5 Useful Techniques to prepare your horse to Vet Visits

We hope this never happens, but it does. Horses get into accidents, fights, and other trouble. If you’ve been long enough around horses you know that crazy stuff happens. No matter how careful you are… Equine first aid is a necessity for all horse owners.

Rusty nail

Kyra stepped into a 2 inch (5 cm) rusty nail on Saturday. She was lame and I discovered the nail when I rinsed the mud off hr leg and foot with cold water. It wasn’t in her foot all the way, but a good 1,5 – 2 cm. Not straight upwards luckily.

Hoof wrapping

When the nail was out (I just pulled it out) immediate relief from Kyra. Then I got a quick lesson in hoof wrapping from my barn manager. One of the perks at boarding out and have experienced horse people around.

Vet care training for horses

I have had “vet care training” since day 1 in my training program. Kyra came wounded to me. So she could already be hosed off, put her foot in a bucket with water and lift her legs.

You don’t want to start training these kind of things in an emergency!

Vet visit

When the vet came Kyra behaved so nicely. When she pushed on the wound Iused the open bar/closed bar technique and Kyra really appreciated it! She didn’t fight although it was very clear she was in much pain! She didn’t kick and let the vet do her work. Wow, that’s such a great feeling! Safety for everyone involved and the best treatment (because the horse lets the vet).

Be prepared!

Prepare your horse before you need it! Trailer loading, rinsing off legs (up until 10 minutes), injections, training for calm behaviour and standing still for longer periods of time (up until 10 minutes) are very helpful!

Useful techniques in vet care training

Techniques you can use for vet care training:

  1. A tiny bit of moulding/molding can help teaching your horse to stand in a bucket (rubber pan). It can be hard to free shape it so that they step into the pan themselves, especially with their hind legs.
  2. Duration. In vet care procedures ‘duration’ is so important. In our minds 10 seconds seem very short, but we also know when we are in the dentist chair without freezing and the drill drills 10 seconds, it’s suddenly ver, very long. Since horses don’t know when we stop with unpleasant procedures it’s even more difficult for them. They really have to trust you!
  3. Start button behaviour. Teach a behaviour so the horse can indicate: ‘I am ready.You can do what you need to do now.‘ Eg teach them to touch a target.
  4. Stop button behaviour. Teach a behaviour so they can indicate ‘Stop the procedure.’ You can teach them to touch a different target than you use for the start button behaviour.
  5. Open bar/closed bar. This is a great technique if the horse is not clicker trained or not prepared well enough. It also helps in quickly building duration. You ‘open the bar’ as soon as the behaviour starts. For instance putting the hoof into the bucket of water, holding up their hoofs for dressing or farrier work. When the horse pulls back, you let go of the foot (if possible!) and stop feeding: you ‘close the bar‘. You ‘open the bar‘ again and start feeding as soon as the horse offers the desired behaviour. The reinforcers must be high enough value to make it worthwhile. If you’re building duration a food reinforcer that they have to chew on long(er) is a good choice. Eating also distracts from the procedure and if they stop chewing with food in their mouth it can be an indication of increased stress or worry.

Make a good hoof wrap out of duct tape

In the next blog I will show you how I make a ‘space shoe’ out of duct tape and other items to keep her foot clean and dry in the mud. I took lots of photos and made videos of our training. Here is one of Kyra’s space boot the next day. It kept well in the mud.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
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Rehabilitating Horses with Clicker Training

Is that possible? Yes, it is! In my years working for the SPCA I trained many horses and barn animals with positive reinforcement (R+). Some horses needed to be rehabilitated mentally, some physically and some both.

I also taught employees and volunteers the basics of clicker training and together we trained the horses in order to make them more adoptable. These experiences helped me develop my own R+ training system and special tools that now help horse owners all over the world.

Using positive reinforcement to administer medication

Many of the horses at the SPCA needed medication when they were brought in: deworming and other oral medication like anti-inflammatory pills or pain killers. Some animals needed eye ointments or other wound care.

 

Using positive reinforcement in such situations was a real benefit. With coercion you might get it done once or twice before the animal smartens up and it becomes a struggle. The small amount of training time you put in with clicker training before or during administering medication, saves you time and effort in the future.

Building trust with R+

Using positive reinforcement also means giving a horse a voice and a choice in training. These things help building trust and a positive relationship with the animal. This also contributes to a positive view about humans in general.

Whenever a horse or other animal escaped everybody stayed relaxed. There was no chasing or shooing the animal back into his habitat. We usually used food or a friend to bring them back or sometimes we were just being patient. I really liked that way of handling animals. No screaming, no panic and we never had to corner an escaped animal.

We always joked that they where in a spa. The horses didn’t have to work, they got to exercise themselves in the pasture and they all loved their clicker training sessions.

Clicker conference 2.0

In 2019 I gave a presentation at the Dutch Clicker Conference 2.0 A New Way of Rehabilitating Horses in which I shared examples of rehabilitating horses with clicker training.  I’ve seen many benefits the use of positive reinforcement brings.

By listening to your animal in training you can spot problems early on. When my own horse got sore hoofs I noticed right away that she wasn’t as forward as she usually was. Kyra normally is really cooperative and when she is not, I know I have to investigate what is going on. The vet told me she had EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome) and laminitis.

