Managing Oral Issues with Clicker Training

Positive reinforcement for the win!

As I mentioned in this post our goal for the weekend was to help Juniper get over her issues with having oral medications or wormer administered. It went really well!

The original plan was to do six clicker training sessions total, three on Saturday, three on Sunday, and then either worm in the last session on Sunday or on Monday. We got it done in five sessions and probably could have done it in four but I didn’t want to push it. We made videos if anyone wants to watch the process but I’ll also outline it here for people who read faster than the videos play.

Session 1

Our goals for the first session were to reestablish the sound that means “yes, well done” and to get Juniper to accept me having my thumb just inside her mouth. This was by far the longest session and it took Juniper forever to relax and just let my thumb sit there.

One of the hardest things about clicker training for me is getting my timing right. You want to make your “yes, well done” sound the MOMENT they give you the behavior you were looking for or when things are clearly not going where you want them to if they even start to give you what you are looking for. That sounds easy, but in practice it can be pretty challenging. As with everything in life you get better with practice and I am very out of practice.


Session 2

Our goal for the second session was for Juniper to let me put an empty syringe/tube in her mouth in the same location where you would be placing the tube of medication or wormer. Same premise, start slow and in small steps: tube next to mouth, tube just barely in mouth, tube all the way in mouth. The moment she is calm and accepting at each stage I make the reward sound and then give the treats.


Session 3

Our goal for the third session was for Juniper to let me put a syringe/tube with applesauce into her mouth and then squirt applesauce into her mouth. This was also practice for me because I tend to suck at giving wormer. I can never seem to get my hand position correct; I finally get it in their mouth but then can’t deliver the medication because my hand forgets how to work. This was a low pressure way for me to practice administering an oral tube medication as well. Juniper got VERY suspicious once I changed my hand position on the syringe so we had to go back a few steps to just accepting the tube by her mouth, then accepting it just barely in her mouth, before going back to all the way in. Success is in the baby steps!


Session 4

Repeat of session 3 – really want to establish that having a tube of something squirted into your mouth isn’t that big of a deal and Juniper did really well this second time with the applesauce so it was a very short session. To be fair most people don’t want to have some unknown substance squirted into their mouth, so her general dislike of the process is not unreasonable.


Session 5

Goal is to worm Juniper with no rearing. I opted to dip the wormer tube in some molasses and that helped immensely. To the point that Juniper didn’t want me to take it back out of her mouth and bit on it to try to finish getting all of the molasses. She also kept coming back up to me after we were done hoping for more treats or molasses lollypops even though it had that funny aftertaste. I did do another round of applesauce after the wormer because I didn’t want to end on the bad taste of wormer, though based on how much Juniper wanted to keep going I probably could have.


Some additional notes for making sure clicker training sessions go well.

I try to do all of my handling with Leeloo or Juniper in designated horse-human spaces like the round pen. Once we have a barn that will also be a dedicated horse-human space. I try to leave their overall track system for them as their domain and to not do much of anything with them out there.

I only give treats when we are doing clicker training and then I always have the bright blue fanny pack on. This is a very clear signal to the girls that this is a clicker training session and treats will be involved but also that to get treats they must be polite and do something to earn the treat.

End the session with a big reward to help them realize the session is over but to also not feel too disappointed by it being over. This is one that I still need more work with because Juniper made it very clear that she still wanted to work together after I was done and I felt bad denying her the opportunity to learn and do more with me when she wanted to.

Positive reinforcement training is a very effective tool and this round of worming went SO much better than when I tried to give her oral banamine this fall, that attempt involved a lot of rearing which is not safe for anyone.

If you are interested in doing positive reinforcement training find some good learning materials to start with, here are some of my favorites:

Mustang Maddy

The Willing Equine

The Clicker Center

And remember that everything takes practice – we’re aiming for better, not perfect!

Holding Pattern

Where do the days go?

I had a lot of goals for the week and somehow the week came and the week went and those goals did not happen. Well, some of them got worked on, but nothing got finished.

