Training your Horse to Accept a Vacuum
Horse grooming: the invigorating sport of transferring grime from the horse’s body to your own. An especially effective upper body workout during the spring, or any time a show is right around the corner. If you think that you do not have enough time or upper body strength to do a full grooming to get all the dirt off your horse, an investment in a vacuum may be a solution for your four-legged Pigpen.
A Vacuum Cleaner for My Horse? I Think I Know How This Will End…
As we all know, horses spook at only two things – things that move, and things that don’t. Imagine the trauma if the thing that moves also makes a loud motor noise, sucks air, and makes a funny sensation on the horse’s skin. Then again, horses throughout history have carried their riders into battles with cannons and guns, pulled firetrucks through crowded cities to put out fires, and managed riots. So it is not inconceivable that even your horse can be trained to accept a vacuum.
A Little Bit of Training Theory
When we are training behaviors, we often talk about reinforcement. There are two kinds of reinforcement: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is giving a reward when a behavior is performed (your puppy sits on his own, you give him a treat). Negative reinforcement is removing a stimulus when a behavior is performed (you push your puppy’s bottom down to the ground to make him sit, and release your hand when his bottom is on the ground). Negative reinforcement does NOT mean that you are doing something bad to get a behavior, it just means that you are removing pressure when the desired behavior is performed. If you watch horses in a herd, they react and interact with positive and negative reinforcement behaviors. A foal sucks on its mother’s udder, and it gets a meal (positive reinforcement), one horse nips at the haunches of another to initiate a game of chase and stops when the other begins to run (negative reinforcement).
Most animal behavior experts agree that training based in positive reinforcement is the most humane and effective method. That said, most horse trainers use methods based largely in negative reinforcement (pressure and release). I will describe two methods for training your horse to accept a scary object, one based on positive reinforcement, one on negative reinforcement. I encourage you to be open to trying one or both methods, because some horses respond better to one method more than the other. You may have to combine the techniques to some degree. Above all be patient with your horse. Remember, accepting scary things is still against his nature. No matter which method you choose, before you start, leave the vacuum in a place where the horse will regularly see it as part of its daily routine, but won’t risk injuring itself. Let him see the vacuum cleaner and get used to its presence for a few days.
If you choose to reward his behavior with treats, there are a number of good options on the market. You can buy packages of specially made treats like Horse Cookies or Durvet Popper’s Mint treats. You can also use commercial horse feed that comes in pelleted form, such as Manna Pro Renew Gold, and give a single pellet as a treat. Majesty’s also offers an entire line of treats that work as supplements designed to work on different body systems, such as hooves or joints, and more. Some people also buy bags of hay pellets and feed individual hay pellets as treats.
Training to Accept a Scary Object - Positive Reinforcement
The key of teaching with positive reinforcement is rewarding the smallest try on the horse’s part, without coercing the horse at all, and building on the small efforts until they get bigger and bigger. You will start with the vacuum cleaner off. If you are alone, I recommend putting the vacuum cleaner in a closed space like a barn aisle, a round pen, or an arena. It is important that the horse cannot get loose or injure itself. Wear gloves and a helmet for extra safety. Walk your horse toward the vacuum cleaner. Watch his face carefully, and as soon as you see he notices and is interested in the vacuum cleaner, praise him. If he wants to stop, that is fine, but he must be facing the vacuum cleaner. From there, any further interest he shows in the vacuum cleaner (stretching his nose towards it, sniffing it, wanting to nose it or lick it, etc.) praise him and offer him the reward you have chosen. If the horse shows fear or apprehension, do not discipline the behavior. Rather, simply make him stand and wait until he shows further interest, or return him to the last position where he did not show fear, rewarding every increased display of interest in the scary object.
Once he shows calm acceptance, begin moving it around and getting your horse used to the feel of the different parts brushing him, the hoses passing over his back, under his belly, behind his haunches, and around his face. Watch his body language, and try to reward him while he is still standing still. Gradually increase the time he can hold one position with the vacuum touching him before he gets rewarded. Long, slow strokes from your hands and praise in a low voice will help to calm and reward.
Once your horse is completely comfortable with all this as the vacuum cleaner is off, you can repeat the process with the vacuum cleaner turned on but not actually sucking vacuuming his hair, then adjusted to the lowest setting on his coat.
Training to Accept a Scary Object - Negative Reinforcement
For this method, approach the horse with the vacuum cleaner so he can smell it. If he shows nervousness, stop and stand still, but do not move away. Watch his body language. When he relaxes and shows calm interest, praise him and back up a step before beginning your approach again. If he shows interest, back away a step and praise him, then approach again. The goal is to gradually move closer and closer. Moving towards him with the vacuum is adding pressure and backing away is releasing the pressure and a reward for showing calm interest.
Once your horse has accepted the vacuum’s presence, you can move the attachments closer to him, with the goal of laying them on him. Each time he tries to move away, move with him, if necessary turning him in a little circle around you. When he slows down or seems to show interest in the vacuum, stop and step away from him and praise him. Repeat until your horse can stand calmly while you pass the vacuum and attachments all around him, praising each step of progress and sign of acceptance. Again, once your horse has accepted the vacuum cleaner with all its attachments turned off, repeat with the vacuum cleaner turned on, then repeat with the hose actually siphoning the dirt off of him.
When training your horse to accept a vacuum cleaner, make sure to have him in a confined space that is small enough so that he cannot escape, but large enough that he will not run into or over you. Go slowly and take your time. Some horses may take only five minutes to accept the vacuum, and some horses may take a month of short sessions, inching along in their acceptance of the new machine. Go your horse’s pace, be sure not to rush him. It is not worth it to have a large fight with him over something new, or to traumatize him with a grooming tool.
Which of these training methods appeals to you the most?