Desensitizing to Injections

Having a horse who is afraid of the vet is no fun at all. And it's very dangerous for all concerned. Clicker training is the very best way to address this problem, and I'll share my story with you.

Last year I took on the task of desensitizing our then two-year-old filly to the vet. We've had her all her life, so I knew what the issues were. As a 24-hour old baby, she had to have a transfusion because her IGg levels were way too low. Then, as a youngster, she had to have corrective shoeing because one ankle was crooked, and she had to have a tranquilizer for each shoeing session so she would remain perfectly still while the special epoxy being used on her hoof dried correctly. It was during that time that she became antagonistic to anyone giving her an injection -- and she was violent about it.

Well, shots and vets are a part of life and I saw it as my job to get her past it. I started with basic clicker training -- using a target to teach her how clicker training works.

Then (working in her stall with her loose with me) I started desensitizing her to an assortment of items -- towels, buckets, whips, leadlines tossed over her body -- anything I could think of in order to give her an opportunity to do something clickable. She liked the game and she loved her treats (I use little pastel after-dinner mints). It didn't take very long before she was very relaxed with the game and glad to play. So then I started *playing* doctor.

I'd walk up to her neck and grab a *pinch* of skin, just like the vet would do prior to giving her a shot -- and I'd click her instantly and release the skin. The first few times, she'd flinch but figured out very quickly that this was another CT game. Once she accepted that, I'd grab a pinch of skin and then *bump* it with a fingernail -- she hardly reacted, and it got to be a non-event.

Then, I took her out of her stall for our training episodes and put her on the cross-ties and started at the beginning with just pinching the skin and quickly worked up to pinching and bumping. I started all of this about two weeks before the vet came out for Spring tune-ups. The day that the vet came out, I explained to him what I had been doing and asked him to help me help her to take the next step -- and he agreed.

She was in the barn aisle, not cross-tied but on a lead line that I held. I stood at her head. I had the vet go through the same desensitizing procedure that we had been doing by ourselves: he pinched, I CT'd, he pinched, I CT'd, he pinched and bumped, I CT'd, he pinched and bumped, I CT'd.

Then when I could see that she had relaxed about all of this, I told him to go ahead and give her her shot, so he pinched and injected and I CT'd simultaneously. She did back up a step or two, but then was fine and she got pats and praise from both of us.

The thing to keep in mind is that the horse has built up in her/his mind that this is a life-threatening event. If you use the clicker to take it one step at a time, you can show them that there is nothing scary about it at all.

There is a little prick that hurts, no doubt, but that's all that it is -- kind of like a fly bite.

Lay your foundation calmly, slowly and with rewards for success. There is no better way to teach your horse that he needn't be afraid. And as he learns this, he will make a bond with you -- his safe teacher -- that you wouldn't have otherwise. Good luck and let us know how things progress.

Mary Ann

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