Alice and Big B tell us their story about how they have managed to overcome big B’s fear of needles, working closely with Catriona and the team at Station House Vets.
My horse Big B has long had a nervous disposition. Visits from the vet, farrier and other equine professionals have been a trigger for her anxiety in the past, in fact any change to her daily routine can often be a cause for her to get upset.
Being nervous, for years Big B required sedation for clipping and dental work, all of which along with her routine vaccinations, involved one of her biggest fears – needles!
I realised I was going to have to do something about this fear when about 6 years ago my previous vet was trying to sedate her for clipping and she knocked him across the stable into the wall with just her head – she is over 18hh and being a shire cross, she is extremely powerful and although not nasty when she is panicking you don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as her spatial awareness goes out the window. The next time the vet returned to see her he was wearing his hard hat and body protector and I knew if I didn’t address it properly it was only going to be a matter of time before me or the vet got hurt.
The first thing I decided to do was to create a routine for B, for anything to do with needles so she knew what to expect and could feel as prepared as possible. I knew she needed to be able to go out as normal on a morning and so I would arrange a time for the vet to come mid morning so she could have some time in her field before hand then come in to her stable in peace. She loves to be scratched and it always calms her down and so basically I would stand and scratch her for about 10 mins before the vet came helping her to relax. Importantly I also needed to remain calm, if I were to get tense then B would immediately know something was wrong and would start to worry, so I found singing or talking to her while waiting helped! I would tell my vet to come to the stable so she didn’t need me to leave her and he would walk in not speaking and just jab her with no faffing or wafting the needle around before hand. This improved the situation, but we would still find she was not totally settled and sometimes she would still jump or shoot up against the wall.
A big turning point was when I took B for a week long holiday where we tried our hand at positive reinforcement training. B absolutely loved this. She is very intelligent, and encouraging her to investigate scary things for herself with no pressure and the option to stop if she wanted really improved our relationship and confidence in each other.
Shortly after this I also moved vets to Station House Vets, Catriona became B’s main vet and this is where the improvement really started. I explained B’s nervousness to Catriona and the big difference was that she also took time to create a relationship with B so that B also began to trust her, not just me. When visiting our yard for other horses, sometimes Catriona would pop and see B in her stable while she was passing, not for a veterinary reason but just to say a quick hello and give her a treat so that she wasn’t always seeing her for something unpleasant.
B is also a frequent visitor to Station House so this has helped! Catriona is very patient and never rushes with B or raises her voice, she talks to her quietly and calmly and after any injection always gives her a treat and a fuss. This year we have been able to jab her just stood outside while chatting – she has come a very long way. It also meant that when she needed to go to Rainbow for lameness investigations, nerve blocks could be carried out with less stress than it would have previously involved, Catriona took the time to speak to the vets at Rainbow and let them know about B’s worry with needles so they too could be prepared.
Working on this also gave me the confidence to tackle other things that B found frightening, I no longer need sedation to clip her, she can be hot shod without panicking and I can worm her without a headcollar. It didn’t happen over night; it was years of patience, routine and reward but the improvement from 8 years ago is huge and I am very grateful to Catriona and the other vets at Station House who have since also had to jab B and followed the same routine to create the calmest environment for B and the safest environment for me and for them!