t’s common for horses to not enjoy being de-wormed or given medication via a syringe and it only takes one bad experience to put them off. However, with patience, practice, and the carefully timed use of positive and/or negative reinforcement, you can transform the experience for both you and your horse.
Are you certain that you need to de-worm your horse? Find out more about testing first rather than treating routinely on our Worms: how to control them in horses advice page.
What do you need to practise de-worming with your horse?
- An empty syringe – if you don’t have one to hand you can ask your vet or get one from Amazon/online. It is a good idea to fill it with apple sauce/juice or diluted molasses to help make this a positive experience for your horse.
- A food source (if you’re using positive reinforcement) – this can be a few pony nuts, apple or carrot slices or a bit of chaff (make sure to only give a small amount at a time to avoid the risk of choke if you use chaff).
How do you train your horse to accept a de-wormer or medication given orally?
If you know your horse is extremely food-oriented you may be better to use negative reinforcement (taking the syringe away, in this context), or else you could combine this with giving them a good wither scratch for a positive reinforcement element. Not sure about the difference between positive and negative reinforcement? You can find out more on our Training: how do horses learn? advice page.
Start off by standing next to your horse’s head and showing them the syringe. If they’re not keen on being de-wormed or having medication administered orally (by mouth), even this may cause them to swing their head away. In that case, you’ll need to wait for them to stand still next to you – and then and only then do you mark the desired behaviour with a verbal marker or clicker and give them a piece of your chosen food reward (positive reinforcement) and/or take the syringe away (negative reinforcement). You need to be really precise with your timing – ONLY reward the horse when they’re holding still, even if that’s not for very long to begin with.
Gradually you can begin moving the syringe closer to the horse’s head and repeating the step above, assessing their reaction each time to make sure you’re not advancing faster than they’re comfortable with, and making sure to only reinforce them (with food and/or taking the syringe away) when they’re holding still.
Once they’re calm and confident with the syringe resting against their face, you can start to slide it down their jaw. Always remove the syringe before the horse feels they need to lift their head. If they lift it a few inches slowly you can keep the syringe in contact with their head and then take it away when their head is still or even better lowers slightly again. However never persist if the horse becomes stressed – just break it down into easier-to-achieve steps. The aim is to achieve the whole process with;
- The horse remaining calm and confident
- The horse’s head remaining at roughly wither height or lower
- Very few on no jerks of the head away from the syringe.
Once the horse is confident with the syringe being slid down their jaw, slide it onto the corner of the mouth – with the syringe pointing forwards. Next, you can slide the syringe (still pointing forwards) into the horse’s mouth slightly, keeping it in contact with the lower lip. You only need the tip of the syringe to enter their mouth and then you can gently press it to inject a bit of tasty apple juice/etc. onto their lip. If you repeat this, almost all horses will start to really enjoy the tasty syringe. Each time you introduce the syringe into the mouth, place the tip a bit further in. Once the tip is a few cm in you can rotate your wrist round in a smooth motion so that the syringe is facing towards the back of the mouth and is sitting comfortably on the tongue.
If your horse lifts their head and the syringe loses contact with their lip, they’ve been reinforced for lifting their head. This is why it’s so important to only progress at a pace the horse is comfortable with, so that you don’t end up in this situation. As before, make sure to reinforce the behaviour you want – in this instance, the horse’s head being held still at its normal height.
When you come to give the de-wormer treatment for real, you want to make sure it all goes down their throat, so the closer you can get the syringe to the horse’s throat the better. Again, make sure you continue to reinforce them for holding still at each stage and only progress as fast as they’re confident with. If you choose to fill the syringe with apple sauce, you can ‘de-worm’ them with apple sauce a couple of times to help create a positive association with the syringe being placed in their mouth. To help make sure it all goes down their throat, you should ideally tilt the horse’s head up once you’ve given the de-wormer, so it’s worth practising this stage too.
Do allow plenty of time for this process – you may well need to break it down into lots of smaller training sessions, especially if your horse has a history of not liking de-worming treatment. Even once your horse is comfortable with it, it’s worth putting some practice sessions in ahead of giving a de-worming treatment for real, because it’s so important that they get the correct dose of the product.
Don’t Break Your Vet: ‘Worry-free worming’
Don’t Break Your Vet: ‘Happy heads’
You can find the full set of Don’t Break Your Vet videos on BEVA’s YouTube channel here.
Final key points to remember when de-worming your horse
- Test first! Are you certain your horse needs a de-worming treatment at all? If you’re not sure about how, when, or why to test your horse for worms, you can find out more on our Worms: how to control them in horses advice page and in our Field Officer Chris Shaw’s blog Autumn worm control: which worms should you test for?
- Don’t practice de-worming using food for positive reinforcement immediately before you intend to actually de-worm your horse, as they can spit the paste back out along with any food that’s still in their mouth. This is also true for chewed hay, so bear this in mind if your horse has been in their stable with access to hay/other food.
- It’s really important to weigh your horse before you de-worm them to make sure they get the correct dose. Your equine veterinary hospital or local weighbridge will tell you their exact weight but using a weigh tape will give you a good enough estimate. You might also like to look up mobile weighbridge services – they’re generally pretty reasonably priced, especially if you can get several owners together to arrange a block booking.
- If you use a weigh tape, you should add 10% to the weight shown by the tape.
- Depending on which active ingredient your horse needs (your vet, RAMA or SQP will be able to advise you), you may be able to get a de-wormer which is flavoured to make it more palatable.
- Make sure all the paste goes down the horse’s throat – tilt their head up after you have given the wormer to stop them spitting it out. Don’t reward them with food immediately after de-worming as you want to be sure the paste has gone down their throat first.
- If your horse spits out even a small amount of the product the dose can be significantly lower than it ought to be, which increases the risk of resistance.
- If you’re not confident de-worming your horse, even after working through the training process above, please don’t be afraid to enlist help from someone experienced.