For the sake of their health, horses need to be dewormed on a regular rotation but for many horse owners, what should be a quick and easy process turns into a struggle that results in a negative experience for both horse and human. In some cases, frustrated horse owners will even resort to paying the price of a ranch call to have a veterinarian administer the medication rather than avoid the hassle of a horse that says “no” to deworming.
It is unrealistic to expect a horse to “like” being dewormed. The oral form of the medication, no matter if the manufacturer claims it is “apple flavored” or not, tastes distinctly not like food or a treat (think cherry flavored cough syrup) and the medicated paste that coats the horse’s tongue and throat is no doubt unpleasant. In addition, the very approach the horse owner uses to administer the medicated paste can cause a horse to become suspicious. Since horses have a long memory, it is likely they will remember that the last time their owner snuck up with a thin white plunger behind their back the results were unpleasant.
There are other options to deworming with an oral paste such as a pelleted daily wormer added to grain, which is designed to provide continual protection against a variety of intestinal parasites such as small strongyles, pinworms and ascarids. However, the cost, which can be as high as $60 per month, may be prohibitive to owners with several horses. Thus, the less expensive traditional paste wormer has remained a popular, if for some, frustrating method to protect equine companions from the complications of intestinal worms.
If a horse owner is, as Natural Horsemanship guru Pat Parelli is wont to say, willing to “Take the time it takes, so that it takes less time” then the deworming process can be redefined into, if not a pleasant experience, at least one that has no lasting negative repercussions. It is simply a matter of understanding and working with the point of view of the horse. Doing so can facilitate an interaction that works out well for both horse and owner. That interaction, if handled with the understanding of the horse’s mentality in mind, can become one that revolves around trust, willingness and acceptance rather than dominance, straight-line thinking and resistance.
This is where the initial time investment takes place. One method to get a horse to be more accepting of being dewormed with an oral paste is to save an empty wormer plunger. Thoroughly clean it with soap and water and purchase some of the individual applesauce containers that are common at any grocery store. With the applesauce at room temperature, use the clean wormer plunger to draw in some of the applesauce. Now, instead of a plunger loaded with nasty worming paste, you have a plunger loaded with something very few horses can resist.
Clearly, the horse is not yet aware of the exchange from paste to applesauce and, if the horse was resistant before, it will be resistant again. Thus, the key to changing the horse’s suspicions is to allow it to discover the applesauce rather than “make” the horse discover it.
Standing next to the horse but without focusing any energy on it, let the horse see the plunger but do not direct it towards the horse. If the horse backs up, go with it, quietly, calmly and without pulling on the halter. When the horse stops, do nothing. Just remain calm as though there is no agenda but still allow the horse to see the plunger. Perhaps the plunger is up by the owner’s shoulder, just resting there. Perhaps the plunger is down by the owner’s waist. Eventually, when the horse realizes that the owner is not trying to force the plunger into its mouth it will relax.
Gradually use a rinse and repeat method of moving the plunger closer and further away from the horse but again, without any direct purpose or intention to these movements. At a certain point, the horse will become curious, especially if it gets a whiff of the applesauce. When that happens simply remain still and allow the horse to discover the source. Most horses will eventually lick the plunger and if there happens to be some applesauce on the end, they are immediately rewarded. The owner can then push a bit more sauce out, repeat the discovery process and eventually the horse will allow the owner to quietly administer the applesauce into its mouth.
If this process is repeated several times a week, eventually when the horse sees the previously suspicious white plunger it will seek it out as it has become a source of pleasure rather than fear. It is critical during this process to never restrain or “trap” the horse. If it moves its feet, quietly move with it. In this way, the horse is allowed to discover the plunger, which inspires confidence rather than being dominated, which can inspire fear and uncertainty.
When it comes time to actually deworming the horse with the medicated paste, the same approach should be used. Do not restrain the horse and do not approach it with an agenda. If the horse has grown confident and trusting, it will not resist the administration of the wormer despite the fact that it smells different. The horse will certainly be surprised by the medication as it expected applesauce but just the very fact that there was no tension or stress involved in the process will ameliorate the negative response.
The administration of the dewormer should be brief and easy with no tension and the owner can immediately move on to doing something very positive with the horse. The next day, the plunger will once again contain applesauce. Casually providing this treat a couple of times a week will continue to reinforce the trust and confidence that the owner has instilled in the horse. There is no doubt that horses must be dewormed to protect them from intestinal parasites and the horse does not realize that the owner is administering the medication for their own good. However, by understanding the horse’s perspective, “allowing” rather than dominating, and setting up the situation for success ahead of time, deworming a horse need never be a struggle.
Opinion By Alana Marie Burke