The Deworming Dance
Yesterday was deworming day at In the Night Farm. One by one, I pulled horses from their paddocks for a little grooming, followed by a shot of pyrantel pamoate.
Acey is my only horse who objects to this ritual. I think it’s the sensation of the tube in her mouth she hates, more than the actual paste. Either way, her eyes turn glossy and her chin tucks when she sees the tube coming. That, however, is the extent of her protest.
Not so long ago, deworming Acey was more of a project. Before she was gentled, I dewormed her by mixing the paste with a mash of beet pulp and oats. That worked well, but once she understood basic in-hand work, it was time to administer the dewormer properly.
The first time I tried, Acey raced backward in an effort to escape. Pulling on her would have done no good; in fact, it would have made her feel even more desperate to evade me. So I went with her — and when she wanted to stop, I asked her to keep backing.
I asked calmly, just as though we were in the middle of a lesson on giving to pressure rather than attempting routine health maintenance. My goal was not to punish, but to show her that she had a choice: Stay and be dewormed in peace, or escape by working hard.
You want to practice backing up? What a good idea! Let’s back up…more…keep going…good girl! Now, how about that dewormer?
I raised the tube. She backed away.
No? Okay, we can back some more. Let’s go clear around the corral this time…good…very nice…ready to stop? How ’bout that dewormer?
Acey was blowing by now. Backing, even calmly, is hard work. I approached with the tube again. She eyed it and stepped back.
Really? Huh. Well, we can practice backing some more, if you insist. Let’s go around twice this time…keep going…goodness, it’s a long way…whew!
This time, when I slipped the tube between her lips, Acey didn’t move. I dosed her, then scratched her withers while she swallowed.
There, wasn’t that easier? Good girl!
Had Acey’s deworming issue been more severe — particularly if it had been result of a long and dismal course of oral medications — I would have dosed her with something tasty, like applesauce or molasses, several times throughout a series of training sessions before administering the dewormer.
In Acey’s case, however, that ten-minute lesson conveyed the message that will save us both a lifetime of headaches. Six weeks later, she backed only once — quite a bit further than she’d planned — before accepting her ivermectin. Six weeks after that, I watched the thought cross her mind, then vanish in the wake of a wise decision.
I wrote the above post an hour ago, and it’s been bothering me ever since. Why? Because at deworming time, Acey’s eyes still glaze over with the rainbow sheen that signals stress and resistance. I’m going to buy some applesauce for her, after all.
Also, the above method is one I would probably avoid using with a horse that has a tendency to rear. Backing can be frustrating for a horse, and the act of backing “gathers” him into his hindquarters, which makes rearing — an extremely dangerous behavior — all too easy. Turning a horse like this in tight circles instead of backing would accomplish the same objective; circling would also be a good alternative for a horse that isn’t yet trained to back politely.
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