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Fear of Vets

15 August 2011 No Comment

Fear of Vets
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

Question
I own a 12-year-old Paso Fino gelding who is terrified of the vet – mainly of needles, but he has learned to fear the vet without needles being involved as well. I have owned this horse 2 1/2 years now. I know only a small part of his “story”, but nothing that can directly relate to his fear of needles. I have a vet who is willing to work with him, but he isn’t getting much better. He will fight and panic and do anything to avoid a needle anywhere on his body.
The last time we did routine vaccines, we spent over an hour soothing him, massaging him and relaxing him. But as soon as he smelled the vaccine it was all over. He got ugly with his feet and starting shaking his head and neck. Well, the vet had gone out of her way to spend as much as she had, so we ended up hobbling a front leg and blindfolding him to get the shots in him.
She went slow and numbed the spot, but he felt it and still struggled. When it was all over, we spent another 15 minutes soothing him and relaxing him.
I don’t know what to do to help this horse get over his fear. Do you have any suggestions at all?

Thanks Charlene Marley

Answer
Hi Charlene, It mostly sounds like your horse has major trust issues with humans. When what you describe occurs, I immediately think negative past history, or a horse that has never developed “true” trust in humans in the first place. A negative experience wouldn’t have to necessarily be regarding needles, or paste worming, or feet trimming, etc. Its just lack-of-trust in general either from other negative experiences, or from never having trust in the first place. When a horse is willing to go after a person with their front feet and gets extremely violent, that’s a horse that is going-over-the-edge hysterical and is in a fight-or-flight response. They are in a panic and feel like they are fighting for their lives and they will do whatever is necessary to either get away, or get that which they are afraid of away from them by attacking. Hobbling is an option with some horses, but only if it teaches them that although they couldn’t run away, they were never at any point hurt. Your horse sounds like he is in such an extreme react-mode that he can’t think at all, he continues to fight and struggle, so he’s not probably learning much of anything by being hobbled, and in fact is being reinforced regarding his distrust in humans. It just fortifies in his mind that we really are “evil” sometimes (even though you really aren’t). An interesting analogy is the Nevada Mustangs that I adopt from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

When they are captured, they are understandably terrified and will sometimes do some very violent things to try and escape. However, once they are at the adoption facility and are allowed to settle down for awhile, various vehicles can be driven in the big pens and they will associate vehicles with feeding time and nothing bad happening, so that’s a positive, and they are not afraid of the vehicles. Once again though, much like when they were captured, a negative occurs because they must be immunized, wormed, have their feet trimmed, etc, so now the experience turns negative again as they are put in chutes and such to restrain them so that they don’t injure themselves or the handlers. The handlers don’t set out to harm the horses, and in fact they aren’t being harmed, but the Mustangs perceive what is being done as a total negative because they never had trust in humans to begin with. The Mustangs are in a constant flux of negatives and positives, with never a chance of developing any kind of “true” trust in humans. The first thing that I do when I bring my adopted Mustang/s home is leave them alone and not place any pressure on them. I go and just sit outside their corral and read a book and just talk to them. I become a part of their scenery. After a few days, or a few weeks (depends on the horse), I begin getting them used to grain and carrots, something that many times they have never had. I chop up everything and mix it in with their hay. Once they acquire a taste for the goodies, then I switch to bucket feeding them and eventually hand-feeding. Once they associate me with the positives of goodies, hay, water and no negatives, then I can begin modified clicker training and begin to establish their trust in me. What I would suggest with your horse would be to begin using modified clicker training and gain his “true” trust. By teaching your horse certain “focus” cues and learning to respond to a sound or voice “marker”, you will be able to calm your horse when normally he would just go into a fight-or-flight response and you can then turn any interaction into a positive instead of it escalating into a total negative. I would begin with just normal, everyday interaction such as leading your horse for example. Begin by walking and then asking for “whoa”.

When your horse complies with this simple request, “mark” the positive behavior by saying “good” or whatever word works for you and then reward your horse with either a treat, or scratching in his favorite spot. Anything that is enjoyable and a positive for them. When your horse understands that “good” means that they have responded positively to something that you have asked for and then they receive a treat, you can then start asking things of your horse that are more fear-provoking for them. Maybe have a syringe dispensed to you by your vet and start by just carrying the syringe while around your horse. As your horse responds positively to the syringe and gets rewarded for positive behavior, then put some liquid wound medication in it and handle your horse while carrying that. Make sure that you “mark” even the smallest amount of positive behavior from your horse and reward him. As you do the modified clicker training, your horse will begin to learn to associate you, and any events that occur while you are around, as not threatening or negative. You will be able to draw your horse’s focus to you in fear-provoking situations where you can then positively reinforce their good behavior. This will help create more and more trust that your horse will have in you. Personally, I don’t spend much time desensitizing my horses to tarps, and trailers, and wash racks, and saddles, and syringes and needles, and……. The list can go on-and-on into the millions of things that I would have to individually desensitize my horse too. I instead create a trusting, respectful and understanding relationship between my horses and I and in this way– when I ask them for something that may involve objects that they are not familiar with, they look to me for their confidence and security and they do whatever I ask because they trust me. My responsibility to my horse/s is to never ask something of them that will hurt them mentally or physically. So, although an injection does pinch to a certain extent, it does not really cause horrible pain, so my horses learn that it is no big deal and that I can be trusted to not let them get hurt. If my horse stays focused on me while something is being done such as an injection, there in fact are positives of praise and reward for standing quiet and steady. If you can become your horses anchor and “rock”, your horse will learn to go to any extent to do as you wish. I know that my first horse Star would have walked through fire for me if I had asked her too, that is how much she trusted me, so I of course would never ask for anything that might harm her and destroy her complete trust in me. It sounds like you have a great vet who’s willing to help work through some issues with your horse. What I would do if they are willing, is include them the next time they come out in befriending your horse by participating in a little bit of the clicker training that you will have been working on if you take my advice. Have your vet be the one to “mark” the good behavior with the word “good” (or whatever word you have chosen to use as your “marker”) and then reward your horse. If your horse can learn to trust that nothing horrible will ever happen to him as long as you are around, and that in fact other humans such as your vet are also trustworthy, his need to flee or fight will dissipate and then disappear as he learns to trust humans. I know to many people this approach seems to “touchy-feely” or soft, but if I can get things accomplished with my horse/s by establishing trust and understanding between us, that is always the direction I will go because its a positive and relaxing approach that creates harmony.

Sincerely,
Laura Phelps-Bell

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