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Pets Large & Small

Needle shy horses

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw, DVM
Walkersville Vet Clinic

(8/2017) Needle shy horses are an aggravation to the owner and the veterinarian. It is not the veterinarian's job to teach your horse to stand still for injections. A horse who panics at the sight of a needle creates a dangerous situation for all. Unhandled horses are also a major risk for the veterinarian and the owner. I'm shocked at the number of people who have told me that their horse is so untrained that they can't even get a halter on it, yet they somehow expect me to be able to treat it. One of the more frustrating things in veterinary medicine is when you are called out to treat a horse and the horse is so fractious that it can't be treated successfully. If the vet can't touch the horse and the horse gets sick, he likely can't be examined and treated appropriately and may die. Even if you don't care about your veterinarian's well-being or your own well being as an owner, it is still important to teach your horse to be good so that in an emergency the horse can get appropriate care.

I understand what it is like to own a horse who panics at the sight of the veterinarian or a needle. As a child, my first pony was terrified of needles. Over several years, Shadow learned that she would survive her routine shots and Coggins tests, and finally was cooperative. Until she learned, my entire family dreaded veterinarian visits. Years later, my mother bought a youngster who was needle shy. She was determined to not go through what we went through with Shadow. She carefully followed the University of Pennsylvania's needle desensitization instructions. She listed every step in a blood draw and decided how she would simulate each step.

Every day, she went to the barn with an empty syringe that had no needle, and some horse cookies. She practiced touching the youngster's neck, then giving him a cookie, until he was relaxed and unafraid. Next she touched his neck with the syringe, pretending to draw blood. Whenever he held still, he received a cookie. This continued for several weeks, until the sight of a syringe made him approach for a cookie. That horse is now so relaxed about injections that I can draw his blood or give a vaccine without putting a halter on him.

I was recently called to pull a coggins test (the annual, state required, equine infectious anemia test) on a horse. The client had never used our clinic before as she had just moved to a new boarding barn. The boarding barn was on the far edge of our practice area so we were reluctant to take her on as a new client. However, after discussing the distance with the bosses, we decided that we would provide veterinary services for her horse. We explained that since she was on the edge of our coverage area that she should also have a second vet in case of an emergency. One of the reasons that we restrict the size of our practice area is so that vet care can be provided in a timely manner.

When I arrived at the farm on the scheduled day, the owner met me there with "Lemon," a big, powerful, beautiful, chestnut warmblood. We took the horse out of the stall and took photos for the coggins test. As I was getting ready to draw the blood, the owner told me that her horse was not good for needles but that last year she was able to give shots. Most vets could barely touch the horse without her freaking out. She said that twitching and other attempts at restraining Lemon, would only make her more agitated. I handed her the needle and told her I would watch and to let me know if she needed help.

As soon as the owner touched Lemon's neck, she started tossing her head and trying to crush the owner up against the wall of the stall. The owner tried again and Lemon started kicking out with her hind feet and striking with her front feet. I tried to help the owner by holding Lemon's head and Lemon bit me on the arm. While the owner wanted to continue trying to give Lemon some sedatives so we could get blood for the coggins test, I told her it was too dangerous. I told her that I would leave her with an oral sedative and she could give that 45 minutes prior to our appointment and we could try again next week.

Lemon's owner was disappointed that we couldn't test her horse that day but she agreed that she didn't want anyone to get hurt. She had owned Lemon for 8 years and it had always been difficult to get vaccines in the horse. I discussed hiring a trainer or techniques that she could use to help desensitize Lemon. Apparently no one had ever told Lemon's owner that standing quietly for injections was something that you could teach a horse. I understood what she was experiencing. Although I was only 8 years old when we bought Shadow, I still have vivid memories of struggling to get her injections done. No one told my family about desensitization techniques, so we struggled for several years before Shadow finally accepted injections.

If you have a horse who is difficult to handle or who is poorly behaved for injections, it is time to get a kind and experienced trainer involved or to start a desensitization program. Horses don't understand that cooperation is essential to their survival if they have a health crisis. Once the horse is severely ill, there is no time to train them. You, your veterinarian, and your horse will be happy when your horse is a model citizen at veterinary visits.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw