Every horse will need an injection from time to time, but some are so petrified of needles that they put themselves and their handlers at risk. Vet Mark Bowen explains more.

Horses who are needle shy may resent injections, and when injections are given into the neck they may become tense and stressed and move away from the needle.

As reactions become more severe, they may rear, or, if the needle is placed on the rump, they might kick out or buck.

Each time the horse moves, the needle (the adverse stimulus) is taken away – which acts as the reward that then reinforces the behaviour.

Needle-shy horses may become increasingly agitated, but it’s important to remember they aren’t being naughty; they are just responding in a manner they’ve learned.

Increasing the amount of restraint, or even punishing them, will only exacerbate the distress and again further amplify the unwanted behaviours.

Positive reinforcement

The best way to break the cycle of learning is to try to break the cycle that reinforces the learned behaviour.

But teaching a new behaviour associated with injections can take a considerable amount of time. It’s important that any lessons involve positive reinforcement, rather than punishment or excessive restraint.

Any form of behavioural modification relies upon giving perfectly timed rewards. In many cases, breaking the cycle of behaviours will require professional input from a vet or equine behaviourist.

Practices such as clicker training can be particularly useful, as they clearly identify the ‘good’ behaviour that is being rewarded.

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