Soothing Painful Equine Patients

Q: What would you recommend for a horse with burns so severe the skin is sloughing off and they require wound cleaning and dressing with ointment every few hours? This necessary care is obviously very uncomfortable to the horse, and he is getting much less tolerant of people. He has learned when we are coming in to care for him and doesn't even let us catch him for awhile. He is starting to fight us and sometimes bites at us, so we have to get tougher with him, which only makes it worse as far as I can tell. Is there any way to better communicate with the horse that we are only trying to help him? All we can do is keep saying we are sorry to hurt him and that it is for his own good. We know he really can't understand what we are saying, but we wonder if the talking to him in a soothing voice is helpful. What else can we do to make this as easy as possible?

Jennifer B., veterinary nurse assistant

A: This is my standard behavior modification suggestion for cases such as this:

For each treatment session, first approach the horse and spend at least 60 seconds feeding him a highly palatable treat. I like the Equus brand German Horse Treats, which are muffins with molasses and grain baked to a soft candy texture. Each muffin can be broken into several smaller bits so that you can stretch one out for one to three minutes of continuous treating. At the same time, try to find a spot on the horse that it is not injured/burned to rub and scratch in a very slow, rhythmic, soothing manner. When the horse relaxes with the scratching and food treats, say a standard word in a very soothing voice using a consistent volume and tone. It could be anything; for instance, I say, "Goooo-uddd."

When all this introductory positive interaction relaxes the horse, transition to cleaning the more painful areas. Using the same applicator (gloved hand or gauze pad) you use to treat the wound, first rub around the margins of the wounds on uninjured and less sensitive areas where the horse is still comfortable with the touch--again in that same very slow, rhythmic, soothing manner. Then move into the burned areas, maintaining the same touch and rhythm.

If possible, recruit an assistant to continue rubbing, scratching, or grooming on healthy areas that the horse has responded well to, and each time the horse tolerates contact with the wounds, deliver those highly palatable treats and say "Goooo-uddd."

You can expect the horse's tension and movement to increase when you work on the more painful areas, but try to remain just as calm and as soothing as possible with your manner and touch. After you clean the wounds and dress them again with the ointment, return to the treats and the scratching or grooming in the horse's healthy areas until he relaxes again.

Try to use minimal restraint, and allow the horse to move a bit as he needs. Also be careful that the halter is not rubbing on an injured area. If you are concerned about the horse biting, you can put on a soft rubber and nylon muzzle (such as a grazing muzzle) during the treatment. This will allow you to relax more as well.

And yes, your soothing conversation with yourself can be very soothing for the horse as well.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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