Fix Your Needle-Phobic Horse

Does your horse panic at the sight of a needle and syringe? Learn why he says "whoa, no way!" to needles and how to solve this frustrating (sometimes dangerous) problem.
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Does your horse panic at the sight of a needle and syringe? Learn why he says "whoa, no way!" to needles and how to solve this frustrating (sometimes dangerous) problem.

"Well, Doc, he's just a little needle shy," or "he doesn't like vets much." Translated? "He's going to try to kill you if you even think about showing him a needle. I don't know how you're ever going to get near him, much less get him vaccinated/sedated/medicated."

Illustration by Scott Peck

Illustration by Scott Peck

We vets have all seen 'em...those horses that just won't tolerate a needle. They rear, strike, and bite. Some run away, others run us over. Some even twist their bodies into a pretzel trying to kick us out of the way. If you've ever owned a needle-phobic horse, you're probably well aware of how anxiety-producing even yearly vaccination appointments can be; never mind what you'd do if your horse ever had a serious injury or illness. How could your vet ever provide treatment?

For your horse's own good, these needle nightmares need solving - fast. I'm going to help you understand why your horse behaves this way, and explain what you can do about it. Then, I'll give you some suggestions for short-term fixes that you can use to get the job done in a pinch. Most important, I'll help you plan the steps you'll need to take for a long-term fix, so you can turn your horse's needle "whoas" into needle "goes."

Why Does He Behave This Way?
Your horse's no-way needle behavior usually has one of two possible underlying causes: He's truly afraid, or he's just downright defiant.

If your horse is really afraid, he'll usually resist the needle with maneuvers that are all about leaving the scene. He'll run backward across the stall, may rear, or spin away and fling his head. If the stall door is open, he'll try to run through it, dragging his handler along for the ride.

The fearful horse may have become this way because of a lack of handling or bad experience in his past. Sometimes, he's just timid, and listening to what his prey-animal instincts are telling him when he perceives a threat: Get out of there, and fast.

The defiant horse has a completely different story, and typically avoids the needle with an alternative set of tricks. He'll come at you when you approach, often striking or even biting at the person with the needle. He's much more likely to smash you into the stall wall than he is to drag you out the door, and he's a specialist at the pretzel maneuver, curling his body around to kick you if he can. (Give me a frightened horse any day of the week.)

Why is he defiant? Many owners of defiant horses tell me, "I just don't understand. He's always good for everything else." But here's the catch. When I ask that same owner if he or she has ever done anything the horse doesn't like, the owner can't come up with an example. Well, guess what? Just like a child who always gets what he or she wants, a defiant horse will always be pleasant, until you dare to say no. That's when temper tantrums strike.

The Short-Term Fix
Suppose your no-way-needle horse has a severe colic episode, or ugly wound that requires immediate treatment. What are you going to do?

At minimum, your vet will have to administer sedation, usually with a needle. And we vets usually have a pretty good set of tricks up our sleeves to make that happen, no matter what your horse says. You may not always like how these tricks look. We don't always like them either, but bear in mind: Our goal is to help your horse, and keep all of the humans safe at the same time. The following is a list of "get it done" techniques we may need to employ.

Shoulder Roll
What it is: We grasp a large handful of skin at the base of your horse's neck at the level of his shoulder, and roll it strongly around our hand against the underlying muscle. This is sometimes called a skin twitch.

Works best for:

This restraint technique is best for times when a quick needle stick is all that's needed, ideal for a vaccination. Because your horse will usually lean away from the skin-twitched side, it works well if he's a horse that wants to strike, rear, or push over the top of the person with the needle. A skin twitch is especially handy when working without an assistant, because it leaves one hand free to manipulate the needle. It's my preferred technique for rowdy youngsters getting first shots.

Lip Twitch
What it is:
We grasp and twist your horse's upper lip, either holding it in our hand or putting it into the rope loop at the end of a handle (a device known as a "twitch"). Not only does a lip twitch act as a distractor, some believe it also stimulates release of endorphins (the body's natural tranquilizer) in your horse's system.

