By Julia Mosier
The truck rumbles up the lane in the distance. Your horse is beside you, neck braced and ears forward, already aware of what’s to come. The veterinarian gets out of her truck and greets you and your horse pleasantly, but no number of pleasantries will stop the dreadful performance which has begun; something which can only be described as a clumsy attempt of a tap-dancing gelding. As you try your best not to be wrangled into the show, you wish for a way to make routine vaccinations a day of less misery.
The Danger of a Fearful Patient
It is not uncommon to see a horse tense up at the sight of the vet truck, toss her head in response to an incoming oral medication, or dance around as the needle draws near. While the trepidation our equine partners feel in anticipation of these negative experiences is not unjustified, it is dangerous and prevents our ability to provide them with top quality care.
Equine veterinarians take on one of the riskiest civilian careers out there. In a survey of 620 equine vets in the UK, nearly 2,300 work-injuries requiring medical treatment and/or time off from work were reported. This puts the average number of injuries per year higher than that sustained by prison service personnel or police officers.
Why Sedatives Don’t Fix Everything
While sedatives can be extremely helpful in the management of horses during veterinary visits, they come with their own shortcomings. First, the process of administering sedatives can be a stressful experience for some horses. Additionally, sedatives have significant effects on an animal’s heart rate, respiration, and gastrointestinal motility. While in most patients these effects are not harmful, serious complications can arise.
Even when administered at a proper dosage, sedatives do not prevent the possibility of injury to the owner, handler, veterinarian, or horse. In the same UK survey, over 30% of the injuries experienced by veterinarians occurred despite proper use of sedatives and restraint. Additionally, a sedated horse is more likely to trip or fall, potentially injuring itself and those around it.
Lastly, the use of sedatives increases the cost of any procedure. While these medications are necessary for many procedures, their use in diagnostics is often not required unless the horse is fearful or unwilling to cooperate.
3 Basics to Behavior Modification
It is not unreasonable that some horses are fearful when receiving veterinary care. The good news is that through desensitization, counterconditioning, and reinforcement this fear can be modified. These behavior modification strategies as outlined by UC Davis Veterinary Professor Melissa Bain allow for the gradual replacement of negative associations with a stimulus to neutral or even positive associations.
Desensitization is the process of slowly introducing a negative stimulus, beginning at a level which does not cause any distress to the horse. As the horse grows confident at a given level of the stimulus, it is increased, until the horse can handle the full stimulus.
Counterconditioning takes this process one step further, giving a positive stimulus, such as treats or a scratch, while the negative stimulus is present.
Reinforcement is an action which increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcement can be positive, such as by giving a treat when a behavior is done correctly, or negative, such as taking away a threatening stimulus when the horse does not react to it. Often both forms of reinforcement are used concurrently while desensitizing and counterconditioning a horse.
The use of positive reinforcement in horse training has many benefits. Horses will learn a task in fewer trials when given a treat in reward, and be more willing to trust humans and novel experiences. Yearlings trained to stand still for veterinary procedures using positive reinforcement are more willing to stand, display more positive body language during the experience, and retain the skill better after not practicing for 6 months, compared to those not trained with positive reinforcement.
When moving through the process of behavior modification, it is important to treat each horse as an individual and respect its level of comfort during the process. While flooding the horse with the item or person they are fearful of may result in the completion of the veterinary task, it also acts to propagate the horse’s fears. Instead, using incremental steps through desensitization and counterconditioning, and rewarding small improvements supports your horse’s cooperation and learning. By focusing on these small achievements, you and your horse will feel successful at the end of a session.