Goal One – Regenerative Farming Research

As I said in this post I have been unhappy with my job for a while and being on sabbatical and working on the Adult Education Certificate has really brough home the fact that I need a new career. Regenerative farming has sparked a lot of hope and excitement in me, and I wanted to do more digging to figure out how I can make this happen. I did find several books I want to read but haven’t gotten much farther than putting holds on them at the library.

Goal Two – Carpel Tunnel Surgery

I wasn’t going to have it done this week, obviously, but I had hoped to get it scheduled. I did meet with the surgeon and he agrees that surgery makes sense as our next step. Now I’m playing phone tag with his scheduler. The surgeon said I should only need 3-4 weeks of down time (in terms of not doing horse chores) but(!) that I can’t actually damage anything if I over do it, it will just hurt until it is done healing. This is great for many reasons, but the biggest is that it takes the pressure off of Nate to do EVERYTHING for the month. Nate and I are hoping that I can get the surgery scheduled for the very beginning of May (what a wonderful birthday gift that will be). I find that I can ignore the issues with my hand/wrist now that I know a solution is on the horizon.

Goal Three – Finish Hay Box Lids

I was so excited when we got our hay box lid solution figured out, as discussed in this post. However actually finishing the lids hasn’t happened yet because I messed up my measurements a bit. When I took the measurements to LeVahn Brothers to get the rest of the pipe for the lid frames I forgot to account for the corner pieces until I was standing at the register in the store. Instead of reasonably stepping out of the non-existent line to take my time to figure it out, I panicked and tried to calculate it quickly in my head. I did it correctly for one direction on all of the boxes but I was off by 2.75 inches in the other direction on all the boxes. Luckily they are too long and not too short so I can just cut them all down, I just haven’t gotten around to doing that. We are getting very sick of playing the fun game where Leeloo and Juniper shove all the hay out of the boxes and we put most the hay back in the boxes. Thankfully it isn’t muddy (yet) and they eat a lot of the hay back off the ground so they aren’t wasting that much but it will be muddy soon and mud or not it is very annoying so I really have to get these lids finished.

Goal Four – Make Progress on the Barn

One of the builders I had reached out to got back to me with some questions this week and we had a good conversation about the building but he still has more to do before he can give me a quote. I also started up another round of phone tag with another builder who I had been in contact with in fall but didn’t get final answers from – hoping I connect with him soon.

Then there were two new things that came up this week. Or rather two very old things that I had completely forgotten about that came back up.

First – Lawns to Legumes Grant

We received a Lawns to Legumes grant!! I had completely forgotten that I applied until the email showed up in my inbox saying we had been awarded one of the grants but I am super excited (and actually happy with past Sara for once)! Now I need to figure out what kind of project will satisfy the grant requirements, will make sense with our long-term goals, and will work with our current short-term setup (i.e. our front yard is now mostly horse paddock). There is a webinar for grantees that happens in two weeks and I am going to hold off on any planning until after that – but I will be staying super excited!

Second – Juniper’s Oral Medication Issues

When we brought Leeloo and Juniper home this fall we wormed them both before putting them in the trailer. I asked Juniper’s previous owner to do it since I didn’t know Juniper at all and some horses don’t like being wormed. It did not go well. In the end it took three people way too long, and with way too much rearing, to get it done. At the time I chalked it up to nerves; owner was sad about letting Juniper go but also had a time crunch that morning and Leeloo was having a meltdown in the trailer so I wasn’t exactly radiating calm. However the vet also had issues just trying to do a dental exam and I was unable to get oral banamine into Juniper using the tube. I knew then that this was something we would have to work on but at the time I was also giving her multiple eye medications 4-6 times a day and I could not afford to miss a dose because I had a pony unwilling to be caught or handled because she was feeling salty after trying to work on her oral issues. Then after weeks and weeks of eye meds followed by the onset of winter I forgot about it; until now. Leeloo is showing signs that she may be dealing with some parasites (coat condition isn’t great and she’s trying to itch her tail on everything – including the gate to the round pen which was NOT safe, thankfully I noticed her right away) and I want to worm her but it makes no sense to worm Leeloo and not Juniper at the same time. This has become priority number one and I am hoping that with some clicker training (positive reinforcement training) I can get Juniper over her oral issues this weekend, or at least over them enough that I can worm them both by Monday.

