The Vet, the Farrier, the Fear

I wish farriers and vets more widely understood the need to go beyond “coming to work on the horse”. The need to connect with the horse and have what a horse can interpret as a reliable and reassuring “bedside manner” is a critical element in the mental and emotional health of the horse. It pays off especially well when in a situation that can be an emergency or may include pain from the condition being dealt with.

Too many of our equine service professionals are on some sort of schedule and seem reluctant to spend a few minutes focusing on the horse and his comfort prior to commencing work. They also seem generally unaware of training principles and learning theory and can easily engage with the horse in a way that creates a learned anxiety for the horse.

In the course of training several horses for the farrier, I’ve learned that most horses who farriers interpret as aggressive simply don’t have good balance. As a result they try to move, hop, take back their feet, kick out when not allowed to regain their balance, and in general have what both owners and farriers see as “issues”. Worse yet, the farriers who rush through working with these horses or who use restraint or counter-aggression tend to create fearful behavior patterns in horses whose only fault is not knowing what to do when their feet are handled for long periods.

Of course, it’s not fair to put the onus for training the horse on the farrier or the vet. But a farrier who doesn’t understand or sympathize with the horse’s need to be balanced and feel safe or the vet who is just there to “inject and go” or “take blood samples and go” as if the horse were a car or a machine are also part of the problem and can actually create fears and behavior problems where none existed before.

One example comes from Lensman’s experience. We had a new vet come out and draw blood for a Lyme test. Lensman was clearly a little worried about the new person, but the vet ignored this. He cornered Lensman in his stall and went to draw blood, which terrified Lensman. The vet missed the vein and had to “fish around” with the needle, prolonging the discomfort and fear, and obviously making things even worse for Lensman.

Since then, for years, Lensman has had anxiety about vets and a fear of blood draw that none of our other horses have (it goes without saying that the vet who did this has never been invited back, but the harm that was done is now projected onto all of the vets who visit). As time passes and he has more positive experiences with vets, the anxiety declines, but it never needed to happen in the first place.

Horse owners often paper over the problems their horses have with routine procedures, using sedation as a way to protect the professionals from the danger of a horse running away or striking out. Unfortunately, this is a never ending fix, because a) horses under sedation do not have their fear removed, they just can’t do a lot about it and b) horses who are sedated learn more slowly than alert horses. There is no substitute for training a horse for medical and farrier procedures.

Enabling horses to tolerate veterinary and farrier procedures requires them to have a strong foundation of self-control in standing still. You can and should work on this all the time. If your horse is “antsy” when nothing is going on, he won’t be more self-controlled when something potentially uncomfortable is being done.

In terms of the specifics of training for vet and farrier, few trainers do this sort of foundation training, especially in older horses (rescue horses often need this unfortunately), and so it often falls to the owner to do it. But if you can, find a sympathetic horse trainer in your area who does foundation training for young horses, explain the problem and ask them to work with your older horse.

To do the work yourself requires a lot of patience and some specific skills and tools.

In all cases, the primary training methods are progressive desensitization and overshadowing. It also requires a mindset that sees the horse sympathetically as a fearful creature in an alien environment, being placed under stress and discomfort for reasons they cannot understand (literally).

“Progressive desensitization” requires you to bring the aversive object or process either slowly closer (for instance hypodermics – you can use a pen or a hypodermic without a needle and approach to the “fear distance” and hold there until the horse loses anxiety and then withdraw, which is the release of pressure that tells the horse this is what you want, then next time go slightly closer, etc.) or slowly extending duration (lifting one foot for a second, then for two, etc., trying always to put the foot down before they do).

Overshadowing is putting a pleasant experience around the less pleasant experience. I use this during a farrier session, handing the horse very tasty hay while it stands in the cross ties, or performing the wither scratch while the horse is standing well.

In summary, work with your vet and farrier to help them connect with your horse. Make sure they are aware of things your horse is afraid of and why. Pre-train your horse to stand well when supervised and in cross-ties. Be aware of the potentially threatening appearance of various veterinary procedures and make sure the horse does not feel trapped by them. Be there while the work is being done and correct your horse with a halter snap when he does the wrong thing, or simply stop the procedure and reinforce the right behavior for a few moments before continuing.

Always remember that horses are rightfully fearful of the alien things we do to them and that we need to help them be comfortable and comforted without reinforcing risky or dangerous behavior.