Works best for: Response to a twitch is highly variable. Some horses respond by standing still, some don't, and how your horse will respond is hard to predict. If your horse is head shy, difficult for oral medications, or just very opinionated about being handled around his face, a twitch will be difficult to apply. If he rears when he resists, a twitch can be dangerous. If the twitch can be applied with minimal drama, however, it can be a very effective restraint tool for almost any situation.

Lip Chain
What it is:
A chain at the end of your lead rope that runs through the halter rings and is applied under your horse's upper lip, along his gums. When pressure is applied to the rope, pressure also is exerted on the sensitive gum tissues, acting as a restraint.

Works best for: A lip chain is a powerful tool. Although it may seem "mean," it's sometimes the only thing that works when it's really necessary to restrain a dangerously insistent horse. To ensure that the chain is effective, not cruel, it's especially important that the person handling the rope is both skilled and sensitive about when to apply and release pressure. In untrained hands, a lip chain can do major damage.

Snub to a Post
What it is: The lead rope is passed around a solid post ideally in a place where the person with the needle can approach the horse from the side but have an escape route nearby. By wrapping the rope around the post to gain extra leverage, the handler can prevent the horse from approaching, whether it's to bite, strike, or kick.

Works best for: Snubbing to a post works well for a horse that's violently resistant, especially one that tries to rear or strike in the direction of the handler when approached. In skilled hands, snubbing to a post is a good single-handed restraint tool. The handler can restrain the horse with one hand and administer a shot with the other, not requiring any additional help.

Oral Sedation
What it is:
Medications can be administered orally that will provide enough sedation to allow us to administer an injection to an otherwise impossible horse. Specifically, oral detomidine (Dormosedan gel) can be very effective for this purpose. Available in a tube similar to the kind used for dewormer doses, this medication must be given under the tongue so that it'll be absorbed through the mucous membranes.

Works best for:

Oral sedation usually takes 45 to 60 minutes to kick in, meaning it's best for a plan-ahead appointment rather than an emergency. And it can be difficult to administer if your horse is as opinionated about oral medications as he is about needles. Finally, oral sedation is not always as reliable as sedation administered by injection meaning it won't always work.

Long-Term Fix

Are you cringing at the thought of having to apply these short-term fixes? The best way to avoid them is with a long-term plan to eliminate your horse's bad needle behavior for good. The approach you take to solving this problem may vary somewhat according to which type of resistance you encounter fear or defiance. However, a similar approach can help in either case, as long as you understand the following factors.

  • Anticipation is often much worse than the actual event. This means that your horse will act out more when you're preparing to administer the shot than when he actually feels the needle.
  • Your horse's bad behavior toward your vet (or whoever else has the needle in hand) is almost always reinforced. Even if he's good, he still gets a shot so in his mind, he's being punished even if he tries to be good.
  • If your horse is afraid, your focus should be on calming, soothing words and gradually habituating him to the upcoming needle. If your horse is defiant, he may still be afraid. Calming and habituation still play a role, but it's especially important that he also learns to respect you. Just like with a defiant child, you have to approach this horse with both kindness and firmness. Rules are important.
  • Many veterinarians will pinch a small section of skin on your horse's neck prior to inserting the needle. It's theorized that this stimulates the nerves to fire in response to the tiny pinch, making the actual needle insertion less painful. To help you formulate your solution plan, ask your vet to demonstrate the method he or she likes best for administering a shot.

A Four-Step Solution
Now that you have a better understanding of your horse's behavior, it's time to embark on solving his problem.

Step 1: Teach an alternative behavior.
Whenever your horse acts badly, it helps to have a strongly reinforced "good behavior" you can depend on to get his focus back on you. I recommend teaching every horse a "head down" response to pressure, which can come in especially handy if he's flinging his head or rearing when it's time for a needle.

