I got a question recently on how someone can get wet things near their horses head. This is one of my favorite topics, approach and retreat. There are a lot of different theories about approach and retreat, but I want to tell you the story of where the term 'broke' comes from in reference to horses.
I read Monty Roberts book 'The Man Who Listen's To Horses' a few years ago. What stuck with me most was the story about horse a 'broke'. Simply, it would be tied to a post and tormented with objects until its spirit was broken. *SHUDDER* From that moment on, I erased that word from my vocabulary.
So how do we ask our equine friends to accept objects they consider to be potential fatal (after all they are prey animals and I am sure you have met one that thinks it could be killed by a plastic bag)?
So, here is a semi-systematic way of helping your horse gain confidence about a scary object.
1. Find the comfortable distance. How far away can your horse be from the scary object and have NO reaction? That is your comfortable distance, make note and don't fudge. By the way it helps to aproach from multiple directions because horses don't generalize well.
2. Check your foundation. This is reality check #1. If you are trying to put something wet near your horses head, can you actually put a non wet object near your horses head? Will he willingly lower is head to have an object other than a halter, bridle or brush near his head?
If not, then find a way to bring your horse pleasure with other objects near his head. But follow the same instructions!
3. Lower the Criteria. Assuming your horse doesn't mind random things near his head, keeps his head low, stays relaxed, isn't worried, then if you are trying for a wet sponge, lower the criteria. Start with a damp towel, not dripping, but almost dry. Make sure he accepts it in other stops on his body and make it warm and pleasant. Use it to massage him! If that works well then go to step #1. Find the comfortable distance.
4. Move slowly. Horses are smart creatures and they are programmed to protect themselves. The hotter blooded/more high headed the horse (regardless of breed), in my opinion takes longer to accept new things, but if done RIGHT will accept them more willingly than a horse who cares less. Moving slowly and taking the time will make your life so much easier in the logn run!
5. Relax. If you can't relax, it is likely your horse won't either. Getting mad, yelling, screaming, crying does little to inspire your horse to be confident. Trust me, I know. I have spent a lot of time doing all those things. Just take a deep breath and pretend you are teaching a kid how to read for the first time. Lots of patience!
6. Approach and retreat. Once you have lowered your criteria, prepared yourself to move slowly AND know the comfortable distance, then approach and retreat. What does that mean? Simple. Move the object slowly toward your horse and I mean SLOWLY, be soft in your body language and watch your horse. Watch for tension, ears, eyes anything that indicates what you are doing is NOT ok. If you see that retreat (slowly of course) and just do something random with the object. Do I need to repeat something not scary? If you can touch your horse with the object, then when you retreat continue to do something pleasurable with it to him.
7. Have patience. Make this a part of your daily routine and slowly close the gap. When you introduce a new element it all starts over, but the more you do these things the less your horse will freak out.
I have some different techniques for bigger objects, but all of this information applies, just some different ways to apply them.
I cannot emphasize enough-if your horse freaks out when you pull out a sponge halfway across the arena, then start ALL the way across the arena. You do NOT want to your horse to pull back if tied. So as absurd as it may feel, this is for your horse, not your ego.