Easing The Fear of Needles: Part II

Compliance problems can be managed with a positive behavior modification plan. Unwanted behaviors associated with veterinary procedures is a common complaint among horse owners, but your horse's fear of needles can be overcome with patience and training. To instill trust and tolerance, it is imperative that your horse learns that a positive rewarding event is about to take place.Compliance problems can be managed with a positive behavior modification plan. Unwanted behaviors associated with veterinary procedures is a common complaint among horse owners, but your horse's fear of needles can be overcome with patience and training. To instill trust and tolerance, it is imperative that your horse learns that a positive rewarding event is about to take place.

Story originally posted by: Michael Lowder, DVM, MS

Compliance problems can be managed with a positive behavior modification plan. Unwanted behaviors associated with veterinary procedures is a common complaint among horse owners, but your horse’s fear of needles can be overcome with patience and training. To instill trust and tolerance, it is imperative that your horse learns that a positive rewarding event is about to take place.

The horseman should not concentrate on any of the horse’s negative behaviors, as instilling a new positive behavior is the goal. Three main points need to be conveyed to your horse: (1) the procedure can be performed with minimal pain, (2) all procedures or stages of the procedure will be followed with a reward, (3) that avoidance behavior is not going to stop the procedure.

Before you initiate this new training, assess the horse’s avoidance tactics. What behavior do you wish to alter? Running backwards? Striking? Raising the head high?

It’s necessary to determine what initiates the unwanted behavior. Does your horse become agitated once he sees the syringe or only after the alcohol-soaked cotton is used to wipe the injection site? Once you have pinpointed the cause of his fear, you will be in a better position to modify the behavior.

For example, if your horse becomes excited when the alcohol soaked cotton ball is brought out, then desensitize him by rubbing his neck with cotton minus the alcohol. Each time he allows you to rub his neck, reward him. By rewarding the steps prior to the avoidance behavior, you can defuse his anticipation of a negative experience. The horse will start to look forward to the treat prior to the event.

A few grains of feed in a bucket is the best reward, and a small incentive teaches the horse to appreciate the prize, unlike a generous amount that soon loses its value. Hunger is a strong motivator, and you may want to manipulate your training session so that it occurs prior to a feeding and does not occur immediately after a meal. In addition, don’t feed treats out of your hand or you will end up with a mouthy horse.


The treat serves as a primary reward, and voice commands, e.g., good boy, serve as secondary rewards. Neither offering should be overdone. Horses are no different than children, and a too frequent reward loses it meaning.

Your horse’s responsiveness to your actions and his willingness to tolerate your manipulations is an indication that you should move to the next phase. It usually takes about 8-10 replications of each step before you can progress to the next level.

Once your horse is comfortable with all the steps leading up to his initial stage of avoidance, you may slowly add in new procedures. Do not try to add more than one new step at a time. Once he accepts a new step in the modification training, repeat it for a few days prior to advancing to the next step.

Remember to allow your horse some "room" during the initial stages of training as any aggressive behavior on behalf of the horseman or bumping some piece of equipment (e.g. a fence) by the horse will confirm his fears that a distressing event is about to take place. It may take several training sessions or days for the horse to relax as the negative behavior may have been unwittingly reinforced for some time.

Once a plain cotton swab is accepted, you may introduce the alcohol soaked ball. Wipe the injection site with the alcohol swab and allow your horse to visualize the syringe. This may need to be addressed as two separate sessions. You should proceed to the next phase only when each prior step of the process produces a relaxed response. As new steps are added, begin rewarding a sequence of steps instead of individual rewards. Combine a few steps at first and add as you progress.

Once you have mastered all the steps leading up to the actual needle stick, you may proceed with a needleless syringe. If this action is tolerated, then you can add a very small gauge needle, e.g., 22 ga, and proceed with the stick.

Some people find that using some type of manual ‘clicker’ can be used to serve as a secondary reward instead of a voice command. Remember to remain calm, relaxed and prepared for resistance. Don’t reward or react to negative behavior. Horses learn to flinch when you jump. Stay with them as long as it is safe. By remaining firm and persistent, your horse will learn that you’ll be there when they are done.

Remember that your final goal is to acknowledge the orderly sequence of events and not each individual step. In the end, only the completion of the task should result in a reward. The feed reward can be reduced in time, and the vocal encouragement will be enough. Don’t overuse the ‘Good boy/girl’ tones and let your horse know that you’re a working team. In the end you will get your award a nice procedure compliant horse.

Review Part I … click here.