One of the most stressful aspects of being a guardian for a horse like Tarot is his fear of anyone who isn’t me. Discomfort with new people isn’t unusual with mustangs in their first six months to a year as a newly tame horse, but most of them become comfortable as they meet more people and have positive experiences with them. Unfortunately for Tarot, many of the unfamiliar farriers, vets and trainers he met in his old life mistook his fear for “bad behavior” and punished him when he panicked. His old owner even told me that she had to dismiss more than a few professionals when they became angry that they couldn’t control him. He experienced a lot of unpredictable and punishing behavior from people. A large part of my responsibility to him is to teach him the skills he needs to be a domestic horse and to help him trust new people. I also need to make sure the new people I expose him to act in a way that he finds trustworthy. No pressure!
For now Tarot needs to be sedated to have his feet trimmed since that is a process that has been deeply poisoned for him. But he has also been extremely nervous about the brief but intimidating contact needed to inject a sedative into his jugular vein. He was terrified of the vet getting in close and touching his body. Once, as she moved in close to touch him, he even leapt up and out of the situation in a near-perfect and alarming capriole. Most of the time we were able to get him sedated but I was unhappy with how stressful it was for him. I was afraid we would hit a wall if we kept going without changing something significant in our approach. Then I wouldn’t be able to take care of his feet at all.
Last week I had our vet, Dr. Hanrahan, come out for a “socialization” visit. When she pulled up I realized how tense I normally am, knowing we “have” to hit the vein and that we need to be discrete and fast. What a relief this would just be a training visit and Tarot could set the bar for what he was comfortable with. Surprisingly, once we presented Dr. Mary to Tarot within the context of his clicker training game he was relaxed with her. Pretty much immediately. Here’s a video of part of the 20 minute session he had with Dr. Mary on Monday:
We started out having Dr. Mary ask Tarot to target her hand. It’s more frontal, which he is comfortable with, and it sets up Dr. Mary’s hands to be a way to get a reward. The quality of his target was solid. When he is afraid he either does not target or will target very softly like he is absent. Once he was comfortable with targeting I had Dr. Mary move on to neck touches just behind the jaw using the back of her hand. The back of her hand is less threatening. When Tarot is relaxed he offers soft head lowering for any touch and I was surprised to see him offering head lowering on her first touch. From there we moved to slides down the neck and then mock-ups of the actual motion required to inject the sedative. During the session he offers lots of head-lowering and soft body language and Dr. Mary was sure she could have sedated him six times over with how quietly he was standing. Success!
Ken Ramirez, the executive vice president of animal care and training at the Shedd Aquarium, has a rule: for every one time you stick an animal (needle) you need to have one hundred reps where you don’t. We got in quite a few on Monday, at least 30, so I made sure to bring him in the barn each day and practice the motion to “stick” him. I had other people practice and he did well with all of us! On Thursday Dr. Hanrahan came back for the real deal. It went without a hitch! Here’s the video:
The video starts with Dr. Mary practicing her mock needle sticks and Tarot’s head is nice and low and relaxed. After 4 or 5 she walks away to give him a break and opens her needle before she walks back. When she comes back we both felt he was slightly nervous, so did a few more mock-ups and then the stick. Unfortunately, for the first time ever, she missed. Since he kept eating and was still interested in the food she did try one more time and successfully sedated him. We did break a cardinal rule – you have one try to stick your animal, if you miss, you need to do 100 more reps before you try again. To make it up to him I will get 200 reps in before his next appointment with Dr. Mary. And if we miss I will have her back another day.
As an interesting side note, Dr. Mary has ALWAYS brought food with her when she comes to work with Tarot. She uses a brand called “nicker makers” and all of my horses love them. However, usually Tarot is so nervous when she is near him that he is unable to eat past her initial offering. Not until we added in the clicker to the process and gave him a more active role was he able to eat around Dr. Mary and stay actively engaged in his care. A few times during the process one of her nicker makers, which were mixed in with the grain I gave her, got offered to Tarot as a reward. When he smelled them he stopped eating and actually became tense for a few repetitions. The smell of the treats Dr. Mary always had with her elicited a conditioned fear response! We both amazed at how clear an association had been made. It does matter that you use food correctly. (Just ask Pavlov!)