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Training horses to behave during common procedures

by
01 January 2016, at 12:00am

“ALMOST all the unwanted behaviours in horses we see as vets are a consequence of inadvertent negative reinforcement,” according to Gemma Pearson, a senior clinical training scholar in equine practice at the Royal (Dick) school.

In a presentation at the 2015 International Society of Equitation Science Conference, in Vancouver, Canada, she said that the three most important things to remember when handling horses for veterinary examinations were (1) correct application of negative reinforcement, (2) learning to recognise signs of arousal, such as an elevated head position or tense muscles, and (3) understanding how to properly shape behaviours.

“For example,” she continued, “if when you raise the vein of a needle-shy horse and he rears, you remove your hand. The horse is not being naughty, he is just repeating the behaviour that removed the hand last time. But if you keep your hand on the horse’s neck until it stands still and relaxes, and then remove it for a second, the horse will stand still and relax next time it is nervous.”

She urged veterinary surgeons and handlers to avoid training a fear response into horses when working with them.

“If you are using a stethoscope to listen to heart rate or gut sounds, don’t just walk up and slap the cold stethoscope on the horse. Approach the horse and stroke his neck or scratch his withers first. Then work your way down to the area you want to listen to,” she advised.

When administering oral medications or de-wormers, Miss Pearson said she starts by holding the syringe by the horse’s cheek and each time the horse lowers his head she takes her hand away – a form of negative reinforcement. She moves the syringe closer and closer to the horse’s mouth and touches the corner of the mouth and lips with it a few times before actually administering the medication. If a horse is particularly averse to this, she sometimes dips the end of the syringe in molasses first.

When giving an injection, Miss Pearson suggests starting by having the handler walk the horse back and forward several times to ensure he or she has control of the horse and also to distract the horse from the task at hand. Next stage is to scratch the neck and withers to encourage the horse to relax before moving to the area being injected and scratching it vigorously. 

As with oral medications, she places the syringe on the target area, while still scratching the horse’s neck, and removes it each time the horse lowers his neck. She advised giving the horse a couple of minutes break periodically; and when it is calm and accepting of the syringe, administer the injection.

“It typically takes 30 seconds to two minutes to work with a needle- shy horse,” she said. “If you’re not getting the response you want, you might be asking too much and need to take it back a step. Using negative and positive reinforcement can help avoid difficulties.”