Taking the Stress out of Vet Visits

Taking the Stress out of Vet Visits

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

To a horse, some people--especially veterinarians and farriers--can be scary. Think about it: Veterinarians, farriers, and other equine professionals often get out of their trucks, tools in hand, and approach the horse briskly so they can get the job done. After all, they've got other horses to see. So what can vets and owners alike do to make these visits less stressful for all involved?

Robert M. Miller, BS, DVM, an equine behaviorist and retired veterinarian from Thousand Oaks, Calif., gave some suggestions to accomplish just that at the American Veterinary Medical Association Convention, held July 16-19 in St. Louis, Mo.

A human's "get-the-job-done" attitude can be intimidating to a horse, which is a recipe for injury, said Miller.

Instead, Miller suggested that veterinarians give the animal a few minutes to let his guard down: "Leave the tools in the truck. Walk slowly and gently toward the animal. Let him smell you, stroke him and talk nice, and make eye contact. Then go back and get your tools. If you invest just a few minutes, you might need less restraint," he said.

Miller explained that when he first started practicing veterinary medicine, he frequently used twitches to restrain the animal; however, today he thinks they are overused. (Find out more about how twitches work in "Using the Twitch Properly.") He now prefers to work with the horse and the owner to create as favorable an experience as possible.

Miller suggests working from the side of the horse--where he can better see and feel the person--rather than standing an arm's length in front of or behind a horse.

"I like to press myself against the horse's body," he said. "I want the horse to feel me and focus on me. It is concerned and wondering what I am doing. If we work at arm's distance, the horse continues to worry.

"If you are working behind the horse, the horse is seeing you in its peripheral vision and it wonders what you are doing back there," he continued. "A horse can't really see you from that location. Feeling you is reassuring to the horse and it has less inclination to get frightened and try to run away or kick you."

The safest place to stand is next to a horse's shoulder, turned slightly so your side is closest to the horse. While working with a horse, Miller constantly touches the horse in three different places--what he calls "the three points of contact." Essentially, Miller explained, this refers to keeping three points of contact with the horse whenever possible to reassure the animal, as mentioned above. (To learn more about the three points of contact, check out "Defensive Horsemanship Keeps Owners Safe when Working with Horses.")

In the event a horse still needs to be restrained during a veterinary exam, Miller advocates making it as pleasant an experience as possible. If a twitch is necessary, he recommends giving the horse something good to remember before and after twitching, such as:

  • Insert your fingers in the corner of the horse's mouth and start rubbing the gum, massaging down toward the front of his mouth, which is a "pleasure spot" for the horse;
  • Then apply the twitch and continue with the exam; and
  • When finished, try not to just release the twitch, but reverse the procedure. As the twitch is removed, massage the horse's gums again.

Miller believes this leaves the horse with a favorable memory, instead of a painful one.

The Owner's Role

A stress-free veterinary examination often begins with the owner. Miller suggested that owners can help veterinarians and their assistants by desensitizing the animal. If possible, handle the horse while he's young and get him used to someone cleaning his feet, touching his ears and his mouth, and going through any other motions a veterinarian, farrier, or other handler might do.

"If people rubbed a foal's gums every day as I do before I twitch a horse, it would be easier to check that horse's mouth," he said.

Even if the horse is older, it doesn't hurt to do some desensitizing homework to try to make veterinarian and farrier visits less stressful for all involved.

Practicing defensive horsemanship--which includes the aforementioned techniques--means being prepared for the unexpected.

"Always work around horses so that when the unexpected happens, you are much less likely to be injured," Miller said.

Miller says that he would never discourage anyone from working with horses, but he encourages everyone to "work smart" around them: "We cannot eliminate the risk, but we can mitigate it."

About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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