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We have seen you a number of times at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo and love the way you work with horses. We desperately need your advice. We have a 2 year old filly who weighs in at about 1000 lbs. We have done all kinds of groundwork exercises and desensitization exercises with her. She is golden…until its time for immunizations. She will not tolerate a needle. She is getting hurt in the process, as are the people around her. We even tried snubbing her (tying her to a post and squeezing a gate against her). I thought she was going to break her neck or tear the barn down. We are running out of options. If we don’t come up with a solution very soon we will have no other option but to put her down. Please help!
Many horses become needle shy, especially if they had to be given a series of shots when they were young, due to an injury or sickness. Once a horse has made a negative association, there is nothing you can do to erase it, but you can replace it with a different association. The problem with a needle shy horse is that you cannot really practice, since you would not want to give a horse a shot unnecessarily. We try to avoid giving shots to any horse if we can. For instance, if your horse needs an antibiotic, spend a little extra money and give it by mouth. We rarely give penicillin injections anymore, in an effort to avoid the emotional injury, soreness and potential for abscess or allergic reactions. While there are certain medications that can only be given by injection, I do not see why you would have to put a horse down if it is needle shy. I would simply not vaccinate the horse or give it injections if it could not be done safely and take your chances with the results. To desensitize the horse or to replace this unwanted behavior with another, you can try this routine. First, use an alternative site for IM injections like the chest. Second, set up a series of cues or stimuli that are far different from what normally happens with an injection and use pattern conditioning. See articles on my website for an explanation of pattern conditioning. We did an episode/DVD about how to give your horse oral medications that will show you a similar process, too. It’s called “Bad Medicine” and was taped in Martha’s Vineyard. Seeing the process will help you understand just what to do.
For instance, you might start by doing a circular massage of the area where the injection is to be given, followed by giving the horse a treat. Use the exact same approach, routine and technique every time and repeat this step over and over until the horse knows the routine and is eagerly awaiting the treat. You may even want to give some visual cues or verbal cues at the same time. Your goal is that when you go through these antics the horse will be thinking about the treat that is coming and not about the shot. Then add another step, which may be pinching up the skin, followed by a cookie (only give the reward when the horse gives the response you want-to stand still and accept what you are doing). Repeat again and again. The next step might be to add wiping the spot with alcohol, followed by the cookie; repeat. Then perhaps you’ll approach with the syringe and needle, but not give the shot, followed by a cookie. Eventually the horse will develop a pattern of behavior that keeps him relaxed and willing during your preparation for the shot and he will be very happy about the whole thing because he has associated it with food. At some point, you’ll be ready to try the injection (but only give an injection that is necessary and try to minimize them). Go through all of your antics so the horse is thinking about the cookie and not the needle. The actual stick that the horse feels is very minimal, at least with a smaller needle, like the size used for vaccinations. When a horse is needle shy it is an emotional reaction and not really a reaction to pain. If you use a small gauge needle and a quick stick, the horse won’t feel much at all. Ask you vet to show you good injection technique that will minimize the stick the horse feels on another horse. Avoid excessive confinement or force whenever you are doing something potentially frightening to a horse because that will only increase the horse’s fear. Also, realize that your horse may have made an association with the fear of needles and your vet. Your vet has an appearance, smell and demeanor that your horse recognizes. So you may not be able to let your vet give injections. Take your time to make new associations with this horse and above all else, make sure that you are safe. If you can’t give an injection, look for alternatives or take your chances that the horse will contract whatever disease you are vaccinating for. Good luck and be patient and safe.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host