Safe Horse Handling for Vet Visits

Q. What's the best way to handle a horse so he remains calm and well-behaved during veterinary and farrier visits, keeping in mind both horse and human safety?

via e-mail

A. This is a great question. It would take a book, or at least a chapter, to adequately cover all the different procedures, but let me offer some general tips and examples. And we'll assume this is for routine care rather than emergencies.

The strategy I (and most other equine professionals) recommend is to acclimate your horse to veterinary and farrier visits before they actually happen, using positive reinforcement to reward tolerance of simulated farrier or veterinarian procedures. Just as with trailer loading and transportation, every horse deserves to be acclimated as early in life as is practical, so that standing for procedures becomes a simple, positive experience. And although we often assume it's easier for horses to learn these tasks when they are young, it's really never too late to start teaching a horse how to be comfortable with any of the routine health care and veterinary procedures.

Of course, I fully realize that many horses are not acclimated before they need certain procedures, or they have had a seriously negative experience, and so unfortunately these animals get started in the wrong direction. And since you're asking about this, maybe that's where you are now. Here are some general tips to use in the moment as well as in your training sessions going forward.

  1. Look for a quiet environment in which to work. This will give everyone involved a better chance of keeping the energy and tension levels low. This is not a good time to have yapping dogs under foot, cell phones ringing right and left, or extraneous human and animal traffic moving about. If the veterinarian or farrier arrives hurried or in a foul mood, try to get him or her to relax and slow down as well. Ask about their kids, grandkids, pets, or hobbies to help put them in a more relaxed state of mind and manner. And if you are regularly or too often unsuccessful, it might be time to consider finding a professional you can rely upon to relax around you and your horse. As the assistant or handler, you should also stand in a relaxed posture, remaining attentive but not tense. You can practice by just standing in an area with your horse, first doing nothing, then holding him for 20 minutes or so while someone simulates the various procedures a veterinarian or farrier might perform.
  2. Pay attention. Unless your veterinarian or farrier asks you otherwise, for most procedures performed from the shoulder or behind, you should stand on the same side of the horse that he or she is working on. Here you can keep an eye on the clinician interacting with the horse and should any dangerous movement erupt, you are better positioned to direct the hindquarters away from the clinician by simply drawing the horse's head toward yourself. Similar to defensive driving of a vehicle, your job is to consciously maintain a wide focus so you are aware of and ready to adjust to events from your horse's head to his tail.
  3. Reward good behavior. Watch for your horse's good behavior--in this case standing still and abiding some manipulation or mild discomfort--and deliver well-timed positive reinforcement. The reinforcement can be anything your horse finds positive--a soothing scratch on the neck or shoulder, a rub on the face or forehead, a food treat (just a tidbit), or soothing verbal praise if your horse has been conditioned to recognize that as positive. Because it’s also good to remain fairly quiet and pay attention to the clinician, I like to use quiet reinforcements, such as scratching, whenever possible. Well-timed, these reinforcements can also be effective distractions during uncomfortable moments. Delivering a scratch on the neck just as the veterinarian inserts a vaccination needle can greatly reduce the aversive sensation of the needle stick.
    Remember that there is an art of sorts to delivering positive reinforcement, particularly food treats, so as not to accidentally reward undesirable behavior. As your horse starts to make the connection between a mildly aversive veterinary event and a reward for tolerance, he might start to anticipate and "ask for" the treat. To avoid teaching the horse to be nudgy, wait until the instant the nudging stops to deliver the reward. It also helps to offer the treat from your hand or a bowl under the chin slightly to the off side, so the horse learns to turn his mouth slightly away from rather than toward the handler when anticipating a food treat. Also remember that giving treats randomly can induce greater activity, as the horse tries to figure out what he needs to do to get the treat, so give them only as a reward for a good response.
  4. Ignore bad behavior. Try to completely ignore any undesirable avoidance behavior, and do not give verbal or physical reprimands. Simply reposition calmly and quietly as if nothing undesirable happened, and watch for and be ready to reinforce desirable behavior.
  5. Avoid the "avoidance cycle." If the horse moves away from the farrier or the veterinarian more than once in the same fashion, change things up so you don’t accidentally teach him that response. Allowing repeated avoidance essentially teaches your horse that moving away is what you want him to do, just like any pressure and release approach used in horse training. Reposition the horse near a wall or fence as an aid so he can learn that you want him to stand quietly.

One scenario owners commonly run into during these visits is a horse that simply can’t stand still. He might seem unable to stop fiddling with you or the lead shank. Some of this action is just nervous energy, and in some instances it seems to reflect the nervous energy of the people around him. As counterintuitive as it often seems, with wiggly patients it is worth trying less restraint rather than more. Sometimes more relaxed restraint coupled with paying close attention helps the horse relax. For example, many horses are much more fidgety when you hold the lead close to their halter or the halter itself than when you drop back a foot or two on the lead rope with a slight amount of slack.

In a perfect world, all of our horses would be acclimated and trained to stand quietly with just a halter and lead for any new procedure that comes their way; all owners would be well-skilled at horse handling; and all farriers and veterinarians would have excellent stall-side manners, including technical and behavior modification skills. These professionals also would possess patience for accommodating variations in horse behavior and handler skill.

There are times, however, when things need to be done because a horse is struggling and seemingly unable to stand still. This is when additional simple restraint tools, respectfully and properly applied, can help get the job accomplished in a safe and humane manner. A skin twitch (when you grasp the loose skin on the horse's neck in front of the shoulder and squeeze and twist) is the first method I would try as an additional restraint aid. If that is ineffective, apply a lip or gum chain or cord. If used, these should be respectfully applied and held with steady firm pressure on the cord or chain for the purpose of releasing endorphins. Never yank on it in a punitive manner. And a lip twitch, again applied and removed properly and respectfully, can help enormously, particularly in urgent care situations.

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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