A mentor of mine once told me “Sometimes you have to be a glacier and wear the mountain down one inch at a time.” Inch by inch I am wearing these mountains down.

Winter Woe-nderland

at least there are no bugs

The weather this week has not been fun. Look at this drift – that is a five-foot-tall fence!

Luckily most of our upgrades have been working well:

  • New boots – awesome!
  • Sled – very happy.
  • Carhart overalls (which are not new but were brought out for the weather) – wonderful, as always.
  • Make-shift hay nets – working marginally well, though they managed to put a hole in one of my seams already and the twine I use to shut them is a pain to loosen and tighten every time. Waiting with eager anticipation for the real ones to get here.
  • Poop fork handle upgrades – mixed. The extra length has been nice, but the second handle was a total flop, literally; it will not stay fixed in place. This is most likely because it is primarily designed to be used with a snow shovel and you usually scoop snow directly away from you, but when your picking up poop and putting it in a cart you tend to tip it to the side (or at least I have to or I misjudge and most of the poop just winds up on the other side of the cart) and the second handle is not able to, well, handle that twisting motion. While trying to figure out if I could make that second handle work for me I realized the biggest issue is the angles between the basket portion of the poop fork and the actual handle. To get the basket to lay flat on the ground (which one needs to do to pick up the poop) it forces the handle into a really high and awkward angle that it terrible on my wrists and shoulders. Anyone else notice this or am I just special? When I have some time and the roads aren’t extra stupid, I’m going to drive to some other places that carry horse supplies and see if other brands have the same issue.

The one thing we still really need to find a decent solution for is goggles. The pair we got claim to be antifog but that is an outright lie! Within 20 minutes I can’t see anything and wind up taking them off, which defeats the purpose. Still searching for a decent solution for that.

We were still feeding them primarily out of the hay boxes when it was relatively “warm” and not particularly windy.

But now that it is truly terrible out there, we are feeding them everything out of the shelters and bringing down additional warm water to them so they don’t have to make the trek to the water tank. Apparently, our tap water tastes funny (this is according to Juniper who refused to touch it the first two times) but I added some molasses and now she’ll drink it.

Leeloo of course thinks everything, even the water, is a toy.


They are both still blanket-less but I have been checking them both obsessively for any sign of being too cold. At one point Juniper was shivering a little bit, but I was just about to put out more hay and figured finishing that up quickly would help warm her up and then I could deal with getting towels to dry her off with and her blanket. By the time I finished putting out the hay however she wasn’t shivering any more so I finished up the rest of my chores, checking her every few minutes, and she never shivered again. I was already feeding a flake of the really good hay on the ground in each shelter bay as well as a flake of the good stuff and some of the only so-so hay (in Leeloo and Juniper’s opinion, since they now only grudgingly eat the other hay and only after every morsel of the good hay is gone) in each net. But after Juniper’s short shiver episode I decided to double the amount of the good hay I was feeding them lose on the ground. It has meant a little bit of wasted good hay (when it was only the one flake per bay they ate every piece that was on the ground!), but in this weather it is worth it.

I know some people have very strong feelings about blanketing versus not. I’m trying to let the girls tell me what they want. Though this cold snap makes me want to try this experiment on them! Here is a shorter summary of what they did.

