vet checking horse's mouth
The creature pressing itself into the corner of the dark shed wasn’t exactly a fire-breathing dragon, but at 500 pounds, it wasn’t a fluffy bunny either. The rolling whites of its eyes showed clearly that the colt saw *me* as the dragon. This weanling was one of many such patients – left untrained and unhandled until it was time for veterinary procedures.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard clients say things like:
“We’re waiting to halter-train him until he’s two. We want him to just be a horse first.”
“We can’t take him to the vet school. He doesn’t load in the trailer. We haven’t worked on that.”
“No one can give him shots. He’s needle-shy.”
“Is there something we can hide in his feed? I don’t know how we’re going to get the medication into him otherwise.”
“He’s never had his feet trimmed; we can’t pick them up.”
“Oh, we can’t catch him. We thought you could just give him something to calm him down.”
At the best of times, horses are big, strong, and reactive as you would be if your evolutionary job was to be dinner for carnivores. This combination of traits makes them innately dangerous – to humans and to themselves.
Large animal veterinary medicine is dicey. Veterinarians are generally doing things that are at best uncomfortable and at worst painful, and we have no way to tell our patients that it’s for their own good. And when those patients are roughly 10 times our size, things get interesting.
At some point, every horse will need to see the veterinarian. These visits can be made to less resemble the middle of Jurassic Park by training the horse to be accepting and even happy about some basic procedures.
Happy, did you say? Yep, happy. Using treats and patience, it’s possible to not only get your horse to accept things like handling and trailering (and even needles), but to enjoy some of them.
Having a horse means taking the responsibility for being able to provide care in a way that keeps everyone (humans, horses, small villages) safe.
Start with the basics:
I shouldn’t have to say it, but halter training is key. Every horse, regardless of age and size, should know what a halter is and be able to have one placed, worn, and taken off comfortably. This isn’t rocket science, but it is critical. By about two months of age, the average horse outweighs the average human. Controlling the head with a halter diminishes some of the size gap using leverage. However, the goal isn’t to see who can win a game of tug-o-war. (Spoiler alert: trophy goes to horse; human gets muddy and rope burned.) Instead, we want a happy, compliant horse who grows up thinking it’s a good idea to follow the human holding the rope.
DO NOT leave a nylon halter on your horse. Halters have a bad tendency to catch on things, horses have a bad tendency to pull away, and horses break more easily than nylon.
You want to know what will set back the path toward halter-training Nirvana? Having a horse who experiences a halter for the first time in order to be jabbed with needles – as you might guess, this makes their initial experience less than ideal. Still, I’ve lost track of how many times a first vaccination appointment has turned into an impromptu halter-breaking session. And no matter how gentle the veterinarian, there is no way to properly use positive reinforcement and counter-conditioning in the time span of an appointment.
If you aren’t experienced, work with a professional to get your horse gradually used to the halter.
Safety note: Never do anything with your horse that is beyond your comfort and experience level. If you are uncertain how he will react, or you’re a novice, enlist a pro. Please.
Reward each good behavior: horse touches the halter with his nose – treat; horse lets the crown strap be rubbed along his neck – treat; horse puts nose through halter – treat…you get the idea. Never end a session with a battle; in fact, try to avoid battles altogether – work on setting your horse up to succeed. If he is antsy about a particular aspect of haltering (say having the strap placed around his neck), work slowly to the goal, rewarding him each time, and stopping BEFORE you get to the point that upsets him.
This process comes into play throughout this essay. Basically the plan is to help the horse associate new things with comfort and treats; we want him to realize the lead rope is typically not a snake; syringes aren’t giant, fanged insects; and the thermometer is not an alien probe.
We don’t want him to think bandages are trying to eat his legs or that the farrier is a foot-eating-gremlin. We want him to associate oral medications with treat time.
We want him to be excited to go into the dark metal box on wheels (the trailer). Rather than having him think of the trailer as a dark, dragon-hiding cave, we want him to recognize it for a luxury food palace that goes fun places.
Believe it or not, all these things are possible.
Side note: my first horse so loved trailer rides that I could just toss the lead rope over her withers and tell her to “load up.” One day she got so excited about going to a show that she trotted toward – and PAST — the trailer, coming to a confused stop next to the truck. She looked rather ashamed when she turned around to try again. What was the secret? Food. She knew she got fed in the trailer, and most of the time she went on a trip it was to do something she loved; this horse ADORED going to shows. She loved having her picture taken and people making a fuss over her.
