If a horse is uncomfortable in a confined space, try taking him outside for injections or administering them in a spacious stall.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse
Remember when you got a lollipop at the doctor’s office right after you got a shot? Using the same idea of creating positive experiences makes handling horses for veterinary procedures easier and safer for everyone, including the horse.
That’s not just someone’s opinion. There’s sufficient science to substantiate that positive-reinforcement-based, nonconfrontational handling of animals reduces stress, increases safety, and makes the workplace much more comfortable.
Sue McDonnell, PhD, Cert. AAB, founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, has extensive experience retraining horses—including “problem” horses—and in teaching others the best ways to deliver veterinary care.
At the 2016 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Dec. 3-7 in Orlando, Florida, McDonnell told veterinarians during a Sunrise Session, hosted by Merck Animal Health, to “make the procedure as painless as possible, work in the environment most comfortable to the horse, and learn to fill your toolbox with positive-only methods.”
Of course, that can be easier said than done, especially if increased restraint is your go-to tool for when things don’t go in the direction you want. Here’s a look at why McDonnell advocates for a more positive approach.
As a grazing prey species native to open plains, horses are almost single-trial learners, especially with negative experiences. They learn to avoid procedures that have been unpleasant, stressful, or painful, but they can accept one bad experience in an otherwise positive situation.
The good news is that behavior is learned, and, as such, it can be unlearned. It’s a matter of rebalancing so the positive outweighs the negative, she said. Even the horse with a background of negative experiences can change, given a positive environment and handling.
McDonnell said many experienced horse people must unlearn being punitive (inflicting punishment) and learn to adopt a positive-only approach. One way McDonnell helps horses is by helping horse people change their behavior.
Applying science-based learning principles for any horse training scenario requires that you stop thinking about what you don’t want. Focus instead on what you want, and reinforce that. Rather than punishing the undesirable behavior, think of something you can teach the horse to do on the fly—in five or 10 seconds—that’s counter to the undesirable reaction.
McDonnell said it’s common for equestrians to inadvertently train avoidance responses using pressure and release. “We put pressure, the horses react, we back off because we have to because they’re big or we weren’t prepared, and the horse almost immediately gets into an avoidance cycle,” she said. “Recognize when something is not working, and change your approach before the horse becomes conditioned to avoid.”
She reviewed how to prevent or overcome that avoidance pattern in five common stressful situations:
Injections or Blood Collection
Make them as painless as possible. Go with the finest gauge needle practical. Get in a comfortable setting. If you know the horse is uncomfortable in a confined clinic space, step outside or do it in a stall. Use as loose a restraint as is possible and a quiet manner. Use soothing, reinforcing, distracting scratching of the withers or food distractions.
McDonnell said the biggest mistake she sees with injections or blood draws is people not stabilizing their hand on the horse before the needle touches him. “Stabilizing the hand seems to convey security to the horse, and if the horse should move, you’re much less likely to have to do multiple sticks,” she said.
She says you can—and should—teach an old pony new tricks. She illustrated with photos of a pony that responded with dangerously energetic avoidance behaviors of rearing and longeing at personnel. He needed “counterconditioning.”
McDonnell said she put a pan of grain on the ground at the same time she brought the needle out of her pocket. He couldn’t go for the grain and rear at the same time. “It doesn’t make sense that it works with these cases of dangerously avoiding behaviors, but it does,” she said. “You could also do ‘target’ and ‘clicker’ training, where you teach a horse to hold his nose to a target. They learn quickly.”
Again, choose a comfortable environment with minimal restraint. McDonnell said it’s a bit of an art to learn to confine the horse without him feeling trapped, yet not able to back away from you completely. Survey the situation so you don’t accidentally punish the horse, for instance, by leaving a water bucket on the wall he might back up into.
Mary Poppins said a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and McDonnel said that, actually, a sweet syrup loaded into the syringe ahead of and behind the medication is a good idea. And dip the tip of the syringe into something sweet, like light corn syrup, as an extra incentive for the horse to behave. Ideally, you want the horse’s head at your waist level to administer oral medications (entice him to lower his head using food).
Stabilize the syringe against the side of the horse’s face, and keep the tip pointed down to the corners of his lips. As you get near the crease, the horse will sense the sweet, and open his mouth as if to ask for it. Rotate the syringe gently onto the tongue, avoiding the gums, teeth and palate while administering the treatment. You can condition the horse to eagerly take his medicine by giving him a syringe of sweet syrup once a day for 10 days.
Horses learn quickly how to avoid eye treatments, but they can unlearn the avoidance behavior just as quickly. You need a safe, comfortable environment with minimal restraint and a food treat to maintain their positive, motivational interest.
Food helps encourage the horse to lower his head and helps him stay in a forward focus. Most horses will want to get to the food more than they want to avoid the treatment. Direct the focus by moving the food so the horse’s head is at a level comfortable for you to treat his eye.
Again, stabilize your hand against the face so that if the horse moves, you can maintain contact and be less likely to poke the eye. Deposit the treatment at the inside corner of the eye. It will migrate on its own. Don’t “paint” the eye. Give a treat before and after administering the ointment.
The Lip Twitch
While often misused, said McDonnell, twitches can be helpful when applied appropriately. She said the important thing is to reach for a twitch right away, rather than in response to a situation already gone bad. Like tranquilizers, twitches are more challenging to apply and less effective once the animal is agitated.
In a calm, quiet, confident, unhurried, and efficient manner, give a treat, and then put the twitch on. Don’t put it on too tight or lead the horse by it.
For the first 3 to 5 minutes, the twitch is annoying, which can distract the horse from a procedure, but there’s no analgesic (pain-relieving) benefit to the horse. After that, endorphin levels reach an effective level. You’ll see the horse relax or have a glazed look in his eye as he experiences about 10 minutes of analgesia.
It’s important to remove the twitch when you see the horse first begin to be restless. He’s approaching “blow” stage, where the endorphins will have worn off, she said. Procedures will be more painful than normal. The horse will eventually be able to run you over or “explode” off the twitch and will be left with a bad impression.
Just as the you remove the twitch, offer the horse a treat and rub his nose.
If you aren’t finished with the procedure, allow the horse to rest a few minutes, and repeat the twitching, making sure to keep it all a positive experience.
Merck Animal Health arranged for McDonnell to help develop the least upsetting way of delivering an intranasal vaccine. If you’ve ever seen a horse get an “up the nose” vaccine, you know they only have to receive it once to avoid it in the future.
At the New Bolton lab, they worked from the behavioral aspects, but also with the actual applicator. Merck came up with a short, easy-to-use applicator that sprays a fine mist into the horse’s nose and doesn’t require reaching the applicator up into the nostrils.
Of course, the same rules of handling apply—minimal restraint, nonconfrontational manner, and don’t forget a treat before and after vaccination.
You don’t have to be confrontational to teach your horse to behave for veterinary procedures. Research has shown that positive-reinforcement-based handling and training can produce positive results and a happy horse.
About the Author
Maureen Gallatin is a freelance writer, founder of Horses on a Mission, and author of the inspirational devotional, An Extra Flake.