Teaching Your Horse To “Like” The Vet

Ok so “like” might be a stretch, let’s try for “tolerate the vet” or “not be scared of the vet” maybe.

In personal news, I got a dog! He is a rescue and while I love him already he needs a lot of work! He was never socialized properly so he is reactive to pretty much everything. We are in the process of teaching him all about the world now, which includes preparing him for possible vet trips, crate training, muzzle training, physical exams, and anything else that might happen at a veterinarian visit. I want him to recognize the procedures as a fun game that we play at home so that they are less scary when they happen at the vet.

This got me thinking about the things that I think horse people might like to know to help their horses “like” our visits. Helping a horse habituate to certain procedures, and even learning to enjoy them because they come with treats, can really help reduce your horse’s stress, and your own, when you are in a situation where the vet needs to handle them. Vet-based fear can be a very real problem, too often horses only see us when they are sick or hurt, or we are doing something that they consider unpleasant, like vaccines. This means that they quickly learn that they don’t like that person, and they look for ways to avoid us. This can cause more stress and become dangerous when the horse needs to be evaluated or treated.

As you may have read about in my previous blogs, I have done some extra training about Fear-Based Behaviours in horses, and the sad reality is that most of them center on professionals – vets and farriers. Like most things related to training a horse, behaviour modification has layers of complexity and takes a long time to put methods into practice. I want to touch on some basic principles, as well as some specific procedures that are worth practicing.

Important disclaimer – if your horse shows fear with these procedures and in any way becomes dangerous in their attempt to avoid them, please seek help from a professional before practicing!

One important concept that I really like to think about is the “Trust Bank Account”. If you think about the trust your horse has with you like a currency you can imagine that when you first meet the balance is $0. As you experience things together and they turn out okay – good – great then you are depositing trust in that bank account! Every once in a while you make a withdrawal – You say, “it is okay to walk past the scary tarp” but then the scary tarp catches the wind and attacks you = less trust in the account. Or you ask the horse to get on a scary trailer and they do, but it is dark and rattles and the journey is stressful, another withdrawal.  As long as you have a positive balance, you’re doing well! As veterinarians, we start off with that $0 balance and often just keep making withdrawals, we end up in the negatives pretty quickly!

The next concept is Learning Theory – in a nutshell, the way that animals respond to certain stimuli is often based on past experience of the outcome. So if a behavior results in a positive outcome, the animal is more likely to repeat that behavior. If a behavior results in a bad outcome then the animal is less likely to repeat that behavior. This is divided into 4 categories:

  • Positive Reinforcement – a behavior results in the addition of something pleasant – the behavior will likely be repeated (think treats!)
  • Negative reinforcement – a behavior results in the removal of something unpleasant – the behavior will likely be repeated (pressure on the horse’s side goes away when they move sideways away from the pressure)
  • Positive Punishment – a behavior results in the addition of something unpleasant – the horse is less likely to repeat the behavior (You bite me, I hit you and it hurts)
  • Negative punishment – a behavior results in the removal of something pleasant – the horse is less likely to repeat the behavior (this one is harder to make sense of in animals, with humans it would be taking away a toy because of bad behavior or sending a child to a time-out when they want to be at the party)

We use these theories in horse training all the time without knowing it. The primary mode of training traditionally has been negative reinforcement, teaching horses to move away from pressure. This is how our bits work, how our leg aids work, and how our halters work.

A professional trainer will use all of these in combination to achieve a desired outcome. Behaviorists will try to use a positive reinforcement first and punishment as a last resort. This is because it is more pleasant to work with happy animals, but also that research shows us that rewarding the RIGHT behavior tends to work better than punishing the WRONG behavior and leaving the animal guessing at what they were supposed to do instead.

SO with those concepts in place – what specific procedures can people practice to help make veterinary appointments more pleasant? And how do you teach them the right response? There is an art to timing your treats. At first, it can just be that no matter what they do, they get a treat when this thing happens – this builds a positive association and gets them into a mindset to learn. Then you can start waiting for the right behaviour, the treat doesn’t come until you stand still for the pinch on the neck mimicking an intramuscular injection, or step forward, or pick up your leg, etc. These are all things that people can build in to their daily interactions with their horse. Every moment you are together, they are learning something!

  • Meeting the vet is a great place to start. Especially if your horse shows fear based just on the presence of a vet. Try to find ways for the vet to interact with your horse in calm, positive situations. A quick treat in the stall, or cross ties. Work on the balance of that trust bank account before you ever have to make a withdrawal.
  • Have your vet show you how to perform a physical exam. You don’t need to know all of the intricacies of the exam, just how to move your body and manipulate the horse in the same way that we do so that your horse understands the pattern. Most of us do this in a very similar and predictable way. Doing this while your horse is healthy means that you can use food treats! Check the gums – treat, place a stethoscope in the armpit – treat!, thermometer in the bum – treats!!
  • Practice the steps leading up to needles. Stand beside the horse and raise the jugular vein or pinch the skin and then reward. Pinching the neck on both sides. Some horses just know the posture of someone standing square to their neck and they get ready to react, we very rarely stand like that when we are grooming or interacting with our horses. So stand square to the neck and TREAT!
  • Pick up feet and hold them in different ways and for longer periods of time. Please please please do this, even if your horse has pads. Your vet and farrier will thank you!
  • Trailer loading. This is my plea – please practice trailer loading so that if the time comes that your horse needs to get on a trailer to go to the hospital, he will do it without hesitation and without stress. Plan this in the same way that you plan any other training session. Horses don’t start jumping 1.5 m jumps, they start on cavalettis. So learn to approach the trailer calmly. That’s a good first session. Stick their head in and let them eat some food, put one foot on the ramp. Go in and hang out for 30 seconds and then leave again. Keep building that up. Over the winter put the trailer in the arena and just work on loading and unloading, the trailer doesn’t have to go on a trip every time. Make it a fun game with lots of treats and positive, calm energy.

There are so many other things that horse people can focus on and practice with their horse depending on the individual horse’s fears and specific needs. If you have questions about your horse please ask your vet. We are always happy to help you and your horse feel more comfortable with our visits. We feel better about our day when the horses might actually, maybe, like us!

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