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What I wished I'd done when Penny was freaking out in pain on the bridleway

It was happening again. Penny's muscle spasm in her neck. Only I didn't know that was what it was, it didn't happen all the time.

I'd gone for a ride in a new place. We'd not long been at the yard where I was now keeping her having just moved to Swansea from the Vale of Glamorgan in 2007. Penny had been at her best in the Vale, I was hacking her for 1 to 2 hours most days of the week. And had begun to jump her again. Now here we were spinning and rearing on the bridleway tarmacked as a bike path in Dunvant - spilling back out into the car park as we tried to get home, desperately dodging parked cars in the car park as Penny was really losing the plot. Blinded by pain.

Muscle spasm has a quick onset and hurts like hell. And to some of the vets who had examined her, it looked neurological. That day on the bridleway, the attending emergency vet wondered the same. He couldn't get near her with a needle to sedate her, so a bute and ACP sandwich later I found myself carefully leading her 10 minutes up the bridleway to his house and land where she was to spend the night. The muscle spasm eased and Penny appeared perfectly normal the next day and I led her home.

In the years to come we learned it was muscle spasm, after coming close to having her put down when a simple routine vaccination, subcutaneously to her neck set her off (it was also sideways wind and rain that day). The vet referred onto a veterinary acupuncturist, who, while he couldn't needle her, did get to the bottom of the issue. Under his guidance I brought Penny, who had been retired again by this point, back into gentle work, using "capturing" to reward her for telescoping her neck forward and encourage more of this healthy, muscle spasm preventing posture.

The main lasting legacy was that by now, Penny was totally averse to the vet and this made routine vaccinations a nightmare. Then so is tetanus so something had to be done:

Association: what Penny had learned was that vets bring a pain in the neck. A hell of a pain in the neck. Ponies that are expecting pain most likely experience more pain when injected.

Motivation. What Penny wanted was for the vet to go away - preferably before inflicting pain. If they wouldn't leave, she would beat them to it. Her defence behaviour was to try and run away from the vet. Circles around us were good enough in her book.

I needed to change the association to change the motivation:

  1. I learned her "fear ladder" - all the triggers inherent in the injection process.

  2. I literally took the process apart, and paired each little section of it with her great love, food.

  3. I started and stopped while Penny was standing still to encourage this behaviour.

  4. I taught Penny that if she looked towards me that I would begin the process - a "start button".

  5. And that the procedures would end with her standing still so she didn't need to walk off

Dissecting the process into least provocative, scaled down micro-interventions made sure of that. Then I could one by one, recombine them. So that I could do a sham procedure, so my partner could (you need a second person at some stage where possible) and then so my vet could follow the same retrained procedure and be successful. So Penny could be successful. And it worked!

Are your struggling to get your horse to cooperate with your vet? I am really looking forward to sharing more of my vet care training material. You can join the BHS SW Wales webinar: Get your horse vet ready on Weds 28th Oct at 7pm.

Follow my Instagram feed for updates on my upcoming vet care training course.

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