Prepare for Battle: Medicating Horses
By far the easiest way to medicate a horse is to mix crushed pills or powdered medication in his food and let him ingest it that way.
Photo: The Horse Staff
Yes, it's a very tired joke. "Question: Where does a 1,000-pound gorilla sit? Answer: Wherever he wants." But that's the way it can be when trying to medicate an uncooperative horse. When the horse knows what's coming, he pulls back, clamps his mouth shut, raises his head, and dances around the stall. He sniffs suspiciously at food that hides an offending pill or delicately picks around it. Should you actually succeed in getting medication into his mouth, you can trust that it will be spat out on the ground within moments. And don't even think about applying a topical medication anywhere close to a wound unless you're wearing protective armor. What's even more frustrating is when your fellow boarder shows up to pill her horse, and that horse takes it quickly and easily. Nothing to it, thank you.
Why is it easier to medicate some horses than others? Are some horses just easier to work with than others, or is the problem with what the handler is doing? The answer is that it could be either, or both. For sure, there are less and more successful maneuvers for medicating horses, whether said horse has already learned to gear up for battle or to surrender easily. Here are some approaches you can use that promise more success.
There are two basic ways of getting oral medications into a horse: (Hopefully) letting the horse consume medications in his feed, or by administering the required medications directly into his mouth.
Techniques for Restraint
"Proper restraint should be as minimal as possible," says Melissa Bain, DVM, Dipl. ACVB. "If the owners have worked on desensitizing and counter-conditioning the horse to being handled for medications, this should not be a problem. The horse should be prevented from escaping by all means, and two people should be present if there is any concern about safety, with one person holding the horse by a lead rope attached to the halter."
Says Judy Marteniuk, DVM, MS, "I let the horse tell me how much restraint is necessary. If you go quietly and easily and make the animal believe that you are not a threat, you can get away with just about anything. But if you start to lose control of a situation, and the horse determines it doesn't like what you are trying to do, then you will have to alter your approach and quickly decide if more or less restraint is appropriate. Don't rush, even if you'd like to hurry. Approach very quietly, try to get the horse relaxed, and see what it will let you do before turning to other restraint methods. Sometimes all that is needed is to move the horse from a paddock/open area to a confined area, such as his stall."
It helps if you know why your horse is acting the way he is. Says Marteniuk, "Determine if your horse is scared and doesn't understand what you want, if he's in pain, or is just trying to get away with something. If a horse knows what I want but is saying 'no,' I will more likely use a chain over his nose and reinforce that he knows I'm in charge. But for a young, scared horse, being heavy-handed will only make him more scared, so I try to relax the young horse. I use a similar tactic for a horse that's in pain."
Some procedures are safer or easier to do in a stall or barn aisle versus a paddock, so to administer medications or treatments, first bring your horse into the working area, such as a stall. Marteniuk doesn't favor crossties for medicating procedures. "I think crossties are only good for routine procedures on a very compliant horse that is experienced and comfortable in crossties. I prefer to keep the horse in hand, so if the horse reacts and steps back, the handler can move backward with him and not end up having the horse scrambling in crossties. If you choose to tie a horse, be aware that there are safety trade-offs. When I elect to tie a horse, I understand the horse can potentially injure himself as he struggles to free himself. One must decide if the horse will become more difficult once he breaks a halter and 'learns' he can free himself. A tied horse can be dangerous to himself and you. When I tie a horse, I make sure I have a secure halter and a secure but quick-release tie, one that is not going to break, but can rapidly and safely be released even if the horse is pulling back with his full weight on it. By keeping a horse's head tied up relatively high and short, it lessens the strength with which he can pull as he backs away."
With a compliant horse, you might be able to administer medications by yourself. Hold the halter with one hand and guide the syringe or balling gun into the mouth with the other hand, says Bain.
However, it's generally safer and easier to have a helper. Marteniuk recommends the handler hold the horse by his lead rope while standing on the same side as the person administering the medications. "I want that person on the same side as me; if the horse moves, we circle him around us so nobody is getting pushed into the wall," she says.
If this isn't enough to control the horse, Marteniuk says the next step is to put a chain over the nose. This encourages the horse to keep his head down. "I don't like to use chains under the chin," Marteniuk adds. "The chain can be slack, but when pressure is applied to discipline the horse, he raises his head out of reach, making the situation more difficult.
"If that is not enough, the handler or I might try a shoulder roll," Marteniuk says. "Take a big handful of skin in front of the horse's shoulder, pull it up (like grabbing a shirt), then hold it and twist it a little bit. That's often enough to distract the horse to get the syringe in the mouth and give the medication. It isn't a severe restraint, but can be enough to divert the horse's attention and complete the procedure."
