This morning, when, while I was attempting to give him his ace, Red whacked me hard on the side of my head with his (large, very heavy) head, I decided it was time to get serious about getting this fixed.
So I decided we would use clicker training to fix things. I don't use clicker often, but have used it very successfully on a number of occasions, including with Red on hoof handling (when I got him he would not allow his feet to be picked, and would stamp, strike and kick) and with Dawn on approaching scary objects like garbage bags. So I went out and bought some of these - the perfect treats to use for clicker as they're very small - so you can use lots and lots of them - good tasting but not too tasty, and have no added sugar. They come in various flavors as well.
I only feed treats by hand when doing clicker, so it makes doing clicker and getting the treats something special. (Note: it's important to teach the horse first to move out of your space when asked so you don't get mugged for treats - clicker is actually a great way to teach a nippy horse to keep its mouth to itself and step back for treats.)
Red's done clicker before so I thought he'd catch on quickly. I reminded him about the click/treat connection by clicking my tongue - no need for a separate clicker device - and treating a couple of times. We worked in the paddock, with him loose and wearing no halter. I used a UGard tube - not as gross tasting as ace but still medicine.
The first click/treats were for him allowing me to touch him on the nose with the tube. I did a number of repetitions with each step, but things progressed pretty quickly. He got a click/treat only if he waited for me to remove the tube - if he removed his face then no click. Then touch the side of his face with the tube, then hold the tube against his face, then touch the corner of his mouth with the tube, then stick the tube in his mouth, then stick the tube in his mouth and give him the medicine - jackpot of treats for that one. At no point did I restrain his head or hold him in place. I went through a pocketful of treats and it probably took 5 minutes from start to finish. By the end, he was actually opening his mouth for the tube, before I even touched him with it.
One thing I like about clicker for things like this is it's a great way to get the timing of the release (the click) exactly right - then you can fumble for the treat as much as you want - the important thing is the timing of the click that the horse associates with the treat. It's great for precision - the exact thing you want - and for duration - extending the time the horse does something.
Pie was watching closely from the adjacent pen and thought he should get some of those treats too. So after Red and I were done, I did some clicker work with Pie on meds-by-mouth (Pie's actually not much trouble to dose, but it would be nice to be able to dose him when he's loose.) Pie's never done clicker before, but he got the idea pretty quickly. At one point I went too fast with things - moved on too quickly from one step to the next - and he started leaving, so I backtracked to an easier step and did more reinforcement before moving on to the next step. I think this was largely because Pie is a newbie to clicker - Red's already got the idea of looking for the next thing I'll be asking for, so I can move from one step to the next very quickly, whereas Pie was still figuring that out and needed more reinforcement at each step. I stopped with Pie at the point where I was touching the corner of his mouth with the tube.
Oh, and it's really hot today - in the 80s - and steamy, so I'm not going to do my first ride on Red today, because he's not adjusted to the heat, and my head still is sore from this morning. Instead we'll be doing more meds-by-mouth training, using clicker again, before his hand walk . . .
Update: this afternoon, it took less than a minute to give him his ace by mouth - loose in the stall.