Terrible or Tolerant? Training Horses for Vet Procedures

One of the most frustrating scenarios for horse owners and veterinarians is the horse that’s hard to treat.
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One of the most frustrating scenarios for horse owners and their veterinarians is the horse that is difficult to treat. We all have known such a horse, one that might start out fighting the annual Coggins blood sample and vaccinations. Or the one that dangerously refuses placement of the rectal thermometer. Or the one that successfully avoids the eye ointment or oral deworming. All too often, one thing leads to another, and you can’t even get in the stall safely with the vet on the property. You have tried everything from the twitch to the blindfold. The more restraint, the more the horse fights. You start weighing the risks and benefits of "messin’ with him" for routine preventive care. When you really do have to treat the animal, it becomes an explosive wreck. When he has a problem serious enough to require a trip to the hospital, signs are plastered on the stall door, "Caution: horse has an attitude!" Great, now everyone hates the horse that hates the vet. What can you do?

My usual first recommendation is to stop fighting with such a horse, and instead turn the effort toward teaching the horse to enjoy veterinary procedures. Yes, a realistic goal. Even the most difficult horse can learn to comply willingly with veterinary procedures for a reward.

Behavior modification to overcome procedure shyness costs almost nothing if you can do it yourself, except some time with your horse. Most people who have been battling with a non-compliant horse typically are amazed at how little time it does take to turn a horse around. What it will require is patient, calm, and consistent application of some straightforward behavior modification principles and techniques.

Most people find behavior modification a lot of fun. Some even feel a little silly at first. But the results are almost always immediately positive. If you are successful, there are many benefits. The horse will be a joy to treat, and so will have a better life and greater general trust in you. And all the people involved will have learned some powerful tools that are widely applicable to all sorts of human-animal interactions

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Written by:

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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