One of the most frustrating scenarios
for horse owners and their veterinarians is the horse that is difficult
to treat. We all have known such a horse, one which might start out
fighting the annual Coggins blood sample and vaccinations. Or the one
that dangerously refuses placement of the rectal thermometer. Or the one
that successfully avoids the eye ointment or oral deworming. All too
often, one thing leads to another, and you can't even get in the stall
safely with the vet on the property. You have tried everything from the
twitch to the blindfold. The more restraint, the more the horse fights.
You start weighing the risks and benefits of "messin' with
him" for routine preventive care. When you really do have to treat
the animal, it becomes an explosive wreck. When he has a problem serious
enough to require a trip to the hospital, signs are plastered on the
stall door, "Caution: horse has an attitude!" Great, now
everyone hates the horse that hates the vet. What can you do?
My usual first recommendation is to stop
fighting with such a horse, and instead turn the effort toward teaching
the horse to enjoy veterinary procedures. Yes, a realistic goal. Even
the most difficult horse can learn to comply willingly with veterinary
procedures for a reward.
Behavior modification to overcome
procedure shyness costs almost nothing if you can do it yourself, except
some time with your horse. Most people who have been battling with a
non-compliant horse typically are amazed at how little time it does take
to turn a horse around. What it will require is patient, calm, and
consistent application of some straightforward behavior modification
principles and techniques.
Most people find behavior modification a
lot of fun. Some even feel a little silly at first. But the results are
almost always immediately positive. If you are successful, there are
many benefits. The horse will be a joy to treat, and so will have a
better life and greater general trust in you. And all the people
involved will have learned some powerful tools that are widely
applicable to all sorts of human-animal interactions.
The general principles of learning that
can be applied to teach a horse to comply willingly with injections,
nasogastric tubing, genital manipulation, or any other mildly annoying
procedure are the same learning principles that animal behaviorists and
psychologists have studied for decades. The background research,
terminology, and details are described in most introductory animal
behavior or psychology textbooks. The same principles work with a circus
elephant, our pet dogs, our kids, us as adults, and our horses for other
types of training.
In addition to the general principles,
for any species there are some specific techniques that take advantage
of that animal's innate behavioral characteristics, size, or strength.
These general principles of learning and equine-specific techniques can
be effectively applied by just about anyone competent to care for a
horse. Actually, much of the magic of a good horse owner or of many of
the horse training experts is consistent application of the laws of
learning. The specific techniques might vary, but in the end much of
what successful horse owners or animal trainers do all comes down to the
same simple principles.
What Causes The Aversion?
Before we begin, there are a couple of
important points to consider. First of all, horses--like any other
animal--are born naive to the domestic world around them. Newborn foals
might have an innate fear of humans in general. That usually is overcome
readily with repeated exposure that has a neutral or positive experience
for the foal. When it comes specifically to needles, tubes, or
veterinarians, a foal's first response typically is neutral or even
curious. Depending on the experience, positive or negative, the foal
will either become more leery or more compliant.
So, it's useful to appreciate that for a
procedure-shy horse, the resistance most likely is based on negative
experience. In other words, the horse learned to dislike
veterinary procedures. Its experience so far in life has summed up to
negative when it comes to certain procedures.
This is not all bad news. First, if a
reaction or association has been learned, then it can be unlearned or
re-learned. The animal's response easily can be reversed from negative
to positive. His recent experience relative to the procedure just has to
sum up to a positive.
Second, it's likely that your horse is
fairly smart. Although there is no scientific data to back up the
contention, many clinical animal behaviorists agree that
procedure-resistant individuals often appear to be among the most
intelligent in terms of associative learning ability. These often are
the animals that take very few repetitions to learn or re-learn just
about anything we normally expect horses to learn.
In my experience, horses which have
started to "know the minute the vet drives in," or which
appear to be able to see the tube of dewormer behind your back, have
exactly the learning ability that will enable them to overcome procedure
shyness quickly with organized behavior modification.
