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!

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