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Yearling with vet visit trauma

From: Emily

I have a yearling Chincoteague Pony, Cricket. She was totally wild for the first 2 months of her life before she came to live with me, and it took me over 6 weeks to gain her trust enough to be able to touch her. We've worked together every day for about 8 months, and she has come to trust me. In fact, she is unquestionably the gentlest, kindest, least 'reactive' yearling I've ever worked with. She happily stands in cross-ties, loves to be groomed, comes when called, is easy to lead, and enjoys being bathed. However, she still has issues with new people. She is visibly nervous around new people, and prefers to have a little time to size them up before they approach her & attempt to touch her -- unless they offer her a carrot, in which case she quickly overcomes her nervousness!

She has had regular farrier care since she came to me (she's getting used to that) and had regular vet visits for her 'baby shots' and boosters last fall. All of her previous vet visits had gone well.

3 weeks ago, the vet came out to the farm to give the first of two West Nile Virus shots. Everything went fine.

Yesterday, the vet came to do the second WNV shot, some of her other regular spring shots, and pull a Coggins. The vet that came out yesterday was one who has never worked with Cricket before. She's an experienced veterinarian (over 25 years) and she has worked on my other horse before -- I've always been impressed. She's kind & efficient. She'd just never worked with Cricket before.

For whatever reason, Cricket was not cooperating yesterday when it came time for shots. We usually do them out in the yard to prevent negative associations with the barn aisle, stall or crossties (since she was a wild baby she has lingering uncomfortability with all confined spaces). The vet just couldn't get close to her for long enough to give an injection, and Cricket was really working herself up.

Against my better judgement, I finally gave in to the vet's suggestion of putting her in cross-ties to do her shots. As you can probably guess, it was a disaster. Cricket tried to kick the vet, ended up rearing & plunging in the cross-ties and nearly knocked both the vet & I down. (I was holding Cricket & attempting to hold a twitch on her as the vet did the shots). After the vet had given her 2 shots, I came to my senses & insisted that we move her to another location to finish up. We ended up finishing in an outdoor 'sheep pen' (about 5' on a side) where we pushed her up against the wall. Once she figured out that she couldn't escape, she relaxed & we completed the last shot & the Coggins test very easily.

After her shots, I put her back out in the paddock. When I went out later to groom & work with her, she was absolutely traumatized. She wouldn't let me catch her, she flinched when I touched her and it took me over half an hour to coax her into the aisle of the barn (and another 15 minutes for her to relax).

I gave her 1/2 of a gram of bute to help with the physical discomfort she must have from the shots, but mentally, she's a mess.

All of this explanation is by way of asking you 3 questions: 1. Do you have any suggestions for helping her relax & regain trust in me? 2. What could I have done better to prevent this from happening? and (most importantly) 3. How should I handle subsequent vet visits so we can IMPROVE this experience, rather than have it degrade to the point that she can't be handled by a vet?

Thanks for your help. Sorry for the length. Em (& Cricket)

Hi Em - I'm so sorry that you and Cricket had to go through this. It probably wasn't pleasant for the veterinarian either, if that's any comfort at all.

I don't think that Cricket is likely to be emotionally scarred by this. Yes, there are some things that you could have done differently, some things that you could have done, period, some things you might not have done if you'd had time to think about them, and quite a lot of things you can still do. So, please relax - let's look closely at where you are NOW, and then go forward. You haven't wrecked your filly, and she doesn't have to have a lifetime aversion to veterinarians.

To help Cricket relax and regain trust in you, just handle her the way you always have. She was relaxed and trusting because you had taught her that she could relax and trust you - do it again. It's that easy. Let's put this in perspective. Cricket's experiences with you have been eight months of good memories and good associations, set against probably half an hour or possibly forty-five minutes (but I'll bet that it was under half an hour) of you trying to keep her quiet for the vet. As I tell my riders, you have eight months of substantial deposits in your "confidence account" - against ONE (not really very impressive, although I know you were frightened at the time) withdrawal.

Now, stop thinking that you abused your horse. You didn't. Did you beat her or kick her or whip her or scream at her? Did you try to frighten her or hurt her? No - you asked her to hold still, you probably spoke sharply when she bounced around, and you used a twitch when it was necessary to keep her from trampling the vet and/or you. That's not abuse. It may not be the ideal form of training, but it's a very effective form of survival. If you or the vet or Cricket had sustained an injury whilst all this commotion was going on, THAT would have been bad, and had lasting effects. One of the realities of working with horses is that even young ponies are generally significantly bigger and heavier than adult humans, and all horses and ponies react more quickly than humans, and THAT is precisely why we need to train them to stand still when we ask, even if our request is, in their considered opinion, not entirely reasonable. ;-)

Cricket sounds like a sensible pony. Remember that she is quite young yet, and that she will probably demonstrate the same behaviour pattern again if nothing is done differently. This can work FOR you. You know, now, that crossties aren't ideal for medical procedures of any kind - and indeed they are NOT! Never add swinging chains to a situation involving an agitated horse.

