When it comes to taking medication, Tonka is cooperative. It’s no problem giving him injections, or squirting paste wormer into his mouth. But, these are behaviors that have to be maintained. A couple of months ago, for the move to a new barn, Tonka was on a one-week course of prophylactic medications, given with an oral syringe. By the last dose, he was showing displeasure with this yucky stuff. Here I am with an empty syringe and you can see how he wants to avoid it, sure that something nasty will be forced into his mouth.
I decided to address this now, while there are no emergencies. My goal was to remind Tonka that letting me squirt a paste into his mouth is not a big deal. Maybe it’s even something to look forward to.
There are different ways to get a horse to accept oral medication, which range from full-on restraint to teaching the horse to open their mouth when the syringe is presented. I opt for the quick and practical. The first step is to define what I want Tonka to do. I want Tonka to stand still, keep his head at my (short) height, and swallow the meds squirted into the corner of his mouth.
I already have a good relationship with my horse, which I knew would make this refresher course easy.
I bought a practice syringe and applesauce.
I put a halter and lead rope on Tonka to keep him near me. In a real medical emergency, I’ll have to restrain him, and so I train him to be comfortable with that.
First I checked his baseline behavior with a empty syringe touching his muzzle. He let me know what he thought about that. Don’t you love the I’ll close my eyes and clamp my lips and she’ll go away look?
Then I fill the syringe with the applesauce. I let Tonka get a taste and give him a moment to think about it. He does think, and he decides it’s not enough for him to willingly open his mouth for the syringe. If I tug on the halter to try to keep Tonka’s head from tossing, instead of steadying him, pressure on the halter makes Tonka pull away. (I’m doing this for the sake of the video. I knew he’d do this!) This is the moment when people get frustrated. The horse almost does what they want, then stops. This is when people force the issue. The conflict quickly escalates. You’ll get the medication into your horse, but next time the fight will begin sooner.
That’s the moment when I stop and recalibrate. Tonka is trained to keep his head still when my hand is resting on the bridge of his nose, so that is what I do. He still raises his head, but my hand reminds him of the correct behavior. I guide him back to the right postiton. That gives him information which he appreciates. You can see that after only 3 attempts he softens and reaches for the applesauce.
In fact, he thinks that I take too much time getting more applesauce into the syringe and he looks over to encourage me to hurry up!
Tonka has on the halter and lead, but he’s free to look around, and even eat the grass at his feet. While I was fussing with the applesauce, that’s exactly what he did. But watch this last rep – he chooses to leave the grass for the syringe.
This entire training session took under three minutes.
Then Tonka helped me to clean up.