More severe methods of restraint include a humane twitch, chain/rope twitch, or putting a chain just under the lip and over the gums, placing it just above the upper incisors. "I don't like putting a chain over the gums," Marteniuk says. "You have to really know how much pressure to place on the chain because you can really hurt a horse using a lip chain. It can be extremely effective, but also extremely painful. If you do it in an abusive manner, you may only do it once to a horse and you'll never get a second chance. The result will be a horse that is even more difficult to restrain."
Food—By far the easiest way to medicate a horse is to mix crushed pills or powdered medication in his food and let him ingest it that way. No muss, no risk of confrontation—if he'll take it. Says Melissa Bain, DVM, Dipl. ACVB, MS, now an assistant professor of clinical animal behavior and chief of the University of California, Davis, Clinical Animal Behavior Service, "This is a great way to administer medication, if it is not too concentrated and the medication is not too bitter."
If your horse won't consume medications in his feed, try masking the drugs or hiding them in special treats. "Mix crushed or powdered material with some type of flavoring—apples, baby or pureed carrots, molasses, gelatin powder—then mix that with the feed," suggests Judy Marteniuk, DVM, MS, an associate professor of equine medicine at Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Regardless of whether oral medications are just tossed in to feed or disguised, be sure to monitor the horse's feed to see if he's ingesting all of them. Notes Bain, "This method may be best where it won't be detrimental if the horse doesn't eat all of his medications. It's worse if the horse doesn't ingest all of his antibiotics, for example, than if the horse didn't ingest all of his Bute (phenylbutazone) that day."
Of course, make sure you feed this horse separately from other horses.
Although it might be tempting to mix medicines into the horse's water, it's generally not a good approach: It's usually harder to disguise the taste of medicine in water, and you don't want to risk putting the horse off his water, especially if he is already ill. To do so could lead to impaction colic or dehydration.
Mouth—Unfortunately, many horses aren't willing to eat feed or treats that smell or taste differently than normal. "With some horses, you can hide medications in apples and feed and can trick them for the first few times, but after that, they become leery," Marteniuk reports. With these horses, you'll have to deliver the medications directly into the horse's mouth.
Before beginning, make sure your horse is sufficiently restrained. Some horses need minimal restraint, more of a precaution than anything else. Others will require stronger control methods for the safety of both horse and handler. Restraint methods are described in the sidebar at left.
Marteniuk recommends using a syringe rather than a balling gun for delivering medications. "As far as I'm concerned, balling guns and horses don't go well together, because there is too much chance for injury to both the horse and the person administering medications. Balling guns are made of hard, rigid metal or plastic, and if the horse starts thrashing, it could hurt the back of his mouth. Or, if the horse rears back and throws the balling gun out of his mouth, it could hit the handler in the face. A very nice horse will tolerate it, but it's not something I would recommend an owner use. I haven't used one on a horse in over 25 years."
Begin by making sure the horse's mouth is empty. Then, premix the medication with something sweet and thick, such as molasses or corn syrup, which won't easily dribble out of the mouth. Next, place the medication mix into a large syringe. Suggests Bain, "Be sure the syringe has the end cut off so it has no tapered end; the mixture will be thick and will not be able to go through the small end. Make sure the end of the syringe is not sharp. (You can carefully melt the syringe end so it becomes rounded.) If possible, try not to use force, since it could be dangerous to the person, who could get bitten, run over, or trampled, or the horse could get jabbed in the gums or teeth. If the horse gets hurt, the horse will most likely be worse the next time around. Show the syringe to the horse and give him something tasty, like a sugar cube. Gradually—people almost always work too fast—get the device to the mouth, then into the mouth. Release the medication at the back of the tongue."
Marteniuk details a similar approach. "Always introduce yourself to the horse, making sure the horse feels comfortable with you. Then, slowly work your hand down the side of his cheek, over the bridge of his nose, rubbing the face, then kind of sliding your thumb into the area where the bit would be, so you're putting your finger into the area of the mouth where there are no teeth. Play with his tongue a little bit by rubbing your thumb on his tongue, so he starts moving his mouth; if there is food material in the mouth, that should allow him to spit it out or get him chewing whatever's left in his mouth. I may give him a break and let him swallow and chew a little bit and do it again.
"If the horse is really hesitant and unhappy with you being around his mouth, keep doing this until he relaxes," she continues. "Horses that are used to being bridled usually quiet down, but youngsters can be really challenging because they're not used to having anything in their mouths, like a bit."
