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Nicola Chamberlain

ITEC, FdSc, BSc (Hons)


Equine and Canine Behaviour 


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Blog & Guides


Friday 27th June 2014 17:27


Oscar, my husband’s 20 year old, 17hh Irish Draft x, has had a busy week.  Those that know Oscar will be aware of his propensity to destroy the most solid of fencing, just by leaning his massive chest with some 750kgs of weight behind it on the piece of fencing (or metal gate for that matter) that he chooses to go through.  The poor old boy is on a bit of a diet as he managed to continually get onto some rather lush grass – and is now on soaked hay during the day (together with the rest of his herd mates) but out on grass at night.  The trick is to make sure Oscar is perfectly happy where he is without grass, which means a combination of many things, including sufficient space to move about, proximity to his herd (all in with him), constant access to soaked hay in small hole nets (the holes can’t be too small, though, otherwise he gets frustrated trying to get sufficient hay out to be worth the effort!), regular high fibre/low sugar feeds, treat balls (toys that dispense high fibre/low energy treats when pushed around), shade/shelter and much more!  However, last week the hay must have been not to Oscar’s taste as he decided he’d snap the top rail of a three rail wooden fence….

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Later on in the week, Oscar has proven that you can teach an old horse new tricks!  He is one of the last of our own six horses that I have retrained using the kind, reward based methods that I now teach to others.  Oscar (as with all of our horses) used to suffer from separation anxiety from his herd at home if taken out for a ride on his own.  

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In the last two to three weeks, I have combined this way of training with a low pressure bitless bridle (not the sort that concentrates pressure on the sensitive parts of the head) and a Heather Moffett soft tree saddle.  However, on this particular day, I was intending to take one of our other horses out, a rehabilitated 14.2hh pony called Dylan.  Oscar was over the far side of the paddock with a haynet when I placed the saddle on part of the fence near where Dylan was, ready to bring Dylan in to tack him up.  However, I went to fetch Dylan’s bitless bridle and, as I returned only seconds later, Oscar had quietly displaced Dylan and was ‘guarding’ the saddle. He had decided it was his turn yet again to go riding, even though he’d been ridden all week!  There was a time when he would have shown visible signs that he was not happy being ridden – just mild ones such as tail swishing, not standing still whilst the saddle was being put on or letting out wind!  These behaviours would intensify when ridden out alone meaning that he was not ridden often enough and increasing his weight issue.

Not anymore.  He just stands there patiently and happily whilst I put his saddle on. He will stretch his legs out on his own before I do the girth up tight and he will lower his head into his own bridle all completely at liberty!!!!  He will then align himself with the mounting block and stand perfectly still whilst I mount – without any pressure to hold him there!  However, I think it may be a good idea to teach Oscar which is his saddle so that he doesn’t displace Dylan again.

Next, a ride with two of my clients to continue some desensitisation and counter conditioning that we had started in order to de-spook their horses to other livestock that they may encounter whilst out on a ride in the New Forest and surrounds.  This time, it was goats.  On the way, we passed very close to some very loud farm machinery, several cyclists whizzing by incredibly close without announcing they were approaching (and don’t we know how that can spook our horses!), various lawnmowers, traffic signs, large bags of waste materials at the side of the road from building works and garden clearance etc – it was all a breeze to Oscar!  In fact, on the way back from the goats, he purposely stopped right next to an ‘active’ lawnmower, looked at it and then looked back at me as if to say “come on then, aren’t I meant to get a ‘click’ and treat for that?!?”.  I can assure you, he was not that brave even just earlier this year!


So to round off, here are a few pictures of Oscar calmly overseeing proceedings with the desensitisation of my clients’ horses to goats.  What a big softy!  Look at how relaxed his eye is, his ears and how relaxed he is around the nose and mouth area.  Even the other two horses, in training, are alert but not anxious or ‘over faced’ by the strange looking and smelling beings before them (we only progress closer when they are completely comfortable).  That’s the whole idea of this training – maintaining and promoting calm.  It’s much safer for us and much nicer for our horses.

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Nicola Chamberlain, FdSc, BSc(Hons)

Equine and Canine Clinical Behaviour Therapist  or


© Nicola Chamberlain June 2014


Thursday 24th April 2014 18:53


Most horses find the taste of anti-endoparasitic pastes or de-wormers- which are often administered by oral syringe - pretty disgusting and will do everything possible to avoid it.  They find it aversive.  Evasive tactics your horse may employ include raising their heads out of your reach, attempts to move away or even bolt.  Some, when restrained, may even try to bite or kick you when they find there is no escape.  De-worming can not only be very tricky, but dangerous too!


