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Horse Problem - Shot/Needle Fears - How to desensitize a horse to shots









QUESTION: Hi Sylvia. Have you got any suggestions on how to make your horse take needles better? My grey gelding hates needles. I call him Mr. Sensitive because he gets really angry at me when I give him a static shock. I can understand the ones that you can hear snap. Late winter here when it is quite dry he started to get all head shy around me until I realized that I was shocking him; after that I started grounding myself elsewhere before touching him. My other horse was fine, didn't bother him at all. So if he is sensitive to static, imagine the nonsense that goes on with a needle. My lads need their teeth floated, so I would like to do a bit of schooling with them so that [sedating him with a shot] just goes a bit smoother.

REPLY:  To desensitize a horse to needles/shots, get a practice syringe with no needle (the needle removed). Start off rubbing the horse all over the body with it so that he thinks it's just a "grooming tool." Take your time until he's comfortable with just that. I find that most horses that fear needles/syringes are not really so much afraid of the shot itself, but they associate that instrument with forced manhandling in the past. Horses should never be "pinned down" or trapped or forced for the sake of getting a shot in them. This only creates future problems in this category that will increasingly escalate over time.

The long way is the short way. The time we take to break it all down into baby steps, to desensitize them to the process, will fix the problem forever. And this means: no force or manhandling. Gentle advance/retreat is the name of the game here.

As you are rubbing the horse down with the dummy syringe, notice where he doesn't want you to go with it and for now respect that and stay this side of that threshold line. Find a "base" place he is comfortable being rubbed with it (usually the back area). Rub and scratch him pleasurably with it. Once he accepts that, dart quickly over his threshold line there and just as fast, go back to where he was comfortable being rubbed with the syringe. Repeat. Soon the threshold line is redrawn.

Say your shot location goal is the neck area, where most horses receive shots...advance/retreat your way there via rubbing him with the syringe, darting quickly over the threshold line and retreating fast back to base (an area he accepts). Keep in mind that it is the retreat phase that the horse grows inner confidence, so don't be goal-focused there, but be retreat focused.

I also want to point out here that you should be ongoingly manually relaxing the horse throughout this lesson, whenever you see the horse over-tensing up. You can use horse whisperer "tricks of the trade" to facilitate that relaxation instantly (which replaces their tense, fearful state instantly) -- namely: use a finger in the corner of their mouth to "feather" their tongue, to get them working their mouth and also drop their head (both of which instantly produces relaxation in the horse, automatically) -- I go over those two key techniques you need to use here, on my web site here:

Horse Whispering "Tricks of the Trade" - To relax horse, build trust & bond them to us

So...if I'm desensitizing a horse to something like a syringe they fear, I'm going to be alternating between relaxing the horse throughout, and using advance/retreat with the instrument they fear. I'm teaching them (or reteaching them as the case may be) that: you have nothing to fear in this syringe. I'll take care of you, and I'll also take care of your emotions for you.

By the time I've worked up to the neck (shot area) in desensitizing the horse to the syringe, using advance/retreat, I can usually now linger a little longer in the neck area, rubbing the horse with the syringe for a bit, before retreating again. I do this many times. Soon I can remain in that neck area just rubbing the syringe all around there with no negative reaction on the horse's part. Now I can move to the next stage of this desensitizing.

In this phase, I will be rubbing the neck area with the syringe and now I'm ready to prepare him for the "shot stages." (But pretending at first, no needle involved!) I pinch a small hunk of skin in that neck area just like the vet is going to do when giving shots, then I quickly release the skin and go back to rubbing with the syringe to keep this process pleasurable. Using this advance/retreat, I'll slowly be able to pinch the skin for longer periods, pulling a hunk of skin out that will be the shot site, then releasing, rubbing.

The next phase of this desensitizing will have me pinching the skin and placing the dummy syringe (no needle) in place like I'm giving a shot, but then quickly releasing the skin and rubbing the area again with the syringe. I do this many times, many repetitions, until that is no big deal to the horse. Again, I will stop and manually relax the horse whenever I see that is needed, via my finger in the horse's mouth to feather the tongue & get them working their mouth, then dropping their head. I want a horse on rational, calm, accepting mode here, so I'll intervene with those techniques whenever I see the need to keep them on that more-relaxed mode.

Soon I'm gently pinching the neck skin, pretending to give a shot with the syringe, using the plunging action on the syringe, and it's no big deal to the horse. That's a good place to stop the lesson, put the horse up for some soaking time -- The ultimate release for doing things right.

I will go back to this lesson a number of times, over days, until I see that there is no issue. Not until then do I want to allow for a real shot given. By that point the horse treats the entire ordeal very "ho hum" like. Not an issue at all. When it's time for a real shot, I do nothing differently there. Rub the horse a bit with the syringe, pinch the skin, but this time there's a real needle there. Do it fast, rub the area right afterwards (to erase any sting, though most horses rarely have an issue with that part if you've done your pre-work like I've described). It's no more than a fly bite you quickly rub away for them. And end on a high positive via relaxing them again if needed.

Another little tip you can try, when it's time for a real shot, and it's something I do often -- horses can usually only think of one thing at a time -- so, right when a vet is ready to give an actual shot, the needle ready to go in, I will be the one holding the lead rope of the horse, and I will suddenly start scratching vigorously their favorite spot, like: behind the ears or under the chin. Scratch the usually-itchy spot with your fingernails, heartily, and they don't usually feel the shot the vet is giving at all, because their brain was focused on the being-scratched itchy spot. But this is after all the above desensitizing is done, of course.

People get themselves into trouble in this category via being too goal focused and too forceful, only focusing on "completing the task," and hence getting rough with the horse there, they create their own problems in this category. When the truth is, the long way is the short way. Take the time to desensitize the horse to this process and it will be no big deal to them at all.

Give that a try. Be patient. You're undoing past bad training/past bad experiences there (human caused usually), and that means you need to back up and start over. Using advance/retreat, manually relaxing the horse throughout, and taking your time to fix this once and for all. And this doesn't have to be fully accomplished in just one lesson. With a bad enough problem in this category, you can break it down into several lessons, just making sure you end on a positive always in each lesson. Squelch the human tendency to be too goal focused and switch to being retreat focused. Remember: all horses learn from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself, that they did the right thing. The retreat is the release, so do hundreds of retreats in retraining such problems as this, and the horse will get there faster.

I hope this helps and good luck to you there!

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