Juniper Eye Update

End Is In Sight

The vet was out last week for fall vaccinations and wellness checks for both Leeloo and Juniper. Leeloo was acting oddly again and did not want the vets to touch her anywhere from the base of her neck back and was particularly put out by the stethoscope. This is very unusual behavior for her and was even weirder considering we had just done a really thorough grooming session the previous day and I touched literally all of her and she hadn’t minded.  The one thing her not wanting to be touched episodes have in common is a change from warmer weather to cooler weather so I’m considering that as a factor, but even then very out of character. We will continue to monitor her to see how things go. Leeloo also apparently developed a very minor heart murmur which can apparently come on from out of the blue and can sometimes resolve itself just as quickly and is also apparently not that big of a deal so I’m trying to not panic much about that. 

Now on to the good news. Juniper’s eye is looking much, much better according to the vet and the ophthalmologist she consulted with here is a progression of how Juniper’s eye has been doing over the past two months:

Taken September 14, 2022

Taken September 29, 2022

Taken October 9, 2022

Taken October 30, 2022

I will be honest and say I don’t see much of a difference between the last three photos but the vets were happy and more importantly.

This is the REALLY important part.

We are down to giving both medications just three times a day!!!!!

This will be life changing for me. I was giving medications at 8:00 AM, 10:00 AM, 12:00 PM, 2:00 PM, 4:00 PM, 6:00 PM. Every time I would have to stop whatever I was doing, possibly change clothes if I wasn’t outside doing outside work, and wash my hands and go give the eye drops. Then wait around five minutes doing nothing in particular and then give the ointment. Going down to three times a day is just so much more reasonable and I am so relieved.

And we only have to give both the drops and the ointment for one more week, which will be done this coming Thursday, and then we just have one more week of just the ointment and then we are done! DONE!


For anyone who may need to give eyedrops to a horse or pony in the future I did make a video of our process because doing something six times a day for six weeks makes you pretty good at it and I was so very intimidated by giving eyedrops in the beginning I thought there might be some other people out there that would find this helpful.

Giving Eyedrops to a Horse or Pony

A few notes before we get to the video:

  • We used positive reinforcement or clicker training to help with the process. I go through the steps quickly in the beginning of the video but the basic idea is you have some sort of vocal cue (that you don’t use for anything else!) that you make when you are happy with your horse or pony’s behavior and then you give them some sort of treat. They learn that the vocal cue means they did something right and a reward is coming. You and your horse or pony (or dog or cat) don’t have to have any previous experience to use this process though there is the possibility of creating some “manners” issues with horses or ponies trying to get to the treats (and when a 600 lb animal or 1200 lb animal is trying to get to your pockets that can cause some problems) which is why there are usually some basic ground rules you teach your horse or pony first. Juniper so far has never had issues but I will go through those ground rules before I try to use clicker training with her for anything else.  There are many great resources out there for teaching how to do clicker training with your horse and this Adele Shaw’s website was one of my favorites and I have really enjoyed Alexandra Kurland’s book
  • Eye ointments get too soft if you have them in a pocket next to your skin (like a pants pocket) or in your hand so you either need to have a coat or a fanny pack to keep them away from your body. I like the fanny pack because (A) keeping the medicines in the outer pocket kept them away from my body heat (B) the inner pocket was great for holding the treats (C) Juniper learned to recognize the fanny pack as medicine and treats time and I think that has helped with the not looking for treats anywhere else on my body.
  • I know that the method of putting may hand under her halter is really, really unsafe. If you decide to try that method (A) I am telling you not to so if you get hurt it is not my fault and (B) make sure you keep your hand and wrist really flat so if your horse or pony does move suddenly (say because another horse comes up and is upset they are not getting treats and the pony you are trying to give medicine to wants to get away from said jealous horse) your hand will slip back out again without getting you dragged along with your horse. But again – unsafe. But it worked for us. 

I just want to say again – unsafe to have my hand under her halter like that. 

Here is a video giving the eye ointment. In the beginning I wasn’t very picky about how I gave the eye ointments but I felt like I got better results when I tried harder to get it on the inside of her eyelid. This is the part where having clean hands is really important because you are actually touching inside their eyelid. 

Only one and a half more weeks!!!!! What am I going to do with all that free time?