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What's your horse learning today?

New clients can be anxious.

A new client of ours last month confessed that they postponed their first appointment with us because they were “too nervous to have their horse’s teeth done." We hear new clients express anxiety over their appointments all the time, and hear things things like, “My stomach has been in knots all day because my horse has had such bad experiences with service providers in the past,” or even "My horse doesn't like men, so I'm worried that you might get hurt!"

This particular client went on to add, “I don’t know how she’ll be for you. She always flings her head and tries to run you over. It’s such a traumatic experience for all of us.” The horse needed to be twitched just to be sedated (forget about worming) and previous experiences were, indeed, traumatic for the horse and for anyone watching.

Horses can be uncooperative.

Advanced dentistry procedures generally require power tools and the use of power tools for any dentistry procedure, including a routine float, requires sedation. While we believe that the use of power tools is unnecessary for a routine float, horse owners are generally very set on their preference for having their horse floated with power tools or with hand tools. This preference is usually either based on their own bias, their own research, or their DVM's preference; through friends who insist that one method vs. another is best; or in some cases because they would simply never, in a million years, believe that their horse could be floated without sedation.

Remember that in most states (Michigan being one of them) sedation can only legally be administered by a veterinarian (DVM), a licensed veterinary technician (if supervised by a DVM), or the horse’s owner. This is a limiting factor for any service practitioner who thinks sedation is the only way to get an uncooperative horse to stand still for a procedure. Sedation does not render a horse unconscious, so it is still possible for a sedated horse to be reactive, often unpredictably so.

Horses can be anxious too.

Consider what your horse is learning from the moment your equine dentist (or any service provider) arrives for their appointment. How is the horse approached? Where is its attention? Is it given a chance to demonstrate the behavior that's being expected without being prematurely corrected? Is the proper behavior being reinforced, or is the wrong behavior being encouraged? What happens to a horse's anxiety level if it becomes confused with mixed signals? What does sedation allow your horse to learn, except perhaps, to fear needles and service providers, and develop disdain for the experience in general?

Horses learn with every experience.

Horses that are not sedated for routine procedures, like hand floating, learn a great deal in the process, starting with learning that they’re not going to die. For some horses, this can be a revelation. They are prey animals. They always think they’re going to die.

When a horse is handled with consistency so they know what's expected of them...

When they are not restrained....

When they can lick and chew often as the speculum is regularly released so they can feel a difference in their mouths during the float....

When they can move at will...

...they don't feel trapped. And a horse that doesn't feel trapped generally doesn't feel fear which makes a makes a huge difference in how a horse stands for the float.

And then there are horses who just want to be buttheads because they've trained a lot of people. But that subject deserves a blog all of its own. :)

In addition to learning that the float is actually making them feel better (many horses will lean into the float), they learn that having a tool in their mouth is a positive experience and that syringes of water offer relief from the grit of tooth filings. Anyone who observes how a horse's mouth is rinsed might also transfer that technique to worming their horse.

Unsedated horses also learn a thing or two about where their attention belongs when someone is working with them. Have a mare that gets lost in space? That's not the desired response when you're standing in front of their face.

And even though an annual routine hand float takes an average of 20 minutes (give or take), horses will learn from consistent pressure and release. For example, pushing on a hand placed on their muzzle will only cause that hand to push back. The concept of pressure and release translates to a whole lot of horse training right there.

You decide what your horse learns.

The horse that was the inspiration for this blog entry stood perfectly still without restraint for the duration of the float procedure. The owner was in awe and in tears because for the first time ever, the horse’s annual dental visit was a non-event for everyone involved.

Don’t allow your horse to be sedated for a routine float just to make it easier for your service provider to float your horse. Power tools are not necessary. Save the risk of sedation for a serious injury, when the horse really needs it, and consider each visit from a service provider as a chance for your horse to learn something. Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. It really is just that simple. Every situation a horse owner puts their horse into offers them an opportunity to learn to be afraid or to learn to be confident.

So, what's your horse learning today?

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