The Fly-Spray Dance

Tips for helping a spray-shy mare stand still.
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Tips for helping a spray-shy mare stand still.

Q: My mare is terrible about standing still for fly spray. She’s had this problem throughout the five years I’ve owned her. I used to have to stand about 20 feet away from her just to spray a rag to wipe her with. Now, I can stand 3 feet away, but she still won’t let me spray her directly. When I try, she runs circles around me until I stop. Is there anything I can do to make her stand quietly? - Jeanna Dains, Via E-Mail 

A: Many horses are resistant to spray bottles—most likely because they weren’t introduced to them at an early age and are easily startled by the sudden spurt of liquid. In most cases, the “fix” merely requires a lot of patience to habituate them to the sound, feel, and smell of fly spray from a bottle. 

Your mare may simply have an aversion to the fly spray’s smell. Start by spraying water rather than fly spray to eliminate the “smell factor” early on, and to avoid wasting a lot of expensive fly spray.

Before you start, your mare must willingly (and quietly) stand next to you as you hold the spray bottle. If she won’t, desensitize her to the bottle by slowly showing it to her; then offer her a treat. If she begins to walk away when she sees the bottle, say “whoa” firmly, followed by a sharp tug on the lead to make her stop. Give her the treat only after she stops and stands. 

Once she stands quietly with the bottle in sight, hold her halter in one hand, and the bottle at arms length (facing away from her) in your other hand. Spray one squirt of water away from her; then, offer her a treat. If she walks away, make her stop and stand before giving her the treat. Repeat this process until she stands quietly while you spray one squirt. 

The key to success is to move slowly. Your goal is to prevent your mare from becoming frightened of the bottle. On the first day, be satisfied if she stands quietly while you squirt water away from her. It may take 20 or 30 repetitions before you accomplish this; but when you do, it’s time to quit. 

The next day, start with the previous day’s “lesson” (halter in one hand; spray bottle in the other, directed away from her). When she stands quietly for a single squirt, move the spray bottle a few inches closer to her, and repeat. Continue this process, followed by a treat each time, but only spray closer to her when she’s relaxed. It may take days, weeks, or even months before she’ll stand while you spray her body. 

During this time, rub some fly spray
on the outside of her feed bucket so she associates the spray’s scent with food—not with the sound and feel of the spray. 

Once she accepts being sprayed with water and is accustomed to the spray’s smell, replace the water with fly spray. Start all over again with the bottle held at arms length while spraying away from her. Gradually work toward her, until she allows you to spray her directly with fly spray in the bottle.

Many people don’t succeed with habituation because they’re impatient and move too quickly. You must work slowly, in small steps, offering treats every time she responds correctly. It may take several weeks of daily training, but I’m confident you can overcome her fear of the spray. In fact, she may even look forward to being sprayed because she’s learned to associate the spray with a treat. 

Another option is to replace topical fly spray with a feed-through fly control product. Administered daily with your horse’s feed, it passes through his digestive tract without being absorbed, and is distributed in his feces where it kills fly larvae. If most horses on a property receive this supplement, it can dramatically reduce fly populations and reduce or eliminate the need for fly spray.

Other fly control measures—including careful manure management, fly traps, and the placement of fly predator wasps on and around manure piles—can help keep fly populations to a minimum. Even if your horse tolerates spray, consider additional fly-control strategies to prevent health problems caused by flies.