Training Your Horse to Receive Oral Medication
When considering training for veterinary procedures, it can be helpful to consider not only the desensitization process but also any tasks your horse could learn to make the process easier. We will look at these two components with an example of the steps you can use with a horse reluctant to receive oral medication:
Train for the helpful behavior: Lowering your horse’s head
a. Apply light pressure to the halter in a downwards direction
b. Gradually increase the pressure until the horse moves away, in any capacity (remember every little step is progress)
c. Provide reinforcement
Negative reinforcement — remove the negative stimulus (pressure being applied by the halter) when the horse has responded to it
Positive reinforcement — offer a treat or a good scratch to improve your horse’s willingness to be involved in the learning process
d. Repeat — continue the process of applying light pressure, gradually increasing until the horse moves away from the pressure and rewarding for doing so. Continue the process, practicing for a few minutes before or after each ride, until only light pressure is required.
Train for the fearful behavior: Receiving oral medication
a. Start without the stimulus: using just your hand, determine how comfortable your horse is with touching his face. Find a place on his face that he has no reaction to being touched.
b. Starting with your hand in a comfortable location, move it to an area on his face which shows slight discomfort. While keeping your hand in this location, offer a treat, then remove your hand.
c. Repeat this process until you can touch his mouth without a negative reaction
d. Once you can comfortably touch the outside of his mouth, use one finger to gently pull back the corner of his lips (being careful not to get near teeth!). Reward by removing your hand and offering a treat
e. Repeat this process until you can apply pressure to the corner of his lip without a negative reaction
f. Begin with your stimulus: find a place you can hold an oral syringe (such as a used de-wormer) where your horse is not worried by it. This may be down at your side, or it may be five feet away with someone else holding your horse. At this location, reward your horse.
g. Bring the stimulus slightly closer, to a point where your horse notices it but does not react. Reward your horse with a treat, then remove the stimulus.
h. Continue this step-wise process until the horse does not react to the empty syringe being placed in his mouth. This may take minutes, or it may take weeks.
i. Once he is comfortable with the empty syringe going in his mouth, consider filling it with apple sauce to practice the administration of a “medication.”
Combining the two new skills
a. Hold the syringe near your horse’s mouth in one hand, and ask for him to put his head down with the other
b. Reward the slightest give to pressure with release and a treat, and do not be alarmed if he is not as willing to perform the task with the syringe present. Any change in the environment may warrant a change in his behavior.
c. Repeat the process until the horse readily drops his head with the syringe present
Keep in mind throughout the training process that this will likely require many sessions. When the goal is a calm and willing partner, it is worthwhile to take baby steps, moving at whatever pace your horse needs. Keeping sessions to a few minutes a day, and assuring the horse is comfortable at each level before moving onto the next will result in a horse with more confident and consistent behavior in the long run.
What if my Training isn’t Enough?
Training a fearful horse is no small task and can strike fear in the trainer themselves. When the process feels overwhelming it never hurts to call for professional help. Veterinary behavioralists, such as the UC Davis Behavior Service, help animals and humans gain confidence in their partnership and can provide individualized help to any number of behavioral problems.
1. Baine, M. (2019). Biological Basis of Behavior: Truths & Consequences in Behavior Modification [Powerpoint presentation]. Received from UC Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
2. Innes, L., & McBride, S. (2008). Negative versus positive reinforcement: an evaluation of training strategies for rehabilitated horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 112(3–4), 357–368.
3. Parkin, T. D. H., Brown, J., & Macdonald, E. B. (2018). Occupational risks of working with horses: A questionnaire survey of equine veterinary surgeons. Equine Veterinary Education, 30(4), 200–205.
4. Sankey, C., Richard-Yris, M. A., Leroy, H., Henry, S., & Hausberger, M. (2010). Positive interactions lead to lasting positive memories in horses, Equus caballus. Animal Behaviour, 79(4), 869–875.
5. Williams, J. L., Friend, T. H., Nevill, C. H., & Archer, G. (2004). The efficacy of a secondary reinforcer (clicker) during acquisition and extinction of an operant task in horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 88(3–4), 331–341.
About the Author
Julia Mosier’s passion for horses began at three years old when she took her first pony ride. Now, she attends UC Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine (DVM class of 2022) to pursue this passion as a future equine veterinarian.
This blog post is sponsored by Fluxergy. We are bringing the first stall-side equine PCR device to the veterinary market.