Written by Shari Hack Jones
When it’s time to administer medication, de-worming paste or electrolytes, if your horse avoids the syringe, what can you do?
For the last two years I’ve studied various disciplines of natural horsemanship. There are several flavors of natural horsemanship, but the basic principle is to use positive reinforcement to train a horse rather than punishment or coercion.
One of the horses I spend time with on the weekends is an older Quarter Horse mare. The first time I met her owner, when it came time to worm her, he tied her with two ropes to the rail because she was known to pull back and break a rope to get away from the worm paste. He said that was the only way he could worm her. I asked him if he would allow me to work with his horse to get her to accept being wormed more easily. He said yes.
One of the main methods espoused by natural horsemanship to desensitize a horse to something they fear is called “approach and retreat.” The horse is systematically exposed to the stimuli and the instant he relaxes around it, the stimuli is removed. This release teaches the horse that when he’s calm he’s rewarded by the retreat of what he doesn’t like, until eventually he is no longer afraid of it.
photo by Rebecca Tarr
For the syringe-phobic mare, I bought a plain syringe that resembled the worm paster. I held it in my hand and began to rub the mare’s body with it, staying away from her head where she was the most defensive. Eventually, I was able to move it over her head until it was just her mouth that was off limits. Gradually, I was able to touch the outside of her mouth with my hands not yet holding the syringe. My touch was gentle and the second she stopped pulling away I would remove my hands. This taught her that pulling away wouldn’t get the desired response, but when she relaxed and trusted me, then I would remove my hands as her reward. It’s the release that teaches.
Next, I filled the syringe with unsweetened applesauce. I put a halter and lead rope on the horse and led her around a large pen with the syringe out in front of her so she could follow it. Horses are much braver when they can follow a scary object rather than having it come at them.
Training Follow Syringe
She followed the syringe until she eventually touched it with her nose. Then I squeezed some of the applesauce into the palm of my hand as I backed away from her. She followed me and eventually she licked the applesauce out of my palm right next to the syringe.
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