It also is important to realize that
appropriately conducted veterinary examinations and treatments should
not be painful. Injections, jugular stick, insertion of a rectal
thermometer, or other ordinary veterinary examination might be mildly
aversive or slightly uncomfortable for a moment, but not painful enough
to evoke escape or serious resistance from an otherwise well-handled
So, when a horse starts to be seriously
non-compliant, it is time to step back and evaluate the whole picture,
looking for what has become aversive to the horse. Improvements very
often can be made in the method of restraint or the manner in which the
procedure is done to reduce the aversiveness.
One simple example we see frequently
comes from our work in reproduction. It is common practice to wash a
stallion's penis with warm, clear water before breeding or semen
collection. Most stallions tolerate this procedure, and actually come to
associate it as a positive step leading up to breeding. For horses which
resist the procedure, a common problem is rough handling of the penis
during washing or drying that leaves the surface of the penis abraded.
Another common problem is for a handler of the horse to be worried and
anxious that the procedure will hurt the horse. Their anxiety seems to
elicit concern from the horse.
I certainly have worked with people with
genuine extreme concern, particularly for young horses, that had to be
addressed before progress could be made with the horse's compliance. One
very nice young boy I know who was holding his pony for eye treatments
would let out a shrill yelp each time the veterinarian was just about to
squeeze the ointment along the eyelid. Of course, this affected everyone
For gaining compliance with any
procedure or manipulation, it is useful to consider that the job
requires sending three basic messages to the horse:
1) The procedure doesn't really hurt
2) Ordinary resistance or reasonable
reaction will not stop the procedure.
3) Tolerance of the manipulation can
lead to a reward.
For this to work, you need to ensure
that the procedure is in fact as painless as possible, at least at
first. For restraint, I like to use the minimum necessary for everyone's
safety. It's good if you can avoid restraint that itself invokes
discomfort or fear. For many procedures and horses, I like to work in a
large, quiet enclosure with good, quiet footing and plenty of head room.
This allows for some safe wiggle room without a crash and goes a long
way toward keeping everyone calm. I like to use a simple halter and
cotton lead shank. If the horse has been charging, rearing, or striking,
I like to use whatever safety gear gives me the confidence to remain
calm--safety shoes, helmet, and sometimes a safety vest.
Consideration should be given to making
the most aversive part of the procedure, say the needle stick or the
nasogastric tubing, as painless as possible. This is particularly
important during the re-training. (It also goes a long way in preventing
procedure shyness in naive horses.) When re-training needle-shy horses,
for example, I try to use a very tiny needle--22 or 26 gauge--for the
re-training. Once they get through the procedure and get a reward, the
larger needle usually is tolerated.
The behavior modification procedure
itself is simple. All you need is the horse, the usual equipment for the
procedure, and a reward. For most things I use a palatable food reward,
in which case I do it before mealtime, and often in lieu of the meal.
First, for whatever procedure the horse has been resisting, you just
make a list of the preliminary procedures, identifying several distinct
individual steps that lead up to the actual procedure. Then each step is
repeated and rewarded individually several times.
In the case of jugular stick, your list
might include: 1) approaching the stall with the syringe in hand; 2)
entering the stall; 3) opening the wrapper of the syringe; 4) uncapping
the needle; 5) holding off the vein; and 6) touching the vein, or
whatever the preliminary steps used by your veterinarian.
If the horse is one which has started to
anticipate even the very early steps, be sure to include those in your
list of increments. Each one of these steps should be performed several
times independently of the others. They don't necessarily have to be in
the logical order. At that point, each element has to become a positive
for the horse. For most situations, I like to use a small food treat
paired with a simple verbal response, such as "Good," spoken
with a consistent tone. By association with the food reward,
"Good" will become a conditioned reinforcer that will carry
positive value alone. The conditioned verbal reinforcement is very handy
for times when you cannot deliver the primary reinforcer--the food
treat. Unlike a pat on the shoulder, the verbal reinforcer is hands free
and is usually always available. Once it is well established, it can and
should be used intermittently as the only reward for the procedure.
