Preventing Problem Behaviors During Veterinary Procedures
When it comes to performing equine veterinary procedures, a well-behaved patient can improve efficiency, safety, welfare, and client satisfaction. The key is to instill this good conduct according to the horse’s natural behavior and cognition.

At the 2017 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Nov 17-21 in San Antonio, Texas, Sue McDonnell, PhD, CAAB, described how to perform five common mildly aversive veterinary procedures using learning science and behavior modification techniques. McDonnell is the founding head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, in Kennett Square.

She first laid out a few general guidelines for introducing new veterinary procedures to horses:

  • Make it as painless as possible;
  • Maintain the horse’s positive motivational state;
  • Avoid confining restraint, when possible, and inadvertent punishment. Give the horse some wiggle room so he doesn’t feel trapped, and wear protective gear such as a helmet and sturdy shoes so you can remain more relaxed.
  • Guide and shape the desired response you want from the horse, while ignoring the undesired response;
  • Avoid the “avoidance cycle” (e.g., repeating the same approach every time a horse avoids a procedure); and
  • When using an assistant, find someone who’s calm, quiet, relaxed, and nonreactive.

Then McDonnell described the main procedure aversions and how to handle them. For each scenario, she recommended veterinarians select a comfortable, low-stress setting and use only loose restraint. Ignore unwanted behaviors, and offer a food reward as positive reinforcement immediately before and after the procedure.

Needle Sticks

For procedures such as blood draws or vaccinations, use the finest-gauge needle possible. Stabilize the syringe hand on the horse, pressing lightly to maintain contact if he moves while sticking him. McDonnell also recommended scratching the horse’s withers to mimic mutual grooming 30 seconds before and, if possible, during the needle stick to distract him, maintain his positive motivational state, and release endorphins.

If the horse has already developed problem behaviors, McDonnell said to rehab these by:

  • First stimulating the injection with a skin pinch, then sticking the horse up to 10 times at varying levels of discomfort (systemic desensitization).
  • Target-training the horse to hold his muzzle against a target for several seconds, during which time he receives the injection, to receive a food reward (counterconditioning).
  • Performing the needle stick while leading the horse forward confidently (overshadowing).
  • Properly applying a skin twitch, gum chain, or lip twitch.

Oral Treatments

First spend a minute or two scratching the horse’s withers or rubbing his face. Then, in the smallest syringe possible add a sweet liquid (e.g., Karo corn syrup, molasses, applesauce) to the treatment and dip the tip of the syringe into something sweet. (If the syringe tip is sharp, you can place soft tubing over it, said McDonnell.) Draw the horse’s head to a comfortable level using a treat, if needed. Then stabilize the syringe against the side of the horse’s face, maintaining contact if he moves, raises, or shakes his head. Once the horse is relaxed, advance the flavored syringe tip to the crease of his mouth. Then rotate and insert it through the interdental space, aiming toward the tongue and avoiding the gums, teeth, and palate. Express the treatment slowly.

McDonnell said she encourages owners to practice this at home with a syringe of sweet liquid daily for at least 10 days, then weekly or monthly as needed.

If the horse has already developed problem behaviors, she suggested distracting the horse by drawing his head low with food or target-training the horse to hold his muzzle to a target at a conveniently low height.

Eye Treatments

If applying an ointment, first rub the horse’s face in a soothing manner. Then stabilize your hand on his face, maintaining contact should his head move. Once the horse relaxes, advance the applicator tip to the medial canthus (inside corner) of the eye to deliver the ointment, then continue rubbing his face and immediately offer him a food reward.

McDonnell said owners can practice this daily by massaging the horse’s face and around his eyes before gently touching the corner of his eye and offering a food reward.

Again, if the horse has already developed problem behaviors, the handler can distract him by drawing his head low with food while touching his face, or target-training the horse to hold his muzzle to a target at a conveniently low height. More challenging cases might require a skin twitch, gum chain, lip twitch, or examination stocks, said McDonnell. These should be used in a calm, respectful, nonpunitive manner.

Intranasal Vaccination

Because many veterinarians and owners have had unpleasant experiences administering these, Merck Animal Health recently developed a mist applicator that does not need to be inserted up into the horse’s nose. To administer it, said McDonnell, hold the syringe so only a tiny tip (no more than ¼ inch) is exposed between your thumb and index finger. Stabilize your hand on the horse’s face, just above the nostril, with the applicator tip pointing toward the nostril. When the horse is relaxed, while maintaining contact with his face, rotate your hand to direct the tip into the nostril and express the mist.

Owners can practice this daily by rubbing around the horse’s nostrils and offering a food reward. McDonnell said particularly anxious horses might benefit from regular handling of their nostrils and muzzle to desensitize them to the process and associate that manipulation with a treat.

Rectal Temperature

While holding the thermometer in your palm with the tip along your index finger, begin by gently massaging under the base of the tail, moving toward the horse’s anus. Most horses will naturally relax their anus and lift their tail in response. At this point you can place your index finger on the anus and insert the thermometer tip.

Owners can perform this soothing massage daily and even add a verbal command to prompt the horse to lift his tail. With problem horses, you might need to start massaging from the mid-back toward the tail, while offering food rewards.

Above All, Stay Calm

With all these procedures, said McDonnell, focus your attention on maintaining the horse’s relaxation and tolerance, rather than getting distracted by undesirable avoidance behaviors. The owner, veterinarian, and any assistants should remain calm and unreactive at all times and focus on prompting, anticipating, and immediately reinforcing good behavior. She also emphasized avoiding verbal or physical punishment.