The first step toward using positive reinforcement to help get your horse used to these things is to find out what he loves. For a young foal, you’re going to mostly be working with pets and scritches until he gets into eating solid food. On the other hand, most adult horses are more excited about food items than they are about kind words or petting.
So what does your horse like? Carrots? Apples? Mints? Horse cookies? My mare even thought ice cubes were treats.
Next find a safe, well-lit place to work. Ideally, the area should be enclosed and small enough that your horse has to acknowledge what’s going on but large enough that the two of you aren’t competing for escape routes.
Third, no matter what you are working on, bring your patience. This isn’t going to be a one-hour break-the-bronc session. This is more like helping a child learn to read. Keep it easy, keep it fun, and keep it short.
Start with basic ground work – haltering, leading, grooming, and handling feet. For grooming and foot handling, start near the shoulder and work slowly toward the head or feet. Linger in areas where the horse seems comfortable and, don’t forget the treats! If they start to move away, back up to where you were before, and move slowly back to the place where they got restless – stop before you get there and apply treat.
Once your horse is comfortable being haltered, scratched, brushed, hoofpicked, and led, then you can start working on the more veterinary-specific things.
You can get them used to the idea of vaccines by poking or tapping the muscles in the neck and hind legs with a hand or finger. Again, start slowly and work up. TREATS. Once they don’t mind the “finger syringe” you can use something firmer and narrower, like a ballpoint pen. Remember, the main goal is to get your horse to associate being poked in those muscles with good things happening. Try to get him to the point where you are giving the treat when he stands still for being poked.
Getting your horse used to being scritched around the base of the tail can go a long way toward getting them used to a thermometer. Many horses will respond by slowly relaxing and raising their tail a bit. That’s a good time for a treat. AGAIN, SAFETY FIRST. Don’t try this at home with a horse that has a history of kicking or that is fussy around his hind end. And you should always be standing close to the horse’s flank. Once your horse is comfortable being scratched and brushed around the base of the tail, you can gently slide a finger under the tail toward the anus. Remember, stop BEFORE your horse shows signs of agitation. Eventually you can work your way up to rubbing a gloved, lubricated finger over and just barely into the anus while a partner gives your horse treats. Then it’s time for the thermometer. Use a digital thermometer, and for the love of rectal exams, please hold onto it. Those things can get “sucked in” and then a simple temperature-taking becomes a veterinarian-manned fishing expedition.
Some horses don’t like the “beep” of digital thermometers, so it may be a good idea to get your horse used to the sound before it ever goes near his hind end.
Speaking of the other end of the horse, oral medications aren’t nearly as scary or hard to train for as they may seem. Many owners have said to me, “We can’t get oral meds into him; he throws his head.” When I ask for a demonstration, most of the time the scene is exactly the same. The very nervous human (clearly expecting disaster) steps in front of the horse, and practically closing their eyes, jabs the paste syringe toward the horse’s muzzle. The horse, both sensing the human stress and wanting to escape the thing hurtling toward its nose, flings its head up. Then the human walks away saying, “See?”
Interestingly, as soon as I take the paste syringe and poke it toward the front of the owner’s face, they immediately understand what’s been going wrong. No one likes having something shoved at their face.
I like to start by rubbing a large syringe (empty or containing a bit of corn syrup or molasses) along the horse’s shoulder and up its neck (notice the shoulder starting point again). Just like before, stop periodically where the horse is comfortable and give a treat. Eventually, you’ll work your way up the neck to the cheek, then down the face to the corner of the mouth. It’s nice to have something sweet on and in the syringe so they can taste something yummy as the syringe enters their mouth.
As with everything above, don’t wait for disaster or illness to get your horse accustomed to the trailer. If the first time he goes for a ride, he is in pain and shoved into the dark, noisy box, and then unloaded at a place where there is more pain and scary stuff, you’re going to have a lot to undo.
On the other hand, if you get him used to seeing the trailer as a source of food (start by placing hay at the entrance and gradually moving it forward) you reward him as he makes progress toward getting in, soon you can both go on fun adventures (not to the vet) together.
This may sound like a lot of work, but let’s face it, owning a horse is a lot of work. Anyone who tries to tell you differently is trying to sell you – well – a horse.