The goal is to repeat and reward each
preliminary step until the horse indicates behaviorally that he
perceives that element as positive. How do you know that the step has
become a positive event for the horse? When he begins to approach you or
reach for his treat, you know that he now associates that step with a
positive outcome. You can move on to another step. Once all of the
preliminary steps have switched from negative to positive, you can start
putting them together in the logical sequence.
Remember the procedure-shy horse is
likely to be smart enough to distinguish the particular sequence that
leads to the needle stick. He will likely need a reward for the actual
linked sequence, in-cluding the actual procedure itself.
You should reasonably expect that the
horse might have some setbacks. It is important to calmly expect them,
and try not to become frustrated or punish the horse. I like to think of
animals in this situation as little calculators adding up the positive
and negative experiences associated with various events, then behav-ing
according to the sum total. Strong voice tones, over-restraint, or
explosive wrecks can represent inadvertent punishment, sending the
message that this really is a nasty procedure and that the person doing
it is to be avoided and feared. When there is some relapse, just back up
to a step that the horse still views as positive, and go again.
A common observation is that this all
works well until you get to the point of the aversive part of the
procedure. Then the horse starts to pull back or resist, so he never
gets the reward for the entire procedure. Much of the skill--perhaps
art--of doing this type of behavior modification is being able to ride
out some minor resistance safely, and so get to the point of completing
the procedure and the reward at the end.
In an open area, the horse can move
around a bit and you can calmly stay with the horse and the procedure to
get the job done and get to the reward. If it is successful, the horse
can continue to learn that the procedure was not all that bad this time
(smaller needle, gentler approach). It also will teach the horse that
simple movement doesn't avoid the procedure.
One repeatable phenomenon that can get
you sidetracked involves your reactions to minor resistance of
the horse. If you flinch or jump back each time the horse flinches, some
horses appear to read your reaction as confirmation that this is a scary
procedure. Others seem to learn a game of directing your behavior. They
flinch, you jump; they flinch, you jump. Beyond avoiding the veterinary
procedure, they have a fun new game of "make my handler jump!"
For horses which have proceeded eagerly
through compliance with all the preliminary steps, then resist the
actual procedure, it is effective to offer the treat as a distractor
during the procedure. In the case of injections, this can work very
well. Many horses seem not even to notice the actual stick when they are
rooting around for a few grains of sweet feed in the bottom of a deep
bucket. In the case of a jugular stick, the bucket can be used to draw
the horse's neck out for good exposure of the vein. Once you are
successful with the distractor bucket, it is good to continue with the
step until the horse accepts treatment without the distractor. In other
words, the horse will need to learn to wait for the procedure to be
completed before the reward is given.
Once compliance is gained, it is good to
continue with the same gentle, non-threatening, and as painless as
possible approach. Intermittent reinforcement with as little as a
one-in-10 ratio of primary reinforcement will maintain compliance. In
the worst cases of procedure shyness, the re-trained horse sometimes is
described as "short-fused" or "leery" of new
handlers for a long time, maybe for the rest of its life.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long will it take? For most
horses, it will take less than a couple of hours of interaction with the
horse over a few sessions. This procedure seems to work well when it is
undertaken as an exercise outside the context of actual treatment. Like
everything, when you're not in a hurry, it never seems to take much
time. When there is urgency for complete success, it sometimes seems to
take longer. It is not easy to predict how much time it will take for
any given horse and handler pair. Some of the toughest horses and most
inexperienced handlers have achieved rapid success. There are a lot of
factors at play, including the basic temperament of all involved.
It is also hard to say how best to pace
the training. At the extremes, I have seen success in one 15-minute
session. Sometimes multiple sessions are required per step, meaning
weeks of diligent work.
