Many people have owned a horse that’s “needle-shy”. They dread it when the vet comes out with needles to do vaccinations, and pray their horses won’t ever need injectable medications or blood tests, because it’s such a challenge to place the needles properly.
Shyness of needles is so common that it’s become standard practice to use a nose twitch as part of the procedure. I don’t disagree with this – veterinarians need to minimize the risks of handling a large, powerful and fearful animal. But the approach I’ll describe in this article is proven to make “needle-shy” behavior a thing of the past.
CREATE A POSITIVE ASSOCIATION WITH NEEDLES
I’d like to offer a simple yet effective technique that the average horse owner can use to create a positive association with needles in their equines. Ideally, this approach should be taken well before it’s needed; the time to teach a horse how to relax with needles is not when he’s sick, hurt, or while being examined by a busy vet.
Practice first with a horse that isn’t shy of needles, to build your skills and confidence. Begin with the horse haltered, and hold the lead short enough to “help” but with zero pressure. Resist the urge to have someone else hold the horse, as this kind of restriction can feel threatening to a prey animal.
1. Start in an area with good footing and that’s large enough so the horse won’t feel confined. Even a large driveway or good sized paddock will work – you just need an area where the horse can move and “drift” without feeling boxed in by walls, other horses or vehicles.
2. Begin by standing behind the jaw, next to the neck. Using the palm of your hand, rub the neck in the location where you would normally give an injection. Stroke with the hair, not against it. The exact location isn’t critical, as you’ll be repeating this process on both sides of the neck, and along the jugular on either side of the esophagus, to simulate a variety of procedures.
3. The horse’s head may or may not rise, but if it does, put a slight pressure or “drag” on the lead line and keep rubbing until he relaxes by lowering his head even slightly. Then immediately take your hand away. Wait a moment, then begin rubbing again, taking your hand away when the horse lowers his head. When a horse feels suspicious, his head may stay high for a while and he may even move his feet, so just “drift” with him until he realizes nothing’s happening. He’ll eventually stand still and lower his head.
The timing of the release creates a cue for relaxation to human touch and/or perceived pressure. It seems as if this would be natural for a horse, but being a prey animal by nature, there is nothing in herd dynamics that involves “petting”, so touch from a predator species is instinctively foreign to him.
4. When things are going well, take a fold of skin with your fingers and hold it enough to keep the skin folded (but not painful). Hold this position until the horse relaxes or ideally lowers his head. Again, if he moves his feet, usually away or backward, just put a little drag on the lead but stay with him, still holding the fold of skin, until his feet slow or stop and the head lowers (any improvement, really). Then, instantly release the fold and rub that spot on the neck. One person holding the lead makes it easier to follow the horse and allow him to “drift”. Let him relax a minute, take a nice long breath, then begin again.
Should the horse move toward you (especially with his shoulder), you may be better off going back to basics and teaching him to respect your personal space with either your touch or rhythmic pressure, until he can keep a respectful distance from you. A horse moving away from you is much safer than a horse that has developed the habit of moving toward you as a way to gain comfort. (See the Cornerstone for Communication DVD for these techniques.)
You’re looking for the horse’s head to lower and his feet to stay in place when he feels pressure on his neck. Waiting for him to give an expression of understanding is important. Between holds, just wait a little until you see his expression change – he might blow his nose, blink his eyes, lick his lips or waggle his ears. Each of these is a signal that the horse is processing a new pattern of behavior toward pressure, something foreign to the nature of a prey animal!
5. Because horses are quick to create new associations, you’ll find you’re soon ready to move to the next stage, which involves introducing a foreign object to this new pattern of relaxation. I like to use a ballpoint pen that I can click to have the pen tip extended or retracted. Start with the pen tip retracted and push it into the horse’s neck – just lightly at fi rst. Most vets insert needles before attaching the syringe, whether for an injection or blood draw, so if you can get a non- needled syringe to replace the pen, great, but it’s not necessary. Follow the same steps as before, holding and putting “drag” on the lead rope, and releasing when the feet stop and the head lowers. Rub, wait, and begin again.
6. Repeat this approach on different areas of the neck. When you see acceptance from the horse, click the pen open so you’ll have something pointy but not sharp. Continue the exercise. When the horse remains relaxed while you’re pushing a pen tip all over his neck on both sides, along the jugular area, etc., he’s ready to accept a needle.
WHAT ABOUT EXTREME CASES?
As an equine behaviorist and educator, I can more easily explain this approach by demonstrating it with a horse, so if you have a difficult case, know that there is an educational DVD that demonstrates this technique on one of the most extreme cases I’ve ever worked with. Several veterinarians had declined to treat this horse again, even for routine vaccinations, and the vet who told me about him expressed surprise and concern when I said this horse was ideal for the video.
I don’t want to scare you away from resolving this behavior yourself, but after you read through this article, you may still want to consider employing a reputable equine behaviorist to help you. But it’s been my experience that after watching my video on this subject, most folks find the approach so practical, that with a little time, patience and effort, they see an immediate improvement in their horse that gets better and better every time they practice. It’s my desire that you can read this article, apply the approach and get the same results.
CORRECTING BEHAVIOR BEFORE INJURIES HAPPEN
It’s important to know how extreme this behavior can become if left unchecked. I’m reminded of the poor vet who was watching my needle-shy demo at a horse expo while standing on crutches from a broken leg after a customer’s horse struck him from under a barrier used to protect him from this behavior. Or worse, the vet assistant who was crushed when a horse receiving an injection pulled back then lunged forward into her when she was standing between the short-tied horse and the hitching rail. I’m sorry to say she did not survive.
Even if your own needle-shy horse isn’t this extreme, it can easily become a worsening behavior when the same forceful approach is used time after time. The horse gets better at evading the situation, even if the human “won” last time!
THE BENEFITS OF A RELAXED PATIENT
Because horses are designed by nature to adapt quickly, it won’t be long before the average horse lowers his head (almost to the ground) to receive release from the pressure. This is ideal, because the neck muscles are so relaxed in this position that needles are virtually painless when inserted. Compare this to attempting to insert a needle into the neck of a tense horse – it’s actually possible to bend a needle when trying to inject even a tiny needle into tense muscle!
Every single horse I’ve used this approach with has achieved complete relaxation and acceptance of needles without even a swish of the tail. It may be hard to believe now, but just imagine the surprise and relief your vet will feel when your “needle-shy” horse becomes his new favorite at vaccination time!
Karen Scholl is an Equine Behaviorist and Educator who presents her program “Horsemanship for Women” throughout the United States, Canada and Brazil. Learn more about her psychology-based approach at KarenScholl.com or call 888-238-3447.