Using R+ to rehabilitate a laminitis horse

I used positive reinforcement to exercise Kyra despite her sore hoofs. I hand walked her on the road.

A year earlier I taught Kyra to graze and stop grazing on cue and therefor I didn’t need to worry about the juicy grass next to the road. Yes, this amazed me too since she was also on a restrictive diet.

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Clicker training helped me to lift her feet (she didn’t want to lift her front hoof because it caused more pain in the other hoof she was standing on), helped me get her used to wearing hoof shoes and a grazing mask.

Positive reinforcement to reduce stereotypical behaviours

Some horses I worked with at the SPCA had stereotypical behaviours. Well suited environment (proper housing, management, care) in combination with clicker training helped greatly in diminishing those kind of behaviours.

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I have seen horses that were weaving, cribbing or displayed other neurotic behaviour in training change. They stopped displaying their stereotypical behaviours in training and it greatly reduced altogether.

Although this is purely my experience I would love to see some research done on this. I think the horse world is ready to accept a broader view on positive reinforcement.

Conclusion

The more I work with R+, the more I see how much influence this kind of training really has on the animal. Positive reinforcement has more benefits than just training the desired behaviour. It can be a great way to reduce stress, restore and built trust and improve their welfare by offering the animal choices and ways to influence his environment.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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Husbandry skills: hoof care (part IV)

In this series I will keep you posted on the young horse I am training in order to prepare her for the next farrier visit. I will call her A. in this blog. A was scared to let people touch her legs, especially her hind legs. She kicked out whenever she felt something touching them.

I promised to keep you updated on our clicker training sessions. We had another session since my last post. Progress might seem slow, but I know from over a decade of clicker training horses that slow is the way to go. Continue reading

Husbandry skills: hoof care (part I)

The term ‘husbandry skills’ refers to all the behaviours you want to teach an animal in order to take care of them safely. Daily  husbandry skills are haltering, leading, grooming, cleaning hooves, cleaning nostrils, eyes and ears and so on. Medical procedures like drawing blood (important in zoo animals) or administering medication (injections, oral medication, ointments) are also a part of husbandry skills.

In this blog series I will share with you how I train a young horse to lift her legs for hoof care with positive reinforcement (clicker training). Continue reading

Preparing your Horse for the Farrier with Clicker Training

Being a farrier  is a high risk profession. It is not only a physically demanding job, but also the clients can be very opinionated. Or worse become defensive and kick, bite or rear. With clients I mean horses, of course. How can you help your farrier be safe working with your horse?  How can you prepare your horse for a farrier treatment? My answer is of course: with positive reinforcement.Kyra one month after arrival

Positive reinforcement for the professional

The first thing reinforcing the farrier to come back is that he gets paid! I like to offer a cup of tea and some cookies too, if he is really good with my horse. But the best way to reinforce your farrier to come back and do a good job is to have your horse well trained and prepared.

Continue reading

How Mat Training Paid Off

Mat training is one of my key lessons in positive reinforcement training. It is a very versatile exercise and a good base for more advanced exercises.

Standing on a mat

Standing on a simple puzzle mat is a fun exercise to teach your horse. The goal is simple: the horse has to stand with his two front hooves on the mat.
_key_lesson_standing_on_a_mat_hippologic

Preparation for other exercises

_Keylessonmatwork2Mat training can be a good preparation for the horse to stand more willingly on all kinds of surfaces like tarps, pedestals, plywood, trailer ramps, wooden bridges etc.

I found mat training also very useful as a preparation to teach your horse to soak his foot in a bucket of water.

Hoof care

Kyra is having some hoof issues that require me to soak her feet. I looked up some do-it-yourself hoof soaking solutions since I don’t own a soaking booth. One of the suggestions was a diaper soaked in water and put the hoof in a Ziplock bag reinforced with duct tape.

It was no problem for Kyra to go from standing on a mat to putting her feet in a rubber bucket. Next step was to teach Kyra to step into a bucket filled with water. I practised this a few weeks ago already, not knowing that I would soon need this behaviour.

Because Kyra already has a long positive reinforcement history of mat and bucket training, today she was not startled when i attached a soaked diaper around her hoof. She was a lot less surprised then I would be. Also stepping into a plastic bag with fluid was no problem at all.

She was totally OK with me tying the plastic bag full of water to her feet. This was totally new to her: she had never worn bell boots or leg protection before, but a plastic bag with water on her hoof was totally fine. It only took me a few clicks to get her walking around with the bag confidently.

_Hoof_soaking_booth_DIY_HippoLogic

The only downside of using the diaper was that I used a fancy one. One with silicone inside in order to keep your baby extra dry.

As soon as Kyra put her hoof with the diaper around it down, the diaper tore and all the soaked silicone came out. It was a big mess. Not something I would recommend using for equine use. Maybe the cheap diapers don’t have this feature. So make sure you check the inside of the diaper if you want to use it to soak hoofs in.

My point is that once your horse has a solid basis and a long positive reinforcement history with a certain exercise, it is not a big deal to tweak a few things and train different context shifts. In this way you train new behaviours very quickly.

Hooray for this key lesson I invested so much time in.

Sandra Poppema
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