BY DR. HEATHER BEACH
A calm and respectful horse is important for everyone’s safety when the vet comes to the barn. Even if your horse seems to be relaxed and calm about most things, they can become unpredictable and stressed when unfamiliar people approach for unpleasant but necessary medical procedures. Understanding how horses learn and react to unpleasant stimuli can help you prepare your horse for his next veterinary appointment and keep the visit as stress-free and safe as possible.
Pressure and Release: How Horses Learn
The most important concept to understand when training your horse to tolerate unpleasant procedures is the concept of pressure and release. Horses learn very quickly through the process of “negative reinforcement.” In this instance, “negative” does not imply “bad” or “mean.” Negative reinforcement is a scientific term that refers to the removal of a stimulus. For instance, if I want to train a horse to move over when I push on his hip, I apply a stimulus (pressure to the hip) and when he executes the desired response (moving over) I remove the stimulus by no longer pressing on his hip (negative reinforcement). This concept works extremely well with true physical stimulus such as physical pressure on the hip, as well as with “energy” pressure created by body language and anticipation of a noxious stimulus.
Many horses who are needle-shy have learned to become tense when they are approached by a clinician with a needle. The more tense or anxious they get, the more intense the pressure can become due to increased restraint from the handler, determination from the clinician to complete the injection, and the overall emotional temperature of any bystanders. This pressure increases until the horse finally gets away from the handler, or perhaps the veterinarian manages to harpoon them with a vaccine just to “get it done.” At this point, the horse has escalated his attempts to avoid the stimulus and, finally, the pressure is released. The horse has learned to escalate his attempts to resist the procedure in order to remove the pressure.
If, on the other hand, the horse has been trained systematically through pressure and release to learn that standing calm and still is the desired behavior that releases the pressure, the whole procedure can progress with much less excitement and drama and is safer for everyone involved. What does this look like in practice?
As a veterinarian I often prefer to remove the handler from the equation because I cannot count on them to have adequate timing and ability to read the horse. I will hold the lead rope myself and find a position where the horse stands quietly next to me. The next “pressure” I apply to the horse is to gently pat the neck. If the horse is tense or moves away, I may reduce the first step to simply standing closer to the horse until they are quiet again with my presence closer to them. Once they stand quiet I step back out of their space again. Then I will return to petting them. If they step off I will try to keep contact with my hand touching them until they stop moving again, then I will remove my hand to release pressure once they are still. At first, I might have to settle for them being “stiller” before they will understand to actually stand still. The next step would be to pinch the skin for a vaccine or to hold off the jugular vein for a blood draw. At each one of these increasing levels of pressure the horse needs to be trained to understand that the pressure will stop when they are calm and still. This takes a certain amount of “feel” from horsemanship and timing to accomplish properly. In my experience, about 90 percent of needle-shy horses can be vaccinated or have blood drawn with little issue after five minutes or less of this type of training. Once a horse can safely be administered an intravenous injection, sedation can be administered for any more invasive procedures.
Understanding how horses learn and react to unpleasant stimuli can help you prepare your horse for his next veterinary appointment and keep the visit as stress-free and safe as possible.
What can you do to prepare your needle-shy horse?
It may not be enough to get your horse comfortable with you by performing pressure and release training at home. Your horse may still be uncomfortable with your veterinarian, and your veterinarian may not have the required timing to read your horse during the horse’s appointment, depending on their horsemanship level. This is not to say that you should not work on this process yourself. You should work with your horse at home to establish that they tolerate pinching of the skin on the neck and holding off of the jugular vein while standing still. You can also “pretend” vaccinate or draw blood by using a pen in place of a needle to further work on desensitizing and acceptance of veterinary procedures.
Additionally, talk to your veterinarian about your concerns. If you think that your horse would benefit from a training session with your veterinarian where you work together as a team to improve the behavior, ask your veterinarian if you can schedule an appointment for this. Most veterinarians would be happy to schedule an appointment specifically for behavior modification if it means that the next routine visit is likely to go smoother. Your veterinarian should not be expected to stay longer and take additional time performing a training session at the time of your routine appointment without additional compensation. Your veterinarian needs to be compensated for their time spent working slowly and systematically through the issue with a problem horse.
Medications and “Treats”
Finally, there are certain medications that can be utilized in advance of a veterinary appointment if needed. Orally administered sedatives including acepromazine or dormosedan gel can be tried. The downside of oral sedatives is that the horse is not learning in this scenario. If your horse becomes ill and is not eating or has a serious injury and adrenaline is too high for oral sedatives to work, you can still have a very dangerous situation on your hands that will require intravenous sedation.
Zylkene is an oral supplement that reduces situational anxiety and can be beneficial when fed prior to a stressful event. In this scenario, the horse is not sedated so they still retain their ability to learn and process information. There have been some published behavior studies supporting the use of Zylkene during learning sessions and this product may be beneficial when combined with systematic training.
Feeding treats to reward a horse for good behavior or clicker training can also be used. In this case, the treat or the click is considered “positive reinforcement.” When the horse performs the desired task (standing still, allowing the procedure) they receive their reward (treat or a click). The biggest difficulty with this type of training is being able to have the right timing for giving the treats/reward. Achieving the correct timing may involve moving out of the position you are standing in, and the need for a large supply of treats if the horse is taking a while to understand. Furthermore, the horse is likely to get pushy and excited for the treats which will cause more moving around and is counter-productive to training them to stand quietly and calmly during the procedure. Many owners like to feed their horse from a bucket while sedation is being administered in order to distract the horse during the injection. This is quite dangerous in my opinion because the horse is not still and their neck is moving quite a bit, increasing the chances for the injection to get outside of the vein during administration, or worse, for an inadvertent intracarotid injection which can have life threatening consequences. Clicker training itself can be very effective if a concentrated effort is made, so long as your veterinarian is familiar with the process of clicker training.
Good luck working with your horse on being calm for the vet!
*This story was originally published in the February 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now, and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!