She didn't leap about and rear and try to run because she couldn't get away - she did those things because she thought that perhaps she COULD get away. Remember, after all of that, when Cricket had every excuse to behave badly in the sheep pen, she was quiet and still because she knew that she could NOT get away. That should tell you something - your filly has all the normal horse reactions (fright leads to flight, then fight if flight is impossible), but she also has intelligence and good sense and trust in you. When you were definite instead of tentative, and told her "Right, you're going up against the wall of this pen, now hold STILL for a moment, and the shots will be over", she didn't explode or freeze, she calmed down. That's a sign of great intelligence and adaptability, and it shows that at that point, she accepted the fact that you were in charge.

By the time you went to fetch her again, she had had a little time to think about what had happened, and quite naturally did NOT want a repeat of that particular adventure - and made that clear. That's understandable, and normal. I don't think she was absolutely traumatized, but I do think that she was suspicious that you might be planning a repeat of the afternoon's events!

What might have helped prevent this from happening?

First, you could have turned Cricket out that morning or taken her out for exercise before the vet arrived, so that she would have been a more relaxed and peaceful pony.

Second, you could have said to the vet "This is my little wild yearling filly, she's very good but she's very timid with strangers, so here's my tactic for helping her make friends with new people: please take these four carrot sticks and feed them to her and talk to her for few minutes so that she can register that you belong in the "friend" category and not in the "unknown, could be dangerous" category." Most vets are very willing to comply with such requests, even if they are in a hurry, for three reasons: (1) good horse vets love horses, (2) vets prefer to work with calm horses that aren't rearing and behaving dangerously, and (3) good vets are always interested in doing things that will make the next visit easier, not more difficult!

Third, you could have said "NO" to the cross-ties. If you know that your pony is not good in cross-ties, you must say so, and suggest taking her elsewhere for her shots. Otherwise, you end up with a situation like the one you've described, in which the pony, already anxious about the vet and the crossties, senses that you too are nervous about the crossties, and becomes frightened and tense, then gets shots that HURT as her muscles are tight, at which point the pony decides that she was quite right to be afraid of the crossties and the vet. Then she tries to get away - rears, bucks, leaps about, and makes herself more frightened - and the tension begins to escalate more and more rapidly.

Next time, go directly to the sheep pen. ;-)

And speaking of things to do... Subsequent visits don't have to be worse than this one, they can be much better. What you'll want to do is practice! Cricket needs to practice all the skills she needs to be worked on by a vet or a farrier. She needs to know how to stand quietly, keeping all four feet on the ground, taking a step forward or backward or sideways WHEN ASKED, then stand quietly again. She needs to know how to lift her feet and allow them to be held up and tapped. She needs to lower her head when asked. She needs to accept being poked and prodded here and there - so poke and prod her. Handle her everywhere, put your fingers in her mouth, touch her tongue, rub her gums, let her know that you can do these things, that there is no danger, and that she can just about sleep through them all.

PRACTICE until she is perfect at it, and utterly bored with it, then bring in a friend to do all the same things whilst you watch, or hold Cricket, or both. Then bring in another friend and begin from the beginning. Use a thermometer, use a stethoscope, wear a lab coat - then have your friends do the same. If everyone is quiet and calm and very definite, if everyone moves slowly and talks to Cricket, and if the pockets of the lab coat contain carrot sticks, you will have every chance of changing Cricket's attitude to "Oh, hurrah, here's another vet, now I'll get a treat and a cuddle!"

Remember, this was ONE vet visit - out of all the ones she's had up til now - and although Cricket probably wouldn't care to be put into the cross-ties for that same veterinarian, she is not likely to have a fit the next time she needs medical attention. But DO practice everything she needs to know, over and over - perhaps even in the crossties, some day a year from now when calm obedience is such a habit that you can practice there too. It's important to get her relaxed and calm, though, because up til now, all of her medical attention has been routine care, not emergency care. She needs to develop the habit of being a bored, peaceful horse STATUE for the vet, any vet, because someday, a vet may need to treat her in an emergency when she is already in pain and actually has a good reason to be frightened. You want to have such an enormous confidence account built up, and such a HABIT of calm acceptance built up, that Cricket will behave well even in an emergency situation.

So, that's it - handle her, get all your friends to come in, make friends with her, and handle her, pass around the lab coat and the carrots, and watch her come around. If you're wondering how she would react to shots, just do a few practice sessions on hot days during fly season - according to all the horses I know, fly bites are sharper and nastier than a well-placed injection. Have you ever wondered why a horse will dance about furiously when approached by someone with a tiny syringe, but will stand looking resigned, just stamping occasionally, whilst flies bite its legs and cause sharp pain over and over and over again? It's not the pain of the injection that causes the initial upset when a horse is nervous of injections, it's the sense of being captured and confined and loomed over by anxious and possibly aggressive humans. You can make all of those worries disappear by desensitizing Cricket to all the other aspects of routine vet work. If you do that, and always make it clear to new vets that they NEED to introduce themselves to Cricket slowly and gently, with the help of some carrot sticks, Cricket shouldn't have any more problems with vets.


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