De-worming and providing oral medication stress-free

Check out our top tips on how to make giving medication with a syringe or de-worming your horse as stress-free as possible for both of you.

Check out our top tips on how to make giving medication with a syringe or de-worming your horse as stress-free as possible for both of you.

It’s not uncommon 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 really transform the experience for both of you.

Are you certain that you need to de-worm your horse? Find out more about testing first rather than treating routinely on our worming advice page here.

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. You might like to coat it with a bit of honey and/or fill it with apple sauce to help make this a positive experience for your horse, but neither is necessary if you’d rather not use them.
  • A food source (if you’re using positive reinforcement) – this can be a few pony nuts 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). If you need a high-value reward you could use chopped apple/carrot. Don’t make the pieces too big if using chopped apple/carrot as you’ll need to reward multiple times during one training session.
  • Time!

How do you train your horse to accept a de-wormer or medication given orally?

Please note that positive reinforcement with a food-based reward may not be suitable for all horses – if you know your horse is extremely food-oriented you may be better to use solely 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 here.

Start off by standing next to your horse’s head and showing them the syringe. If they’re really not keen on being de-wormed or having medication administered orally, 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 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 reward 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 switch to resting it on the side of their lip. This may cause some horses to raise their head, at which point you really need to be able to make sure the syringe doesn’t lose contact. Depending on the respective sizes of you and your horse you may need to enlist a taller friend, or at least someone with longer arms, to help out for this stage. If your horse lifts their head and the syringe loses contact with their lip, they’ve been rewarded for lifting their head, which is why it’s worth enlisting a helper if you don’t think you’ll be able to reach if your horse does put their head up. As before, make sure to reward the behaviour you want – in this instance, the horse’s head being held still at its normal height.

Ideally, you will gradually progress to being able to put the syringe into their mouth pointed towards their ears (rather than across the tongue like a bit). 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 reward 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 ‘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.

What’s the difference between positive and negative reinforcement?

Positive and negative reinforcement techniques are different ways that equine behaviours can be encouraged. Positive reinforcement involves adding something the horse likes (e.g. food) whilst negative reinforcement involves removing something the horse doesn’t like (e.g. removing the mental pressure of having the syringe near their head during de-worming training). Positive or negative punishment are ways that equine behaviours can be discouraged. Positive punishment (actively punishing a horse for an unwanted behaviour) is a strategy that is often unhelpful and always ethically questionable.

Graphic explaining the different ways in which equine behaviour can be encouraged or discouraged

If you’re not sure you’ve completely grasped the difference between positive and negative reinforcement, or if you would like to see how an expert does this, BEVA’s ‘Don’t Break Your Vet’ videos are really helpful.

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 advice page here and in our Field Officer Chris Shaw’s blog here.
  • 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 that 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 weightape 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 weightape, 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.

If you’d like further advice on worm control, you can call our Advice Line on +44 (0)1953 497 238 in office hours. For queries about which de-wormer to use, contact your vet or another SQP/RAMA. If you suspect your horse may have a significant worm burden or they are showing clinical signs, please call your vet straight away. If you rescue, rehome or buy a horse without knowing their health/de-worming history, you should keep them isolated until they have been tested, and if necessary treated, for a worm burden.

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