Julie Goodnight - Desensitize! Wave the Magic Flag

December 7, 2008
Julie uses a flag to direct this horse during training.
Julie uses a flag to direct this horse during training.

Q: Hello Julie.

I recently purchased a 13-year-old Quarter Horse mare. She is my first horse. While I’m learning a lot, taking lessons, and reading piles of material, everyday I experience a new behavior. Today, she kicked me when I tried to clean off some of the mud between her legs close to her teats. What should have been my response to her kicking me? I’m not sure if my reprimands are correct and effective. How can I clean that area without this happening again? Thanks for your help.
Barbara Boehme

A: Hi Barbara.

Yes, between the legs and the teat area is very sensitive, and a horse must be gently desensitized in this area (same thing for the sheath area of a gelding or stallion). If a horse is not accustomed to being touched in certain areas and has never been desensitized in these areas, their natural reaction would be to kick. I do not think you can blame or punish your horse for this, since it was an understandable reaction on her part.
It’s possible you totally surprised your horse, and she responded to your touch by lashing out without warning. But my guess is that she probably gave some type of warning first before she actually kicked. If so, you need to learn to pay attention to your horse’s communication efforts. Watch the ears, level of the head, tail swishing, feet moving, etc.

As time goes by, you will learn more and more about your own mare and know what to expect in terms of behavior. It has been an observation of mine that people who have only worked with a small number of horses make assumptions that all horses will act the same way as the ones they are used to handling. You cannot assume that all horses are used to being touched on all parts of their bodies. I have even seen well-broke horses that have never had their legs or face brushed, who react with alarm when an unknowing person starts vigorously brushing these areas that have never been desensitized.

To get your horse accustomed to being touched in this very sensitive area, you’ll have to start slowly and work up to it. First, let me mention some safety concerns. To work on her belly or teat area, you will be standing in a danger zone where she can easily kick you — as you have already discovered. Make sure you face forward and reach under with your closest hand so that your head is not moving toward the kick zone. If you face back and reach under with either hand, your head comes down closer to the kick zone. Secondly, this is a great example of why it is a good idea to wear a helmet when ground handling horses.

Desensitize with a flag

To desensitize her, you’ll want to start using a training flag rather than your hand to get her used to the touch. This will allow you to reach all around her without getting yourself in the kick zone. Make sure you use a light-weight, balanced stick with something soft on the end. The flag is a tool you’ll use a lot around the barn for many reasons, so it is a good piece of equipment to invest in.

1. To teach your horse to accept your touch in the teat area, start slowly by rubbing gently and slowly with the flag in an area where she is comfortable, like higher up on her belly or even up on her back.

2. Slowly advance closer to the area where she becomes uncomfortable. Watch her closely for signs that she is getting tense, such as her head comes up, her ears tense back, or she moves away. If she cocks a foot or switches her tail, you have gone too far and she is becoming defensive.

3. When you find how far you can advance — where her discomfort is beginning but not so far that she becomes defensive — hold the flag there until she relaxes somewhat. She might drop her head, relax her ears, chew, or sigh. Immediately retreat by pulling the flag back and walking away from her. By retreating, you reward her for accepting your touch.

4. Slowly advance again to this area with the flag, and hold that position until the horse relaxes somewhat. And then retreat away from the horse to reward her acceptance of your touch. This advance and retreat technique is highly effective with horses.

5. Continue advancing and retreating in this manner until she has become desensitized, and you have broadened the area that she is comfortable with you touching.

Don’t feel like you need to get in a hurry to clean her teats. Yes, this is an area that can collect dirt and grime, but some waxy build-up there is normal and acts as an insulation to protect the sensitive skin. Be very gentle and don’t over-do the cleaning of the teats. Once your horse has been desensitized to touch in this area, she will accept it without protest.

Be careful working around the hind end of the horse, and, remember, do not assume any horse is desensitized to touch or handling all over his body.