Training for Tight Spaces

Q:What are some recommended ways to get a horse accustomed to standing in tight spaces such as trailers, stocks during veterinary exams, and during rehabilitation/therapy (e.g., treadmills, cryotherapy machines)? Should horses entering into these types of situations for the first time be ­sedated?

via e-mail

A:The first step to having a horse stand relaxed for long periods in the tight spots you list is to get him to enter the tight spot comfortably. This can be achieved using positive, nonconfrontational handling. The most efficient strategy for any given horse is likely enticement with a feed bucket and reinforcement by giving a food reward as the horse progresses--especially when he is in place. I like to use one of those two-gallon buckets with a handful of sweet feed or senior feed in the bottom. This size bucket is easy to handle while leading a horse, but it's deep enough that the horse can bury his head in the bucket and follow you around. Once he follows the bucket reliably, then approach the tight spot and have him follow you right in. Be sure to let him finish the feed as a reward for loading so he will associate the feed with being in the tight spot. Try not to slam the door shut behind him, as that might startle him or make him aware that he is trapped. You might not even shut the chute's gate or door the first few times.

Once the horse loads comfortably, I then try to relax him by gentle scratching in a soothing spot, such as the natural mutual grooming sites--chest, shoulder, withers, back, or rump--or under the muzzle or on the face, depending on the horse. Theoretically, intermittent reinforcement with a food treat when the horse is standing quietly should maintain this positive behavior; however, for many horses the food treat inadvertently provokes food-seeking behavior and heightened excitement.

Certainly there are some horses whose level of excitement in novel situations is such that sedation is very helpful, depending upon the risk of injury to people or the horse or the value of equipment involved. The question with sedation for the first time for procedures that will need to be repeated, such as trailering or cryotherapy, is whether the horse can learn when sedated. On one hand he might not remember the negative aspects, but at the same time he also might not be able to learn that it is okay.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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