Smart Mare, Smarter Vet

I am doing some positive reinforcement-based behavior modification for needle shyness in a draft broodmare. This mare is just too big and strong for the old-fashioned restraint methods of working around the problem. She has quite a repertoire of increasingly dangerous ways to avoid and react, so it is no longer safe to use the tactic of sneaking up on her. Attempts at restraint seem futile, and the battles have accelerated to the point where it is too dangerous to manage her reproductive cycle using intravenous (IV) or intramuscular (IM) treatments, administer her vaccinations, or take jugular blood samples.

She is otherwise a very nice mare and is compliant with just about anything else we do to her, so the owners thought maybe clicker or target training was the answer. So after attending your short course at New Bolton Center on horse behavior, I decided to try organized behavior modification as we did in the wet lab. So far things have gone very well.

We use about a teaspoon of Equine Senior (feed) as the primary positive reinforcer, and we pair that with the verbal "good" as the secondary reinforcer. She is quite food-motivated and made the connection almost immediately. She learned to stand quietly for IM sticks in 10 or fewer repetitions of each of the steps (opening the syringe, presenting the needle, tapping on the neck), then we wait for her to stand still with her head forward and relaxed, then say "good" and give the food reward. Now, with just a halter and lead rope, one person can do IM sticks.

Since she is quite food-urgent, we did have the intermediate problem of her reaching around for the food, sometimes swatting at you with her head and neck. We've taught her to stand with her head forward by delaying the reinforcement for increasingly long periods before delivering the food reinforcement, and by only giving the "good" and the food reinforcer when her head was in the correct position.

Moving to the IV sticks, we recognize a little problem. She has been doing it to some extent with the IM sticks, but it is not such an issue as it is now for jugular sticks. Her original avoidance behavior was to toss her head and shake her head and neck, and we then waited with our hand in position on her neck to give the IM stick until the tossing and shaking stopped, then stuck her and rewarded her as soon as the injection was completed. Because of this sequence of events, she now seems to understand the way to get the reinforcement is to first shake and toss, then stand still. She no longer seems very serious about avoiding; rather she seems to be going through the motions of tossing and shaking as step one before standing still as step two in getting the reinforcement. It seems that when she doesn't get the reinforcement fast enough, she repeats the steps to get the reward.

How can we get her to skip the tossing and shaking and just stand still from the start? Everyone is so pleased with this general approach, and no way are we going back to the physical battle! Any ideas on how we can overcome this little glitch?

How is this method different from clicker and target training? Anonymous

Good job! Both for your success so far, and for recognizing that this little sequence of avoidance behavior before the compliance behavior is just a matter of the horse misunderstanding your contingencies. It's also great that you understand the problem stems from the fact that rather than stupid or stubborn, the mare is actually smart enough to link those two responses together. (Reminds me of kids learning to misbehave in the grocery store or when you are on the phone to prompt you to reward them for stopping the misbehavior.)

Inadvertently reinforcing a link between avoidance behavior and the compliance behavior is common in behavior modification. There are a number of approaches that can work with horses (just as with kids and other people) to extinguish the avoidance behavior as the first step. One approach is to say "good" and deliver the food reward as soon as the horse stands still and simultaneously with the stick, then repeat the "good" and reinforcement as you hold the needle in the vein as long as they keep standing still. Now they often wiggle a bit in the process of taking and chewing the grain, which can be more problematic when in the jugular than in the muscle, but if you can stabilize your hand against the neck and just ride it out without moving the needle, you can avoid the more problematic avoidance head tossing and neck shaking. With time, most horses give up or drastically abbreviate the avoidance behavior preamble and just stand still.

Another way to avoid this behavior is to start over and train the horse to stand still for the reward without presenting a needle, which prompts the avoidance behavior. So you just stand next to the horse and wait until she stands still with her head forward without doing the shaking and tossing for at least 30 seconds beforehand. Once they learn that, you can go back to the needle context, and often they don't go back to doing the avoidance preamble.

What you did is quite similar to clicker training. The "good" is equivalent to the clicker as a secondary reinforcer. Target training is a step to aid behavior modification in which you train the horse to approach and/or focus on a target. The target can be mobile, so that once the horse is trained to the target, it will follow the target anywhere as you lead him (for example, into stocks or a trailer), or stationary (placed somewhere).

Target objects are often inherent to behavior modification; for example, the little grain bucket can become an accidental mobile target for leading a horse anywhere.

Target training now might be helpful in holding the mare's attention during the jugular. The target can be any conspicuous object you define as the target. It could be a mark on the stall wall that you train the horse to approach and focus on, and even touch his muzzle to and hold there for a reward. For IV sticks, a target can be placed so that when the horse touches it with its muzzle, the neck is in a good position to facilitate the exposure of the jugular. You could train the horse to be held longer and longer to get the reinforcement, so that if you take a minute or more with the blood draw, the mare's attention will be held.

You can also combine a verbal or hand signal prompt of some sort. For example, say "target" or point to the target to let the horse know to attend the target to get the reinforcement. If the jugular stick is taking too long, you can reissue the prompt to carry you through to having a free hand for the reinforcement. 

Further Reading

  • Shawna Karrasch, On Target Training,
  • McDonnell, S.M. "How to rehabilitate horses with injection shyness (or any procedure non-compliance)." AAEP Proceedings 46: 168-172, 2000.

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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