Q&A: Help for a needle-shy horse

With patient, step-by-step training, you can teach your horse to behave better when he needs to receive injections.
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With patient, step-by-step training, you can teach your horse to behave better when he needs to receive injections.

Question: My 14-year-old mare is terrified of injections. She swings her hind end and stiffens her neck so the veterinarian can’t get near. Our veterinarian suggested we desensitize her by pinching her neck and poking her with toothpicks. Nothing has worked. I really don’t want to twitch her because this is already traumatizing her. When she was young she had a bad experience with a different veterinarian, and I guess she’s never forgotten it.
Do you have any suggestions on how to calm her so she isn’t needle freaked? My mare is generally good-natured with no health problems.
Susan Baker
Waukesha, Wisconsin

Answer: Any number of horses feel the same way about the veterinarian that yours does, and who can blame them? It is unpleasant to get shots, even when you understand why you need them. I actually find it more remarkable that most horses don’t mind. Here is what you can do to make this task safer and easier for your horse.
First, assess her ground manners in general. Be honest with yourself and consider asking a trainer to watch you interact with her. Does she fully and consistently respect your space, and do you hold her attention and control her movement at all times? If not, this is where you need to start. Only when you have established yourself as her unquestioned leader will you have any chance of controlling her when she is frightened. A number of natural horsemanship trainers and clinicians offer specific groundwork exercises for assuming the role of leader.
Once you have gained your mare’s respect on the ground, see what happens with a stranger. Does she challenge a new person, or does she have consistently good manners? What if the situation is a little scary or unfamiliar? You may need to enlist the help of a professional trainer if your mare is difficult to control on the ground.
If basic manners are not the issue--or after you have addressed any problems that you did find---then I agree with your veterinarian: It is time to desensitize your mare to the experience of getting shots.
Set yourself up for success by allowing plenty of time to work on this and lining up a friend to help you. If your mare’s problem is severe, you will need multiple sessions. To get ready, cut up a treat into tiny bits: Thin slices of carrot or little chunks from an alfalfa cube work well---just be sure to use something you know she likes. Put your mare in a regular halter with a chain lead over her nose or use a rope halter if you prefer. You’ll also want something long and slim that resembles a syringe; I usually start with a ballpoint pen because I always have one at hand.
The first step is to determine the point in the procedure when your mare starts becoming fearful. Is it the sight of someone with the syringe in hand? Is it when you reach for the neck or touch the skin? That’s where you will start.
When I do this process, I usually take the horse to a safe stall with firm, even footing. My assistant holds the horse with her rump near a corner and her body almost parallel to the wall. If the horse is fearful of me entering the stall, we start there. If she stands still when I walk in, she gets a treat from my assistant and I walk out. If she moves, she is dispassionately and firmly put back in place and I leave. She then gets a treat at the instant she is standing quietly where she belongs.
When she tolerates me entering the stall we move to the next step: I walk up to her, near the neck, close enough to give a shot. And it works the same way---if she stays still, she gets a treat and I leave, but if she moves she is firmly put back in place and I leave once she is there.
Each subsequent step proceeds in the same way: Once the horse is comfortable with me standing near her, I place my empty hand on her neck and leave. Then I place a blunt object, like the capped end of my ballpoint on her neck, and I leave. Then I use the pointy end of the pen. And finally I use the capped syringe, and ultimately, I give the shot.
At each step, my assistant is firm, calm and insistent that the horse stand where she belongs, even when she doesn’t want to. The reward for good behavior is that the horse receives a small treat as I move away. Only good behavior is rewarded. Unless the situation is getting dangerous, I try not to move away until the horse is being good, because my leaving the stall is a powerful reward. If the horse gets upset by a new step, we go back one or two steps and review before going forward again.
After I give a shot it is not uncommon to need to start over if the horse needs a second shot. However, we usually can move through the steps much more quickly the next time. I understand how frustrating it can be to have to start over on this whole process, but it is imperative that all of the people involved in this training remain calm at all times. When you feel your patience growing thin, end the session.
Not all veterinarians are willing or able to offer this training service. When I do it, I charge a behavior modification fee that, in all honesty, is expensive. This is a time-consuming process. However, it is well worth it to improve safety and decrease stress and fear in the horse and handlers alike. If you can manage this desensitization training yourself, you will save money and have a better relationship with both your horse and your veterinarian.
Good luck! And thank you for caring enough for both your horse and your veterinarian to address this stressful problem!
Melinda Freckleton, DVM
Haymarket Veterinary Service
Gainesville, Virginia

Melinda Freckleton, DVM, is a veterinarian at Haymarket Veterinary Service in Gainesville, Virginia. A graduate of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Freckleton enjoys riding and competing in dressage and taking care of her dogs, cats and horses on her small farm.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #463, April 2016.