Sensory Associations in Training

Willowtrail Farm Fell Ponies dealing with fliesIt’s amazing what a bottle of fly spray can teach you. I had gone out to trim Torrin’s hooves; it was a very hot day, and the bugs were awful. I knew that to have any chance of trimming hooves without both of us getting frustrated, I would need to use fly spray on Torrin. Sure enough, he visibly calmed down and quit kicking at flies as the fly spray went on.

But the most interesting thing was what Torrin’s paddock-mate Mya did. As I began to trim Torrin, she sidled up to Torrin and stood as close as she could to him. The fly spray I use has a very strong smell of citronella, and it seemed like Mya was trying to stand in the odiferous cloud around Torrin. I took a break from trimming and sprayed Mya, and she left Torrin’s side and began nibbling bits on the ground as I went back to work. When I finished Torrin I trimmed Mya’s hooves, too, since they were in need and she was obviously comfortable in our hot buggy environment.

As my principal work ponies, Mya and Torrin are used to fly spray, and it was clear that the odor didn’t bother them. In fact the smell may have been, for Mya at least, a welcome smell, given how she sidled up to Torrin into the cloud of fly spray. My pony Rose told me the other day that the smell could elicit a very different reaction. I had been working with her, and the insects were a terrible distraction. I knew she’d never had fly spray applied, so I set us up for a desensitization exercise. I have learned that the feel of spray landing on their skins is often disconcerting the first few times, so the first application can’t be taken casually. Before I even got to spraying Rose, though, she reacted; when I held the bottle up for her to smell, she took a step or two away. I was surprised at this reaction since Rose is usually pretty curious about things, but she taught me that smell can be as much of an issue when it comes to fly spray as the feel of it is.

After trimming Torrin and realizing how crucial a tool the fly spray was to a successful outcome, I realized that I needed to prepare the next pony in line for trimming to be fly-sprayed. I don’t remember ever using fly spray on Lunesdale Silver Belle (Ellie), so off I went to the paddock she was in with the bottle of fly spray in my hand. Rose was the first to greet me, and she predictably took a step away. Ellie came to me next, and I was surprised that she, too, took a step away when I offered the fly spray bottle to her to be sniffed. It was of course frustrating that she would have this reaction because I could see that the flies were bothering her terribly: she was alternately swishing her tail, shaking her mane, flicking her skin, and tossing her head to her back to get rid of one that would land there, all in relatively rapid succession. I needed to get past the association she had in her head that the smell should cause her to move to the association that Mya and Torrin have which is that the smell brings relief from insects.

I knew that getting some of the fly spray on her body was an important step in getting her to realize it could rid her of troublesome insects, but at this point just spraying into the air much less on her skin made her leave, so something else was necessary. I sprayed a bit onto my hand and then pet her, spreading the spray across her skin. Here I was trying to get her to associate the smell with my touch, something she was accustomed to and accepted readily in other situations. After getting fly spray on a decent portion of her upper body that way, she noticeably calmed down, and I could move to the next phase, which was for her to accept the feel of the fly spray being sprayed on. To entice her to stay instead of leave at the feel, I resorted to treats. Treats are something I have to use carefully with Ellie because she is pretty mouthy, and I don’t like to encourage that behavior. But in this case I decided that fly spray acceptance was more important, and I’d deal with the mouthiness problem later. The treats were indeed the major enticement I needed to help Ellie associate fly spray going on with a good experience, and I was able to spray her legs. I quit the lesson at that point to leave on a good note.

As all this work with Ellie was going on, Willowtrail Mountain Prince was shadowing me as he normally does when I’m working with the big girls. Since he too was being pestered by flies and contrarily didn’t seem put off by the smell of the spray, I took the opportunity to spray him, a little at a time, to help him learn to associate the smell and feel with relief from insects. It was interesting to me that he was much less bothered by the smell than the big girls.

Different horsemen put different emphases on the various senses of the horse. Lynn Miller says, “The most acute sense of the horse is smell.”(1) In his Work Horse Handbook he then relates a story about addressing the sense of smell to overcome a problem. Dr. Robert Miller (no relation) says, “Second only to what they see, horses respond to what they feel.”(2) Dr. Miller then goes on to say, “One aspect of this tactile sense can be successfully used in handling horses. After becoming desensitized to a tactile stimulus, horses like to be stroked.… The aware horseman, faced with a horse which displays fear from tactile stimuli, …can transform evasive behavior to welcoming behavior. In order to do this, the horse must be desensitized to a tactile stimulus which it previously interpreted as a threat. The stimuli must be presented as stroking.” (3)

I look back on my sequence of events with the bottle of fly spray as a series of interactions with my ponies’ senses and shaping their associations with the smell and feel of fly spray. I needed to present the fly spray as a form of stroking, working with both the sense of smell and feel along the way. I doubt I’ll ever apply fly spray casually again, knowing now how much is going on in the process!

  1. Miller, Lynn R. Work Horse Handbook, Small Farmer’s Journal Publishing, Sisters, Oregon, 1981, p. 18.
  2. Miller, Robert M., DVM. Understanding the Ancient Secrets of the Horse’s Mind, Robert M. Miller Communications, Truckee, California, 1999, p. 21.
  3. Same as #2.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2013


About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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