This'll Only Hurt a Little

If your horse is properly prepared, shots can be much less painful – for you and him.

This may well be one of veterinarians’ least favorite things to hear: “My horse is a little needle shy.” Especially when that warning conjures up images of bodies being kicked across a stall. And for many horses, who view a vet visit as nothing short of an attack, it certainly isn’t pleasant for them either.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Five minutes of preparation can give you a lifetime of easy shots,” says AQHA Professional Horseman and clinician Brent Graef of Canyon, Texas. “The key is getting that horse trusting and prepared to relax.”

Young horses who haven’t had a bad experience are much easier to condition. “You present it to them in a way they can understand, and they eat it up. But it works with horses of any age,” Brent says.

Even those who have reputations as hardcore needle-phobes can conquer their fears, although it will take them longer.

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“Some take longer than others,” Brent says. “That’s OK. We’ve got to just take each horse from where they are and go forward.”

The goal is to teach the horse to relax when he feels a needle prick on his neck. If the muscles are relaxed, the sting of needles will be diminished.

To start, Brent wants to start a communication with the horse by asking him to drop his head. Using a rope halter, he puts his hand either on the bottom halter knot (where the lead rope ties in) or on one of the noseband knots. He applies a very gentle pressure – more of a “feel,” really – asking the horse to start “thinking downward.”

“I’m going to give very little pressure, and I’m not going to be increasing the pressure. I’m going to be setting it up and holding and waiting. Pretty soon, he’ll understand what it is that I’m looking for,” Brent says. “And I release for the slightest try.”

Once the horse understands that dropping his head is the name of the game, Brent moves on to the neck.

“I’ll pinch him on the neck, not on the jugular vein, but near the jugular. I just take a little of the skin and pinch it between my fingernails, kind of softly at first, then a little more and a little more and then I’ll hold.”

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Usually, the horse’s head will go up, he’ll look to one side or the other, maybe shake his head – trying to figure out how to make the pinching go away.

“As soon as he lowers his head at all, then I’ll release and pet him,” Brent says. And even a tiny try earns a release at first, even if the horse just moves his nose a fraction of an inch downward. As the horse progresses, Brent asks for incrementally bigger responses before releasing the pressure. The horse soon learns that dropping the head and relaxing the neck spells relief.

“I’ll give him a minute or so to think about it, and I’ll do it again. And as soon as he drops his head again, I’ll release.”

When the horse starts dropping his head pretty quickly, Brent moves on to the next step: using a toothpick that can more closely mimic the sting of a needle.

“I get a fold of skin and put my finger behind it and press the toothpick to it,” Brent says. “I don’t just jab it in there, but I put a little pressure against it, to where they can feel it. And as soon as the horse drops his head, then I release and pet, and then we’ll go do something else for a little while.”

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Never penetrate the skin with the toothpick, but continue with the exercise until the horse is again dropping his head consistently and staying relaxed.

“When he’s relaxing really well, then I’ll go to the needle,” Brent says. “I’ll hold the needle between my finger and thumb, and I’ll pet the horse with the back of my hand once, twice, and then the third time, put the needle in and finish the petting stroke.”

It’s important to maintain a rhythm – “stroke, stroke, thunk, stroke” – and to keep your emotions in check, especially if you’re dealing with a horse who has been resistant to shots in the past.

“A lot of it is in the person’s approach,” Brent says. “You’ve got to come in calm, and I think really that you’ve got to believe in the horse.” Visualize him standing calmly and try to project that picture; it’ll keep you both from ratcheting up your emotions.

When you first insert the needle (just a needle, with no syringe attached), the horse may startle a little, but “usually he’ll drop his head and relax, and it becomes no big deal,” Brent says.

With horses who are needle shy, be prepared to take some extra time. Don’t rush them through the steps, and plan on several sessions, making sure they are relaxed and accepting of the whole process.

“You don’t want to get in a hurry with this,” Brent cautions, “because it’s real easy to regress. But once you get them trusting you and relaxing when the needle goes in, you’re on your way for a lifetime of better needle experiences.”

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