Does Your horse know how to wear a fly mask?
We have several young horses at the rescue who need to wear fly masks this summer. These horses are all two year olds who are halter broke but have not had a lot of exposure to strange objects and materials touching and rubbing their faces.
A fly mask can seem pretty scary to a horse at first– it looks funny, it feels strange and it makes weird sounds. However, if we go slowly and take small steps, it doesn’t take long until the horse becomes comfortable with the mask. This is a great way to desensitize your horse to things around his face and ears, something that will be important later for further training and for veterinary care.
My friend Dionne was visiting recently and she spent quite a bit of time playing with Boomer, one of our 2 year old geldings at the rescue. Below is a series of photos and descriptions explaining how she taught him to wear a fly mask. She did a great job with him and he is accepting his fly mask like a pro now.
Step One: Let Your Horse Get Comfortable with the Mask
Before we even think about putting the mask on the horse, we want the horse to be comfortable with having the mask near him and in his space. Depending on how comfortable your horse is with strange objects, this step could take a lot of time or no time at all.
As you can see in the two photos below, Dionne starts by letting Boomer approach her and smell the mask. She also moves it around his face and body letting him get comfortable with how it looks and sounds.
Notice that throughout this process she is working completely at liberty. The horse can back off, turn away or leave at any time if he chooses. We don’t want to trap, force or trick the horse into wearing the mask. Instead, we want him to willingly choose to let us put the fly mask on him. Working at liberty builds confidence because the horse has control and knows he can escape. New things become a lot scarier if the animal thinks he can’t escape. (Note: If you horse is constantly trying to leave or walk away, slow down! You’re probably trying to introduce things too fast.)
Dionne uses treats and clicker training throughout the fly mask training to reward Boomer when he’s doing well. Every time he does something right, or an approximation of something right, or offers relaxed or curious behavior, he gets a treat. This keeps it interesting for him and teaches him that fly masks are fun!
Note: Make sure at this stage that your horse is completely comfortable with the sound of the Velcro opening and closing. Some horses won’t be bothered at all, but some will be terrified! Start softly and at at distance and gradually build, until you can stand beside the horse and make sounds with the velco without him being bothered. Be sure to reward the horse when he offers relaxed or curious behavior!
Step Two: Rub the Fly Mask All Over Your Horse’s Face
Next, we want the horse to be comfortable with us rubbing the fly mask all over his face. He needs to be comfortable with the way the mask feels and with the way it flaps and moves over his face.
Depending on how concerned your horse is about the fly mask, you might need to start this step of the training by rubbing the mask on his shoulder or neck. Once he is comfortable with this, move slowly up to his cheeks and the sides of his face.
Next, make sure you can touch him with the fly mask on his nose and the center of his face. Also practice rubbing him with the mask around his forelock, ears and poll. Make sure to reward your horse with treats, scratches and kind words throughout the training process. Let him know that he’s doing a great job! Giving him short breaks or quitting when he does really well will also help you make progress faster. Look at Boomer’s body language in the two photos above–he is calm and relaxed in both of them. Dionne is watching how he reacts to everything she does and working at his speed.
Step Three: Hang the Fly Mask on an Ear
After your horse is comfortable with the mask being rubbed all around his face and ears, the next step should be easy. Rub the mask up and down the horse’s face as before, but leave it hanging over one of the horse’s ears.
Many young horses can be sensitive about having their ears touched. This is a great time to make sure your horse is super comfortable about having his ears handled. If your horse is really skeptical about having his ears touched, you might need to work with your hand or a soft rag before attempting to hang the fly mask on him or rub his ears with the mask.
Make sure you work on this step from both sides. The horse needs to be comfortable with the mask touching, rubbing and pressing on both of his ears. Getting your horse to accept strange things on his ears will help you later on. He should be more tolerant about headstalls, bridles or other things that need to go up and around his ears.
Step Four: Pull the Fly Mask Around the Front of the Horse’s Face
Next, once you have one ear in, practice swinging the mask around the front of the horse’s face. Make sure you go slowly at first so that the horse knows what you are doing. However, if you spent enough time rubbing the mask all over the horse’s face, this step should go smoothly. If the horse is hesitant or uncomfortable with this, go back to step two and make sure that your horse is calm and relaxed when you rub the fly mask all over his face.
As in the photo above, you can practice holding the mask on underneath while you just have one ear in. This lets the horse become accustomed to what it will feel like to have the mask fastened.
Finally, practice slipping the mask up and over the second ear. Now the mask should be all the way on the horse, but not fastened. We’re almost done!
Step Five: Fasten the Fly Mask
For the last step, spend some time practicing fastening the mask. Start by opening and closing the Velcro without fastening the mask to the horse–this is to double check that your horse is okay with the sound of the Velcro. Next you can actually fasten the Velcro, securing the mask to the horse. Hooray! Your horse is now wearing a fly mask!
At first, let your horse wear the fly mask for short periods of time. Let the horse get accustom to what it feels like. Keep a close eye on your horse the first handful of times you let him wear his fly mask. Make sure that he is not trying to rub the mask off and that his pasture mates are not trying to bite at the mask or tear it off.
Dionne did an excellent job teaching Boomer to wear his fly mask. Boomer has not had a whole lot of handling or experience being touched around his face and now he is great about having his fly mask put on and off. If we break tasks down into small steps, the horse can be successful at each step. This makes the learning process faster and more fun for both human and horse.
Note: Depending on your horse’s level of training and his comfort level with having things around his face, this process could take several days or even several weeks. Make sure your horse is comfortable with each step before moving on.