Teaching a Horse About Injections

How do I teach my horse to stand still for vaccinations ?

When I know I have to go for a blood draw, I get anxious just thinking about it.  When it is over I wonder what all the fuss is about.  No amount of training will get me used to that.  But I have learned to sit still and let the nurse get on with it.  If I wriggle she will likely miss the vein and need to mess about finding it, or may even do some damage in the vein.  Since I’m not quiet sure myself what part of it it is that I don’t like then I will never be able to convince myself that needles are ok.  What I do know is that as soon as I walk in to that nurses room my stress levels go up.
I never taught my horses about shots or anything like that, I just taught them how to stand still and I made sure it was a cue that I would only use for the vet, or something like that.  So the horses are never tricked that this is a ‘fun game’.  They know the vet might be about to do something that is not great, and I ask them to trust me stand still for it.

I simply ask Classic to put his muzzle in my hand.  That is all.  His muzzle goes in my hand.  He has had injections, his sheath cleaned out (when he had a bad infection), blood drawn (once with a massive dumper truck reversing and then dumping rocks just feet away from us) and more with no halter on…..just his muzzle in my hand.   He gets lots of secondary reinforcers while I ask him to hold still and then a huge primary reinforcer when it is all done.  Of course it was trained in stages and then duration built-in to it.
Someone once commented that ‘isnt that a displacement activity’ when I showed them what I taught him and he yawned….yes, it was.  And it is always noted, but I never want to kid him about this cue.  When he does this the next thing coming might not be nice and I will never kid him or trick him on that one, and I need him to stay still with me and not move.  So when I demo it he often shows a displacement as he is not sure what is about to happen.  There is no vet there so why would I be asking him to do his ‘vet procedure’ statues stand.
If the horse is afraid of something I never trick them.  I never try to pretend it is something else.  I might only ever get one shot at it if I do that and the next time there is no way they will trust me…I tricked them in to trusting me before.  Once bitten twice shy.  IMO, honesty is the best policy when training.
Just like with my dislike of needles, I can’t predict what it is about the vet/shots/needles that my horses don’t like.  It could be the needle going in, it could be the sensation of the pressure induced by the syringe, it could be from the occasional vet who manages to miss a vein and has to ‘root around’ or something else entirely.  I can’t train for all of those, but what I can train for is for them to stand quietly.
My horses are experienced enough with needles/vets that they know when the vet arrives that something unpleasant is about to happen.  So they are already emotionally elevated when they see the vet.  I have the advantage of knowing the nurse is about to stick a needle in my arm, they don’t know what the vet is about to do to them and that uncertainty will make them anxious.
I am reading a book just now that has huge implications for our horse training.  It is about stress and stress management in humans, but I have oodles of pages marked because they are SO relevant for our horses.  I have just read a chapter where it talks about coping with stress when you have a perceived control over the situation.  So if you are stressed and you feel like you have some kind of control over the situation (you don’t actually have to be in control you just need to feel like you have some control) then the stress reaction is massively reduced.  If you do not have that feeling of control then your stress reaction to the same situation is massive.
When we ask our horses to do things that may cause them anxiety, if they have no perceived control over it then the stress levels will go sky high.  However, if we can teach them that they have some control over this then their stress levels will come down and we, as handlers, will be able to mange them so much better.
This, to me, is essence of clicker training.  We are teaching our horses to speak up and have some say in their lives and have some control. 
My equine dentist has my horses loose for the entire procedure.  She lets them walk away and she listens to them when they do.  She waits for them to come back to her.  And they do.  She lets them have some control over the situation and the whole dental procedure is much simpler, and probably over with a lot faster.  I can see in the horses faces how much less stressed they are with this approach.
How we give control, whether that be perceived control or actual control, is where we as handlers need to be smart.  Do we really need to hand over some control for every situation, or do we just need the horse think they have some control.
For Classic and the vet….we only go ahead when with the shot when he voluntarily puts his nose in my hand.  He tells me when he is ready, so I give him some control over the situation.  We will still go ahead, but he gets to manage it in relation to how he feels.
Perceived control is a lot harder to manage and is where stereotypical behaviours can come in to play.  The horse performs a behaviour to manage their emotions.  They have perceived control over their environment, if they perform this behaviour the stress reduces therefore they may feel they managed the stressor.  But in fact the stressor never changed, they only have perceived control.  The same is true for superstitious behaviour….we do little routines because “3 years ago when I did that everything worked out the way I wanted it to”, but in fact it was just coincidence.  However, doing the superstitious behaviours gives us perceived control over the environment and therefore reduces our stress levels.
I even have superstitious behaviours for blood draws…..my blood flows better in nurses room 5 (not 4 !), all because I ended up in room 4 for the first 3 or 4 blood draws and the nurse could not get blood (turns out the vacuum in the tubes was faulty on one occasion, she missed the vein on another and so on).  Then one day I was called to room 5….the nurse hit the vein first time, it hardly stung at all and my blood flowed just fine.  Now I have a superstition about the nurses rooms, it is purely superstitious and it definitely helps me manage my stress levels, I’m much calmer when I get called to room 5 and I even tell the nurse when I walk in that my blood flows better in this room !
I have no doubt the horses learn the same superstitious behaviours…”the last time this vet arrived a this time in the morning she got the vein just fine and it was all over in a heart beat”.  So they calm down and stand still as they have perceived control.
I guess what I am trying to say is….training for things like shots might not be as straight forward as asking them to accept a little sting in the neck while the needle goes in.


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One Response to Teaching a Horse About Injections

  1. This was really helpful for me to read when you posted it to the list Amanda. My vet comes this morning so I will let you know how it goes 🙂

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