Re:frisky to recluse

Pete Giwojna

Dear Mike:

I’m sorry to hear that your stallion has become so skittish and standoffish — even fearful of you — after you burped his pouch. Handling a seahorse and performing procedures like a pouch massage to release trapped gas is always a stressful, somewhat traumatic experience for the pony. Right now he is apprehensive when you place your hand in the aquarium, which he regards as a negative stimulus, because all he remembers is that the last time your hand approached, he got his belly pinched and squeezed. No doubt that’s something he didn’t enjoy at all and he is afraid that might happen again when he sees your hand approach him in the aquarium. In other words, right now he is associating your hand and your presence with a negative, unpleasant experience. He simply doesn’t trust you right now and is getting so upset when you place your hand in the tank that he won’t even feed normally.

That sort of thing can happen with intelligent animals that have a good memory. I have a niece with a pet cat that goes to the vet for regular checkups, vaccinations, teeth cleaning and so on. When it’s time for another visit to the veterinarian, the cat is placed in a "pet carrier," you’ll know — one of those portable cat crates — for the trip to the clinic. Ordinarily Snookums is the friendliest cat you ever saw, loves to handled and petted, prefers to be around people, always brushing up against your legs and hopping up on your lap for some attention. But as soon as the old cat crate comes out, Snookums knows what’s coming and heads for the hills. You can’t get close to her and when you finally do manage to corner and catch her to place her in the pet carrier, you’ve got a wildcat on your hands — spitting, hissing, clawing and scratching! Snookums has come to know that the cat crate means that unpleasant things are going to happen to her — she’s going to get hauled off to the "House of Pain" and then be poked, prodded, and pricked by strangers and subjected to all manner of bodily insults. The pet carrier has become a negative stimulus for Snookums, something she has come to associate with bad things — one glimpse of the old cat crate, and the friendliest feline on the planet suddenly turns into the Tasmanian Devil. (Perhaps you have a pet dog that hates to be bathed and reacts the same way when it’s time for a bath.)

Well, Mike, that’s the same sort of thing that’s happening with your stallion now. He’s reacting to the approach of your head as a negative stimulus because he associates it with the negative experience of being handled and treated for pouch gas. That’s not unusual when it becomes necessary to handle a seahorse it at for a medical procedure. (In fact, you may have read an article explaining how to force feed a seahorse which is aptly subtitled "Or How to Make Your Seahorse Hate You Forever.") The good news is that the situation does not have to be forever at all.

The trick is to get your stallion to associate your presence and your hand with good things again. You need to win his trust back again and teach him to associate the approach of your hand with positive rewards — gourmet goodies — rather than with negative, unpleasant things. As you know, Mike, the way to a seahorse’s heart is through his stomach, so I would suggest plying your stallion with some choice live foods. I suggest using a turkey baster or something similar to target feed the seahorse with tempting live shrimp. Using the baster will allow you to keep your hand further away from the seahorse at first, hopefully at a nonthreatening distance, and then to very gently squirt the feeder shrimp directly toward the stallion so that he can scarf them up. (I would feed the rest of your stallions their fill with frozen Mysis first so that the skittish male does not have to compete with your other ponies for the live food.)

If you can do that, Mike, every time you persuade the reclusive stallion to accept live foods from you via the baster, the seahorse will be receiving a positive reinforcement. Keep it up, and if all goes well, your presence will soon be associated with positive rewards. Before long, all will be forgiven and the stallion will soon regard you as the "giver of gourmet delights" again rather than the giver of pain and fear. Just be patient and start slowly, offering him some choice goodies from a safe distance away with the help of the baster or a similar feeding wand. Don’t force the issue if he is reluctant and apprehensive, and hopefully you can gradually regain his trust.

The live foods I would recommend for this are live Mysis or the tiny red volcano shrimp from Hawaii (Halocaridina rubra). The Ocean Rider Aquaculture Facility in Hawaii ( is a good source for the following live foods:

Green Iron Horse Feed (Gammarus amphipods)
Red Iron Horse Feed or Volcano Shrimp (Halocaridina rubra)

Or the live Mysis from Sachs Systems Aquaculture would also also work great for this. You can obtain 200 live Mysidopsis bahia for $35 from Sachs (priority shipping included) and save the shipping costs from Hawaii:


Best of luck getting your reluctant stallion back to his usual frisky, friendly self again, Mike!

Pete Giwojna

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