Needle-shy horses: what should you do? *H&H VIP*

  • Just producing a long, sharp needle in front of some owners is enough to make them leave the stable in a hurry. This doesn’t matter, because someone else can hold their horse while he’s injected. But what if it’s the horse himself who wants to get away?

    A needle-shy horse is expecting something unpleasant as soon as he sees the vet. In human psychological tests, this stage of anticipation is rated as more unpleasant than the painful event itself. The problem is that the horse is usually right — the majority of vet visits do involve an injection, a vaccination, sedative, nerve blocks or joint medication.

    What’s more, we know from magnetic resonance imaging studies of the human brain that fear and anticipation further increase the pain felt when the injection is finally given. It would follow that on each occasion, the horse’s needle phobia gets worse.

    When a vet is called to inject a needle-shy horse, the first aim is to get the injection done safely. After that, however, vet and owner should work together to break the cycle of fear and resistance.

    The biggest obstacle to injecting a scared horse is a scared handler. A nervous owner may think they’re using soothing words, but their body language and tone of voice are shouting, “I’m frightened, because I know something bad is about to happen!” The horse then takes his cues from that.

    It goes without saying that the vet needs to be confident and unafraid. It’s important, too, that the horse is adequately controlled. If he is prone to plunging forwards, a bridle or Chifney is essential.

    Nervous owners often make the mistake of standing back. If the horse then rears or strikes out, being several feet away puts the handler in the firing line. The safest place is up close, against the horse’s shoulder. Both handler and vet should be on the same side because if the horse spins around, the vet will be facing the rear end.

    Taking aim

    Each vet has their preferred injection technique, which will vary according to the horse. In general it is sensible to use the finest needle possible, and sliding this in slowly is better tolerated than a sudden jab.

    A vaccination injection into the muscle is relatively easy — there is a large area to aim at, so it is less hazardous if the horse moves around during the procedure. Taking blood or giving a sedative, however, involves an injection into the jugular vein. This is large and handily placed in horses, but to inject safely does require the patient to stand still for at least a few seconds.

    One particularly helpful technique for keeping a horse stationary is the “neck twitch”. Start by stroking and soothing a nervous horse, then slowly take a firm grip of a fold of skin on his neck, just in front of the shoulder.

    Twisting and tugging gently on this helps to keep many horses still, making it possible for the vet to insert a fine needle directly underneath the neck twitch without the horse noticing.

    Nose twitches are best avoided as needle-shy horses can suddenly stand up on their hindlegs.

    Allowing the horse a few moments to get used to the vet is important, as is maintaining a calm manner at all times.

    Assess the horse’s expression. Most horses are scared, but some are simply angry and resistant. In these cases, a stern tone of voice can be enough to make them submissive.

    If a horse is becoming aggressive, lead him out of his stable, preferably into a quiet, open area. Removing him from his own space makes him feel less dominant, as well as giving everyone more room. For a particularly difficult horse, oral sedation can be given before the vet arrives. As an absolute last resort, confining a horse can be considered to administer an intramuscular injection, but consider all other options first.

    Step by step

    Techniques such as these usually make it possible to inject a difficult horse, but it remains a stressful experience and does little to cure the horse’s phobia.

    To achieve this requires a programme of behaviour modification, which takes both time and patience. The aim is to turn an injection from a negative experience into one the horse actually enjoys.

    This is done by breaking down the process of injecting into a number of small steps — approaching the horse, preparing the syringe, touching the injection site — right up to giving an injection with the finest needle available. The aim is to have the horse accept each single stage in turn before progressing to the next. This desensitisation is combined with a food treat as a reward for good behaviour. Crucially, the treat is only given each time a stage is accepted.

    This positive reinforcement can be combined with the technique of “overshadowing”. This works on the principle that a horse cannot concentrate on two stimuli at once. The handler may therefore give the horse a command to step back at the same time as introducing a stage of the injection process. Having to concentrate on the neutral cue of stepping back reduces the horse’s focus on his fear of the needle.

    The ultimate aim is for the horse to realise three things: that the injection does not hurt much, that it cannot be avoided and that it will be followed by a reward. This may sound obvious, but the training has to be structured and consistent so that, for example, there are no mixed signals of voice or body language that create uncertainty.

    Achieving this will typically take several hours split into 15-minute blocks, with top-up sessions afterwards. If your horse is bad with needles, such training is nonetheless a very worthwhile investment in future good behaviour.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 26 October 2017