There are guidelines. During any
session, it's probably good to end before the horse loses interest and
before he has earned his full ration of treats. When there is plenty of
time, my usual goal is to get through at least two or three preliminary
steps per session. Of course, the longer you spend reinforcing
compliance with each element, the more positive experience the horse is
acquiring. So if there is no need to rush, just relax and enjoy. It
rarely takes many sessions, and all that matters is that each session
has some progress. The session should end on a positive note. It is
useful to begin a new session by repeating the last successful step in
compliance a few times before starting a new one.
Following are some of the questions that
are asked frequently when we are dealing with the general principles of
learning when applied to horses.
Does the food reward create a
"mouthy," nippy horse?
Sometimes it can. If that seems to be
happening, you can switch to giving the reward from a special container
used only for that purpose. Most horses will distinguish the source, and
will not nudge for treats unless the container is present. That way you
can put up with the eagerness for treats during the re-training, then
eliminate the treat container and the associated mouthiness once you
have achieved compliance. You also can teach the horse to wait for the
What about relapse?
I have known horses which have relapsed,
then using the same training procedures, compliance has been regained.
While it is sad to watch a horse gain and lose trust in people over and
over, most can keep at it indefinitely, getting wiser with every round.
Is it true that horses which have
gone through a bout of critical care with lots of injections and other
poking and prodding--perhaps at an early age--are doomed to hate
No, just as the laws of learning would
predict, it all depends on the quality of the experience. Actually, some
people whose horses have had a round of intensive care comment that the
horse's experience taught the horse to comply with just about any
procedure. We know from working with hundreds of horses in research
settings, where there is variable opportunity for organized positive
experience with veterinary procedures, that the more experience, the
better the willing compliance.
Is it ever too late to turn a horse
around on veterinary procedures?
Depending on the resources available, I
generally would say no. That is, not for a horse which is otherwise
normally interactive with people and other horses, and is just resisting
When treating a horse, is it better
to hurry up or to take your time with the ouchy part?
Almost always it is better to proceed
very calmly and smoothly, but without hesitating or being jerky with the
uncomfortable part. This is the one reason why I sometimes recommend
getting help from a professional for the initial re-training of a severe
case. Enlist the aid of someone who is especially talented and confident
with the uncomfortable part of the procedure. Skill and confidence helps
with the smooth, committed approach that horses seem to like.
Should I use a twitch?
A twitch applies pressure to the
sensitive nerve endings in the nose. This inflicts pain, which initially
distracts the horse from either noticing or responding to an unpleasant
procedure. It usually particularly inhibits movement and kicking. That's
why it is often used to restrain mares for breeding. The pain causes a
release of natural analgesic chemicals in the brain--known as endogenous
opiates or endorphins--which then likely mask both the pain at the nose
and any discomfort elsewhere. You will see that after a few minutes, the
horse might get a droopy lip and drowsy, glazed-looking eyes. This
drowsiness corresponds to high levels of endorphins in the blood. After
about 10-15 minutes on the twitch, most horses become agitated. Some
seem to explode or "blow the twitch." This behavior
corresponds to lowering blood levels of endorphins, perhaps because the
brain has temporarily depleted its supply.
Some horses seem to grow in their
dislike of the twitch, while others don't. This might be related to how
the twitch is applied and whether or not the twitch was removed during
the relaxed drowsy (positive) state or whether they reached the
obviously unpleasant point of "blowing the twitch."
So for mildly painful, brief procedures,
a twitch will give some added security. For most ordinary examinations
and treatments, I recommend teaching the horse to comply as we have
described, rather than twitching. If a twitch is used, it is useful to
accustom the horse to the twitch in practice sessions. These sessions
will allow the operators to more effectively learn how to apply the
twitch smoothly to the individual horse, as well as to learn the horse's
typical behavioral response and the duration of twitch tolerance.
Practice sessions will allow a calm and unhurried approach, which will
maximize the possibility that it becomes a tolerable emergency