I have owned Carlton since 2015 and he is now an 8-year-old. He is in many ways the most fun, cheeky and loving horse I have ever known. However, on the ground, it is a very different story. Try to perform any invasive procedure on this horse and he simply reverts to self-preservation ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. Even clipping is a challenge; he is convinced something bad is going to happen and acts how I used to deem as ‘irrationally’. I spent hours desensitising him using simple pressure-release techniques, repetition, rewarding good behaviour etc. The end result, often hours later, would be a slightly-patchy anxious and irritated horse that had worked its way across the stable-yard trying to shake me off. I gave up and resorted to clipping him when the vet came to do his vaccinations so he could be sedated at the same time.
This brings me on to the next problem…he developed a fear of needles and vets due to a series of events. In 2017 following a recommendation from the physiotherapist, I had him scoped for gastric ulcers. He was already sceptical of vets prior to this, so the uncomfortable procedures of sedating and scoping him created a monster by reinforcing his fear. After finding ulcers we had the next problem – having to give a daily syringe of medication for an entire month. Day 1 didn’t go very well, because he also hates syringes…
Day 1 involved me first of all giving him the benefit of the doubt and trying to get a syringe in his mouth. Prior to this, I’d put wormers in his feed because it was less hassle; however, the omeprazole paste should ideally be given on an empty stomach so I had to at least try. Carlton’s first instinct was to turn his back on me and stand at the back of the stable, as soon as he set eyes on the syringe. He would stand there with his lips pursed and eyes bulging, feeling literally backed into a corner.
I decided to abandon ship on the medication and give him a syringe of honey and water, thinking that if I made it more palatable it would be easier to trick him, but by this point he’d completely thrown the towel in. Trying desperately to get near my defensive horse with a syringe I completely triggered him to start rearing up and, before I knew it he had lashed out with his front leg whilst in mid-air. The end result of this whole unsuccessful process was me in hospital having staples in my scalp, narrowly avoiding a fractured skull. Needless to say I gave up on trying to syringe him again and resorted to putting the medication in his feed. It took even more effort through trial and error to get the correct combination of grated carrot, apple and garlic to disguise the taste; all the while I was praying the paste would still be effective.
For the following couple of years I persevered with clipping and worming when necessary under sedation during the vets’ vaccination visit as this was better for everyone involved, however things escalated once again when Carlton had to be taken to Rainbow Equine Hospital in the summer of 2019 for a ‘poor-performance’ check. Fearing his ulcers had returned but wanting to eliminate everything else before going through the whole syringe-medication dilemma again, he was once again scoped and lameness checked. Unfortunately the vets suspected a hind-leg problem, so he had to endure more sedation and several nerve-blocks to get to the route of the problem. The diagnosis was damaged hind suspensories and advanced arthritis in his hocks, as well as ulcers again.
The vets advised that, because ulcers had returned after only treating two years previously, he should have the omeprazole injections. This meant being sedated once a week and then having a further injection in his bum. On the first vet visit to perform this procedure the vet left after half an hour of trying to get near him and being unsuccessful. The horse simply did everything he could to keep her away from him, even with a headcollar on…spinning, rearing, turning around to kick, barging etc. I got a call from the vets the next day to say they were getting the omeprazole paste sent out to me; he was too dangerous to try and inject unless absolutely neccesary. We did however still have to get him sedated to start shockwave treatment on his legs. The process we adopted to make it as humane as possible was to give him a maximum dose of sedative paste (in his feed of course!), waiting 45 mins for it to kick in, then giving him an intra-muscular sedative injection, which took a further 1 hour to have any effect. Then when he was docile enough to get near him to give him another intra-muscular sedative top-up. This was only possible because they could be less precise with the needle, so as opposed to getting near his jugular they could catch him by surprise and jab his chest, shoulder or neck. (He was so sharp that he still managed to snap a couple of needles during this process). The down-side for me was that it took about 4 hours for all of the sedation to leave his system; so for each shockwave visit I had to take a full day off work…all for a treatment that takes 3 minutes per leg! (I did try desensitisation work between visits but it was almost pointless given that he would have yet another traumatic experience only a couple of weeks later).
After 8 weeks we had to get Carlton back to Rainbow to have his legs rescanned. I don’t know who was more anxious, me or the horse. I couldn’t sleep for fear that he would seriously hurt someone, or himself, or that we would have to return home having not had a scan. They did manage to sedate and scan him. It took three Rainbow staff, a lot of bribery, neck twitching and a chifney bit, but they managed to get a moderate dose in a muscle while distracting him with a Lick-It. He was successfully rescanned but the price we paid was another long day waiting for the reservoir of sedative to wear off and a horse that was mentally back to square one, now completely justified in his fears.
I didn’t feel relieved this was over because I knew I only had another 10 weeks before he had to go through this whole process again to have another rescan and hock injections.
This is where Melanie Watson comes into the picture. Having known Melanie a number of years and spending a short stint of time working for her, I admired her work and so I called upon her for help. (May I add that I learnt more about horses in these couple of months than in the previous 25 years of being around horses!) My main goal was to be able to do things with my horse that were in his best interests health-wise. (I always had it in the back of my mind that if Carlton were to colic we would probably lose him, because we wouldn’t be able to give him any form of medical attention in a timely manner). Melanie suggested she visit to introduce me to the art of clicker training. I understood the concept but was naïve to exactly how effective this would be.
The first couple of hours were spent training me; how to look for a desired behaviour so I could reward it. It was refreshing having a method of training that focussed purely on what the animal is doing right as opposed to correcting what was wrong. Having practised my new-found techniques on my mum, cat and 3-year-old son I started work on Carlton! We trained Carlton to ‘target’ by reinforcing the desired behaviour with a reward, breaking everything down into easily achievable goals for him. I was left to my own devices to carry this on for just a couple of weeks, usually in 1-3 sessions per day, 5-10 minutes long.
I held off introducing the syringe/injection training until Melanie was with me again as I desperately wanted to get this right. The video posted on Melanie’s Facebook http://www.facebook.com/instinctivehorsetraining page were the very first sessions where we had introduced the syringes to his training; and the first time he’d seen a syringe since the last trip to Rainbow. Rather strangely, because we had broken the training down so much and was really in-tune with it all, I never expected him to all of a sudden react violently. And to my sheer delight he didn’t! No turning his bum on me, no hiding at the back of the stable, no kicking and no rearing. We still had a way to go but for the first time in four years I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. He was standing quietly, with no headcollar on, letting me apply the pressure of a syringe on his neck. To some people this sounds tediously boring…to me it is a massive achievement which only a month ago would have been unthinkable. TBC…