Behaving for the Vet

vet examining horse

By: Dr. Heather Beach

Having your horse calm and respectful for the vet is important for everyone’s safety. Even if your horse seems to be relaxed and calm about most things, they can become unpredictable and stressed when unfamiliar people approach for unpleasant but necessary procedures. Common veterinary procedures include administering vaccines, giving oral medications, and intravenous injections or blood sampling. Understanding how horses learn and react to unpleasant stimuli can help you prepare your horse for his next veterinary appointment and keep the visit as stress free and safe as possible.

Pressure and Release, How Horses Learn

The most important concept to understand when training your horse to tolerate unpleasant procedures is the concept of pressure and release. Horses learn very quickly through the process of “negative reinforcement.” In this instance, “negative” does not imply “bad” or “mean”. Negative reinforcement is a scientific term that refers to the removal of a stimulus. For instance, if I want to train a horse to move over when I push on his hip, I apply a stimulus (pressure to the hip) and when he executes the desired response (moving over) I remove the stimulus by no longer pressing on his hip (negative reinforcement). This concept works extremely well with true physical stimulus such as physical pressure on the hip, as well as with “energy” pressure created by body language and anticipation of a noxious stimulus.

Many horses who are needle shy have learned to become tense when they are approached by a clinician with a needle. The more tense and anxious they get, the more intense the pressure becomes sometimes due to increased restraint from the handler, determination from the clinician to get the vaccine in, and the overall emotional temperature of any bystanders. This pressure increases until the horse finally gets away from the handler, or perhaps the veterinarian manages to harpoon them with a vaccine just to “get it done.” At this point, the horse has escalated his attempts to avoid the stimulus and finally, the pressure is released. The horse has learned to escalate his attempts to resist the procedure in order to remove the pressure.

If on the other hand the horse has been trained systematically through pressure and release to learn that standing calm and still is the desired behavior that releases the pressure, the whole procedure can progress with much less excitement and drama and is overall safer for everyone
involved. What does this look like in practice? As a veterinarian I often prefer to remove the handler from the equation because I cannot count on them to have adequate timing and ability to read the horse. I will hold the horse myself and find a position where the horse stands quietly next to me holding the leadrope. The next “pressure” I apply to the horse is to gently pat the neck. If the horse is tense or moves away, I may reduce the first step to simply standing closer to the horse until they are quiet again with my presence closer to them. Once they stand quiet I step back out of their space again. Then I will return to petting them. If they step off I will try to keep contact with my hand touching them until they stop moving again, then I will remove my hand to release pressure once they are still. At first I might have to settle for them being “stiller” before they will understand to actually stand still. The next step would be to pinch the skin for a vaccine or to hold off the jugular vein for a blood draw. At each one of these increasing levels of
pressure the horse needs to be trained to understand that the pressure will stop when they are calm and still. This takes a certain amount of “feel” from horsemanship and timing to accomplish properly. In my experience 90% of needle shy horses can be vaccinated or have blood drawn with little issue after 5 mins or less of this type of training. Once a horse can safely be administered an intravenous injection, sedation can be administered for any more invasive procedures.

What can you do to prepare your needle shy horse?

It may not be enough to get your horse comfortable with you by performing pressure and release training at home. Your horse may still be uncomfortable with your veterinarian, and your veterinarian may not have the required timing to read your horse during the horse’s appointment depending on their horsemanship level. This is not to say that you should not work on this process yourself. You should work with your horse at home to establish that they tolerate pinching of the skin on the neck and holding off of the jugular vein while standing still. You can also “pretend” vaccinate or draw blood by using a pen in place of a needle to further work on desensitizing and acceptance of veterinary procedures.

Additionally — talk to your veterinarian about your concerns. If you think that your horse would benefit from a training session with your veterinarian where you work together as a team to improve the behavior, ask your veterinarian if you can schedule an appointment for this. Most veterinarians would be happy to schedule an appointment specifically for behavior modification if it means that the next routine visit is likely to go smoother. Your veterinarian should not be expected to stay longer and take additional time performing a training session at the time of your routine appointment without additional compensation. Your veterinarian needs to be compensated for their time spent working slowly and systematically through the issue with a problem horse.

Positive Reinforcement and Treats

Positive reinforcement training refers to the addition of a reward for the horse exhibiting the desired behavior. The simplest and most common reward is going to be treat/food reward. In many positive reinforcement training programs the “reward” can also become associated with the sound of a clicker. When the horse performs the desired task (standing still, allowing the procedure) they receive their reward (treat or a click). The biggest difficulty with this type of training is being able to have the right timing for giving the treats/reward since in the case of feeding treats, it may involve moving out of the position you are standing in, and the need for a large supply of treats if the horse is taking a while to understand. Furthermore, the horse is likely to get pushy and excited for the treats which will cause more moving around and is counter productive to training them to stand quietly and calmly during the procedure. Many owners like to feed their horse from a bucket while sedation is being administered in order to distract the horse during the injection. This is quite dangerous in my opinion because the horse is not standing still and their neck is moving quite a bit, increasing the chances for the injection to get outside of the vein during administration, or worse, for an inadvertent intracarotid injection whichcan have life threatening consequences. Clicker training itself can be very effective, but takes a concerted effort and may not translate well to your veterinary visit if your veterinarian isn’t familiar with the process of clicker training.

Dr. Heather Beach

Dr. Heather Beach grew up in New England a horse crazy kid. She showed in dressage, jumpers and some eventing prior to pursuing a career in veterinary medicine. Since graduating from Tufts University in 2007, Dr. Beach has continued to have her love for the horse and the equestrian sports guide her career. She founded HBEquine Services in 2022 and provides high quality sports medicine diagnostics and treatments to her clients. Dr. Beach can often be seen helping her partner JJ Lavieri at horse shows, setting jumps, grooming the horses as well as taking care of their healthcare needs. She competes in the jumpers and in dressage and also enjoys bringing along young horses and ponies for resale.