Sebastian is a young red roan gelding who I’ve just started working with a bit. He’s pretty shy still and can be unconfident around people. He’s curious, but he’s not too sure about being caught or being touched and groomed. Last weekend, he needed a shot and I got to be the one to give it too him.
The key to giving horses shots is for them to be relaxed. If the horse anticipates the shot and tenses up, they really feel the needle going into the muscle. If the horse is calm and relaxed, they don’t feel anything at all.
We often make a big deal out of giving shots by changing the environment–new people (such as a vet or vet tech), nervous owner, asking the horse to tolerate strange procedures, etc. The environmental changes alert the horse and he gets tense or anxious, his muscles tighten, and suddenly a small shot becomes a big deal. The key is to keep the environment and the situation as normal as possible so the horse can stay calm and relaxed.
So, Sebastian and I went and hung out in the round pen, where we’ve played before. I had an empty syringe for us to practice with. I rubbed his neck for a bit, until he was relaxed and comfortable. Then, I practiced with the empty syringe, pressing it against his neck, then harder and harder, building gradually while he remained calm. I was feeding him treats throughout and they were a great distraction. He was definitely more interested in them than in what I was doing to his neck.
By simulating it first, I could reacquaint myself with the mechanics–where I needed to stand, how to hold the syringe while managing the lead rope and the treats. Simulations are helpful for desensitizing the horse to the procedure and getting the horse comfortable with the movements and actions associated with the task. However, for procedures we don’t perform frequently, simulating it first also helps the handler or trainer remember the mechanics. If we are fumbling, clumsy or nervous with our mechanics, the horse picks up on this and is more likely to be tense or nervous.
Finally, I switched the blank syringe for the real deal. I jabbed it in his neck while he continued sniffing my pockets for treats. He never noticed at all. Definitely a successful day!