originally appeared on janet-jones.com. It is reprinted here with permission.