Even when you do manage to squirt that paste into the back of the mouth, many horses will attempt to spit it out again.  In the past, I have tried to follow this up quickly by offering them some really tasty food or treats to encourage them to swallow.  However, like many owners I come across, the taste may be so aversive that they are suspicious or not interested in food or their sense of taste may even become temporarily tainted.  Some pastes try to compensate for this by adding a flavour, such as apple. Whereas I have had some horses find this not quite so aversive, there are plenty out there who still do.


Even if we do manage to restrain the horse with head collars, ropes and chains and additional helpers and manage to keep their heads up afterwards long enough for them to swallow, this just makes the event even more aversive to the horse.  The more aversive something is, the more likely the horse is to remember that event and all the environmental clues or cues that predict it meaning that, next time, you may have even more of a fight on your hands.


The question is, do you escalate the pressure, number of people required to hold the horse down, the ropes and chains?  If you do, then your horse may eventually give in.  If he does, he is certain to associate you with this significantly aversive event and you may find his behaviour towards you deteriorates in other scenarios too.  If your horse doesn’t give in, his behaviour may well get worse – even dangerous.

But de-worming our horses is such an important part of equine management.  A large endoparasite or worm burden can cause loss of condition, anaemia, diarrhoea, colic and even death.  Although it is recommended that we do not overdo de-worming of our horses, with many now undertaking faecal worm counts as part of endoparasite control, most horses will inevitably need to be treated for worm infestations at some point.  So not treating your horse is not an option for most.

So what do you do about it?

The best case scenario is that your horse would have been counter-conditioned to being de-wormed using an oral paste from a very young age.  Counter-conditioning is where something aversive is paired with something which is very pleasing and rewarding – or an appetitive.  The appetitive must be more rewarding to the horse than the aversive is noxious.  This means, in simple terms, that you need to start with very small amounts of the aversive and a lot more of the appetitive. 

However, not many horses have been started up to a de-worming programme in this way and so most of us are already faced with a horse that has learned the syringe full of the treatment is very unpleasant indeed.  This means that we need also to desensitise the horse to all the environmental cues that predict the unpleasant thing is about to happen as well as then counter-conditioning them to the unpleasant taste of the treatment itself.  This needs to be done slowly over a period of time and without overdoing each session.  For some horses, it may also be the sensation of having something squirted into their mouth that requires additional counter-conditioning.

The following is a series of pictures taken recently of one of my clients horses.  This horse has had some previous clicker training – where a unique sound such as a click or a whistle is paired with a reward such as a horse treat or piece of apple.  The unique sound or click predicts that a reward is coming and, once appropriately paired with the reward, the click itself becomes a ‘yes’ or bridging signal telling the horse that the behaviour performed at that exact moment when the click was heard is what earned him the reward.  Getting this connection solid before you try to begin changing or teaching a behaviour is so important, as is making sure you only mark and reward calm behaviour.  Otherwise, you can get an over-excited or ‘muggy’ horse.  It is advisable to get an expert to start you off on the right track with this.


This particular horse did have an aversion to the worming treatment although his owner had done some ‘desensitisation’ work with him previously to get him to associate an empty syringe with good things.  This has been followed by a small amount of water being squirted gently into his mouth, then marking and rewarding when he swallowed.  However, the pictures below were taken after three short sessions of around 2-3 minutes each on the same day with the real thing.

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You can see that in the first picture, I am presenting the syringe of de-worming treatment with the cap off, so he can really smell the paste.  He is not too sure to start with.  However, each time he takes a step or moves his head closer to the syringe, I mark that improvement in behaviour with a verbal tongue ‘click’ followed by a reward.  I am asking him to ‘target’ the syringe to the corner of his mouth.  By marking each incremental step towards this goal behaviour and rewarding each ‘click’, I soon get him voluntarily putting the syringe in his own mouth.  When he does this, and remember, he can taste the medicine but I have not injected it into his mouth yet, he gets a jackpot reward and we finish the session.  

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After a few more sessions like this – to get the behaviour solid – we will be able to inject the paste and he will then get an even better jackpot.  If we have done it without raising his anxiety levels, he will then choose to take the paste next time, because in accepting something that is a little unpleasant, this actually gets him something that is far more pleasant and rewarding in the end.

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I should point out that this horse is in his own paddock that he has pleasant associations with and is without a headcollar and free to move off any time he wants to and so has complete choice as to whether he stays for the treatment or not.  This is an important part of the process and helps to keep anxiety levels low.  I also do not move the syringe towards him, but present it so that he can move himself towards it.  He practically de-worms himself!

If you would like to know more, please contact me.


© Nicola Chamberlain. April 2014