Enjoying Veterinary Visits

by Sue M. McDonnell, Ph.D • courtesy of AAEP

In our referral equine behavior practice, we frequently rehabilitate horses perceived to be uncooperative with one or more veterinary procedures such as injections, nasogastric tubing, genital examination, etc. We have found that straightforward behavior modification techniques–adapted to the horse–are highly effective in regaining and maintaining cooperation, even in once dangerously resistant animals. In fact, clients and veterinarians describe the animals as now “enjoying” veterinary visits and appearing to solicit procedures. The methods we use rely mostly on positive reinforcement, avoid excessive restraint, and include no punishment.


In order to rehabilitate your horse, you will need the following:
• A lead shank with a 28-40-inch chain lead
• Sweet feed or other tasty food treat
• Safety vest, helmet, and sturdy shoes to provide you greater confidence
• Items for the veterinary procedure (such as a needle and syringe, alcohol, etc.)
• A large outdoor paddock or other large enclosure with good footing and ample head room
• A team of two people who work well together and are not afraid of the veterinary procedure themselves

Behavior modification is just another opportunity for the horse to learn that it can “work” for a positive outcome (here the “work” is tolerating a mildly uncomfortable experience). The focus is on establishing a new, positive behavior pattern instead of eliminating a negative one. Horses aren’t born resistant to veterinary procedures; the same ability to learn by association that resulted in avoidance behavior will now help them learn to be cooperative. Although each horse and situation is unique, the horse must always simultaneously learn three concepts:

The procedure is not too painful. The horse must experience the procedure one or more times with little pain, stress, or commotion. Make the procedure as painless as possible–for injection shyness, this means a small-gauge needle (26-gauge for training); a quick, gentle, single stick; relaxed body posture and calm manner; little restraint; and no commotion or accidents associated with the procedure.

The procedure is followed by a reward. The horse must experience the procedure one or more times followed immediately with positive reinforcement (sweet feed from a bucket paired with “good boy/girl”). When the horse begins to anticipate an uncomfortable procedure, back up to perform and reward for steps before this point. You might need to go through the first steps of the procedure several times, positively reinforcing each step, without actually performing the procedure. Then the steps can be gradually linked into the proper sequence, rewarding each step in the sequence. Eventually the horse should be weaned off continuous primary reinforcement (sweet feed) . Intermittent primary reinforcement (sweet feed occasionally) and continuous secondary reinforcement (“good boy/girl” every time) is the goal.

Ordinary resistance or reaction will not stop the procedure or direct the handler’s behavior. The handler must anticipate the horse’s resistance and calmly stay with the horse as much as is safely possible. Calmly “riding it out” rather than pausing or punishing (or even flinching) teaches the horse that simple movement or mild resistance will not stop the procedure. Dangerous resistance (rearing or lunging, for example) will require different behavioral modification techniques and the assistance of an expert.


These methods have been remarkably successful with horses (and people) of all ages and backgrounds. Timing and consistency of reinforcement are the major skills for people to master. These techniques can also help prevent problems and get horses to accept other activities like clipping, applying fly spray, and grooming the mane and tail. An investment in learning basic behavior modification skills is well worthwhile.

By using proper behavior modification techniques patiently and consistently, you can teach your horse to enjoy, not dread, a visit from the veterinarian.

Sue M. McDonnell, Ph.D, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, is the founding head of the Equine Behavior program at the New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.