I prefer to teach the horse to put his head down in response to halter and/ or bridle pressure, which is really quite simple to do. Begin by applying gentle pressure in a downward direction on the lead rope. The moment your horse drops his head (even slightly), release the pressure immediately, say "good boy" or even give an additional reward (such as a sugar cube or carrot treat), and repeat. In my experience, this head-down behavior can be taught in a short period -sometimes even in a single 15- to 20-minute session. If you continue to reinforce it daily, it'll become such a strong response that it often will override, or at least minimize whatever distracted/fearful/defiant behaviors your horse is exhibiting. (Note: Although it can be controversial, giving a hand treat such as a sugar cube or small carrot piece every three or four times you get a positive reaction may be more effective than simply releasing pressure. For more information on rewards, see the"About Rewards", below.)

Step 2: Habituate to preparation.
Next, you should habituate your horse to the steps likely to lead up to a needle stick. A really willful no-way-needle horse is likely to begin to act out the minute you approach to wipe his neck with disinfectant, or pinch the skin on his neck. (If your vet uses a different technique, here's where you'll take that into account; for the purposes of this discussion, we'll assume he or she uses the popular skin pinch.)

Begin by approaching your horse and wiping his neck with a wet cotton swab. If he stands quietly, say "good boy" (or reward with a treat), and repeat. If he acts out, ask him to put his head down and try again; repeat this process over and over again until he'll let you swab his neck without making a move.

Once he'll tolerate the swab, it's time to add a pinch. Approach, swab, then gently pinch the skin on his neck. Again, if he acts out, ask him to lower his head, and then try again, perhaps making the gentle pinch no more than a touch to start. If he's good, praise (or reward) him, then release the pinch and repeat. Gradually increase the intensity of your pinches until he'll stand quietly for a swab followed by a good firm pinch. It may take 10 tries or 1,000, one day or six months -depending on your horse. You simply have to be persistent and determined.

Step 3: Reward restraint.

Once you've taught your horse to stand quietly for the simple steps that'll prepare him to accept the needle, it's time to take things one step further and teach him to accept things he may not appreciate, such as a shoulder roll or a lip twitch. Particularly useful for the defiant horse, this step accomplishes two goals: It reinforces that he has to behave even when he doesn't like what's happening, and enables you to more easily apply a simple restraint tool when it's needed. It's much easier to teach him to accept these two restraint techniques when they aren't followed by a needle every time.

Similar to teaching your horse tolerance for needle-preparation steps, teaching him to accept restraint simply involves a step-by-step approach where good behavior is reinforced and bad behavior is not. For example, if your horse throws his head when you attempt to apply a twitch, begin by teaching him to let you touch his muzzle; work your way up to holding his upper lip, placing the twitch, then actually tightening the twitch. Use the same gradual approach for applying a shoulder roll. If you teach your horse to accept these restraint techniques using reward as reinforcement, he'll be much less resistant on the rare occasion when he actually gets a shot.

Step 4: Enlist assistance.
You may have reached a point where your horse behaves for you, but what about for your vet? Now it's time to enlist your barn friends, or even your vet, to help advance your horse's acceptance. Begin by asking a helper to follow the same steps you did to get your horse to accept the needle preparation, or even to apply a twitch or shoulder roll. And if your vet visits your barn on a regular basis, ask him or her to see your horse on non-needle days to do the same thing.

Needle problems can be tough, but they're not impossible to solve. With a little bit of effort, you can turn your no-way-needle horse into a model patient. Your vet will thank you for it!

About Rewards
When dealing with behavior problems, methods of reinforcement are important to understand. Many horse trainers prefer to use negative reinforcement during the training, which means taking away an aversive stimulus to encourage a certain behavior. The classic example of negative reinforcement in horse training is to apply pressure, then remove the pressure when the horse responds appropriately. For example, squeeze to go forward, apply single leg pressure to move sideways, or apply pressure on the rope to ask the horse to drop his head.

Positive reinforcement means giving a reward to encourage a good behavior. Although it's not as popular with many horse trainers, it still can be a powerful training tool. For example, give the horse a treat (sugar cube or carrot treat) when he drops his head or stands quietly for a shoulder roll. If you use positive reinforcement, it's most effective when it's intermittent; meaning you reward randomly, every third, fourth, or even 10th time you get a positive response. When it's possible, a combination of negative and positive reinforcement is the most powerful training tool of all.