Deworming Rita the (still) Unapproachable Mule

Rita, the Unapproachable Mule that I’m working with in the Donkey Refuge is making progress! I still can’t approach her so close that I can touch her, but she comes pretty close to me now.

Husbandry skill: deworming

The herd she’s in (all donkeys, she’s the only mule) needed their deworming done. Rita hasn’t been dewormed in 6 years because there is NO WAY you can approach her.

They have tried everything and even tried to sedate her in the hope they could get her, touch her or approach her, but nothing worked…

When I started with positive reinforcement (May 2022), it was really hard. I had to learn Rita’s language (I never worked with a mule before and Rita was on top of that very, very traumatized. Still is!)

Anyway, two weeks ago the herd needed to be dewormed and Rita too.

The staff makes these ‘food balls’ with soaked pelleted and sweet food, in which most animal would eat their meds.

Not Rita!

We tried putting the dewormer in these magical balls because she did take them with her antibiotics last month when she got hurt!

Rita bit into the ball and spit it right out! Yak!

I thought, why risk damaging the trust by ‘tricking’ her into eating the dewormer paste?

Here comes Key to Success #1 for Trainers: Principles of Learning & Motivation!

Instead of tricking her, I made sure that every interaction with the food ball with dewormer was positively reinforced.

nstead of putting the dewormer in the inside, I asked the staff to put it on the outside… (Yes, they gave me a puzzled look)The Principle is, to train Rita to accept an aversive (with positive reinforcement and choice).

Choices in Training

I gave her choices: There was more to eat than just the ball with dewormer, she got treats (normal food pellets) in other food bowls and on mats.

The aim of deworming training was simply to teach her that the smell is OK. I put food around the edible “deworming ball”

t took a while for her to approach the deworming ball, since she was unpleasantly surprised before when she bit in one of them and got a (not so nice) surprise…🤮

Next step in the deworming training

Reinforcing her to touch the food ball. Again, deworming was on the outside of this edible ball. That took also a few training sessions to teach her to touch it consistently. Goal was to make the smell (and later taste, too) familiar and to associate it with good things happening.

Then I reinforced ‘using her lips to touch’ it and also reinforced pushing it with her chin against the rim of the food bowl and so she squeezed it. At the end of our training she finally ate part of the ball!

Training after that, she ate part of the dewormer food ball, again.

Last training she ate the whole ball, at the end of our 1-hour training. The training after that, she ate it again. All of it. It took her a whole hour again!

Today she choose the food bowl with the dewormer ball first! Which was interesting!! And gave hope! Within the first 15 minutes of our training she ate the ball! WIN! 

Each ball has just a few ml of dewormer on it, but this is such a promising start!

I hope to get her dewormed within the next 3 sessions. I’ll keep you posted!!

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc., founder of HippoLogic & HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy

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Teach your horse to accept oral medication (deworming)


Years ago deworming meant stress for me and my first pony. Sholto was not really hard to deworm, but I had to be cautious. He could move his head down in a split second and sometimes that meant that I pinched the syringe in his palate. Or, I emptied the syringe while he was moving his head sideways and all the dewormer paste squirted in the air because the syringe was sticking out of his mouth on the other end.

When I started using clicker training my mind was focused on teaching Sholto tricks. It never crossed my mind to use clicker training to teach my horse things like ‘happily accepting a deworming treatment’.

For the World Equine Clicker Games 2013 I made this  video about easy deworming with my current horse Kyra.

Targeting the syringe
Kyra had already mastered the key lesson ‘targeting’. So she knows that touching an object on my cue is rewarded. I started using a cleaned old dewormer syringe as a target.

Session 1: touch the syringe. Some horses have very negative associations with dewormers and for those horses ‘looking at the syringe’ could be the first step.

Desensitize the corner of the mouth
Session 2: In order to empty a dewormer in a horses mouth, you have to empty it at the back of their tongue. The easiest way to enter their mouth is in the corner, where they have no teeth. The horse must accept the syringe touching the corner of his mouth.

Accept the syringe
When Kyra accepted the syringe against a corner of her mouth, it was time to take the third step in this training process. Putting the syringe in her mouth. I use the verbal cue ‘open’.

I always let Kyra come to the syringe to test if she doesn’t think the syringe is an aversive.

Accepting a substance
Step 5 is getting the horse to swallow the paste. Often the paste is a surprise to the horse, so you can train your horse to be ready for it.

I tested first if Kyra would like applesauce. She wasn’t crazy for it, but she ate it. Good enough for session 4: accepting a substance out of the syringe.

Give information!

I use a cue word to warn Kyra ‘something is coming’. I don’t want to surprise her with something with a bad taste. I say “Here it comes”. Giving your horse a heads up that something aversive (bad taste) is coming really helps in building trust. Most horses overcome bad tasting medication quickly, but unpleasant surprises (being tricked) not so quickly.

The real thing
The sixth step of this process was the real dewormer. Because a lot of rewards were involved in this training, Kyra doesn’t have negative associations with the deworming syriche. The syringe is now associated with good things (clicks and rewards).

I never expected that it would become this easy. Now I can deworm Kyra without a halter and without any stress.

Every time before I deworm Kyra I start with a short reminder session with a few clicks and rewards.

Of course you can also try to put the dewormer paste in a sandwich and just feed it to your horse. I’ve seen that working with some horses, too.

Here is my One minute deworming video:

Sandra Poppema
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