An experienced veterinarian offers help to a horse owner who struggles to bathe her gray horse without a fight.
I have an 11-year-old mare, who hates to be bathed. I have even tried warm water, being sure not to get her head wet. She paws aggressively and lifts her front legs up as high as she can get them. Any other time, she is a pleasant and sweet mare, including with the farrier and veterinarian. It’s very annoying that she is so wiggly and agitated when I bath her, especially because she is gray and loves to roll in the dirt!
Our friends at the American Association of Equine Practitioners provide some helpful solutions to this problem:
Ixnay the athbays, please.
She has hydrophobia, the non-infectious version.
Your mare has made it clear she doesn’t like water baths, which is a natural tendency. Let her roll in the dirt all she wants, as that is a natural fly-repelling tendency as well as being great for her digestion, spine and musculoskeletal system.
I suspect that you are not going to change the gray mare’s nature any time soon. You either have to make getting a bath a good deal for her (good luck) or utilize brushing and grooming and rain to clean her.
You can’t teach the old, gray mare new tricks, it seems. Someone made bathing a bad deal for her, and she can’t forget it. She is pretty certain that bathing is an unnatural thing for a horse, and she is correct. Gray skin has its idiosyncrasies, and water sensitivity is one of them in this case (make sure she sees her veterinary dermatologist each year for her annual melanoma exams).
If you want to counter condition her, you can try. When she first sees water, feed her. When the water gets closer, feed her some more. Do this for 30 days until she looks forward to eating pleasurably in the presence of running water. Feed her a bunch as the first drop of water touches her for the next 60 days, but stop the bath at that first drop of water. For the next 90 days after that, run a stream of water on her left front hoof as she eats. After she is good with the left, try the right front for a few months. You get the incremental picture. In a few years, she’ll be loving the water and you’ll have spent 6,000 hours training her to enjoy water bathing her appetite with treats. This activity has been known to incite other sets of problems, some behavioral, some medical, some disastrous. Still, after all the attempts, it is quite likely the ol’ gray mare will be what she used to be: hydrophobic. Clicker training utilizes positive reinforcement, so you could also take some courses in positive reinforcement training, develop your timing until it is as impeccable as a horse’s, and clicker train her to love baths.
I’m siding with the mare, and I recommend that you just go with brushing from here on out. Invest in several different brushes, and you’ll soon find the one that sweeps that dirt right out.
— Sid Gustafson, DVM, Bozeman, Montana, American Association of Equine Practitioners
*AQHA and the provider of this information are not liable for the inherent risks of equine activities. We always recommend consulting a qualified veterinarian and/or an AQHA Professional Horseman.