When you're certain the horse's mouth is empty, leave your thumb in the toothless (bar) area and slide the syringe along your thumb. "If you run the syringe along the outside/bottom edge of your thumb, and maintain syringe contact with your thumb, the horse doesn't actually feel the syringe in the side of his mouth, he still just feels my thumb. Then, squirt the medication into the back of his mouth."
Take care to aim the syringe to the back, not the side, of the horse's mouth, otherwise, you might squirt the medicine in one side, only to have it shoot out the other!
After giving the medication, make sure your horse swallows it. "Some horses are really good at holding things in their mouths, then spitting them out on the ground," warns Marteniuk. "You might raise his head slightly and play with the tongue a little bit or rub under his chin to make sure he truly swallows what you give him."
A Little Dab Will Do Ya
Applying medication to a scratch or a wound can be just as easy or difficult as medicating a horse orally, depending on the individual involved. Again, you should use restraint appropriate to your horse—as much as needed and no more than necessary. "In wintry climates, make sure the medications and your hands are warm, especially if touching sensitive areas," Marteniuk suggests. "I've been knocked over when I haven't used that protocol and I startled the horse with cold hands in areas like between the hind legs!"
When administering ointment, make sure your hands are clean, then either put the ointment on your hands or on a gauze pad and dab it on the area. "Do not use fuzzy cotton or materials that could leave little pieces of fabric in the wound," Marteniuk warns.
Start by rubbing the area surrounding the sore area, rather than the wound itself, Bain says. This desensitizes the horse to having you work with the area near the wound. Then work closer to the wound, then eventually work on the wound. "That starting place may have to be a fair distance away," says Bain. "Gradually work closer to the wound. Sometimes, if the medication is able to withstand warmth and/or wetness, apply it to a warmed and/or warmed and wet (not hot) soft towel, then place over the wound, again starting out farther away and working closer to the wound. This often feels good to the horse."
You can also put ointment on gauze, then bandage that gauze over the wound, says Marteniuk. "This works especially well, particularly if you're going to bandage over a wound, because you don't have the ointment dripping off the wound while you're trying to get the bandage on."
If using a spray-on medication, make sure your horse is comfortable with the hissing noise that sprays make before squirting it on the wound. "You might need to make a diverting noise," Marteniuk says. "Whistling, singing, but not a cueing sound that signals them to go. If they will not tolerate the sound of the spray, put the medication onto clean gauze and wipe it on."
Just a Drop
"Medicating eyes can be very difficult, as horses have very strong eyelid muscles," Bain warns. "Using appropriate handling techniques, come at the eye from above with the medicating hand, and release the medication in the eye. If you've never done this before, then have your veterinarian show you how."
Your veterinian might have a different method of medicating the eye; however, two important things to remember are to never touch the eye with the medication tube or apply medication with your finger.
Play It Safe
Working with a scared or upset horse poses risks, especially if the handler is inexperienced. Reduce risks by making sure the horse is properly restrained, and that the person holding the horse for you is comfortable with the horse. "If you feel intimidated by the situation, it's only going to get worse," Marteniuk warns. "If you can't handle a horse in a certain situation, change the surroundings or get extra help or expertise. The main thing is to keep you and your horse safe."
Naughty and Nice
Obviously it's in everyone's best interest if you can medicate a horse without getting into a big fight. Horses are going to receive oral and topical treatments all of their lives, so it's important to train young horses or desensitize adult horses into accepting these procedures quietly and without fear. Explains Bain, "Ideally all horses, from the time that they are very young, should be gradually desensitized to having their heads and mouths held and handled. If you can't start young, then start when you can, but it will take longer with older horses."
The key to desensitization and counter-conditioning, Bain says, is to proceed gradually. "Never let the horse experience or display anxiety, fear, or aggression. If they do, you are moving too fast. Pair the non-fearful response with something pleasurable such as a sugar cube. Work on handling your horse's mouth, putting your hand into it, etc." Practice with a syringe—showing it to the horse, moving it closer, and squirting something tasty into the horse's mouth. Always end each practice session on a positive note and a reward.
Also, pay attention to your own approach. Says Marteniuk, "Be calm and deliberate, moving in as quiet a manner as you can. Don't lose your temper or get angry. Never forget the horse is a 'fight or flight' species. The more you get upset and fight, the more the situation will deteriorate."
By going easy, providing needed retraining or desensitization, and not tackling more than you can handle, you should be able to prevent your horse from morphing into a 1,000-pound gorilla at medication time.
About the Author
Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.