How Vets can Treat 'Untouchable' Horses

Treating “untouchable” horses is a rare but real challenge for veterinarians.


When an equine veterinarian treats a patient, more than likely that horse is, at the very least, halter broke to lead and comfortable around humans.

But that’s not the case with some horses Stacey Tarr, DVM, of Wellington, Colo., deals with regularly. Tarr frequently treats unhandled young ranch prospects and rough stock rodeo horses, which are most often bareback or saddle bronc mounts (or unmounts, as the case might be) and usually receive very little handling and human interaction. That can make Tarr’s job as the treating veterinarian, well, challenging.

Tarr described his experience and methods working with “untouchable” horses at the 2013 American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention, held Dec. 7-11 in Nashville, Tenn. His presentation covered restraint and handling techniques and focused on human and horse safety. “Keep in mind that most of this is trial and error from my experience,” he said.

Calm Handling and the Right Medication Dosages

“Untouchable” horses are sensitive to external stimuli and noise, Tarr said, advising that treating veterinarians and their helpers remain “calm, quiet, and get the job done.”

Doing so typically requires sedation for even the most basic veterinary care.

These horses, under stress and in fight or flight mode, require higher doses of sedative and anesthetic drugs such as xylazine, detomidine, and butorphanol, Tarr said. “They may require up to one-and-a-half to two times the normal dosages,” he said.

Sedation also requires the veterinarians to make initial contact with the animal. That contact usually includes a needle, which only reinforces the horse’s perception that humans aren’t so great, Tarr said. That means the veterinarian must work quickly and accurately using creative methods to keep horses calm.

A Little Help from another Horse

Using a helper horse is Tarr’s favorite method for administering an untouchable patient’s initial injection. “The presence of a gentle, well-broke horse has a calming influence and helps keep the other horse quiet,” he explained.

Tarr will introduce the patient to the gentle horse, often his retired pickup gelding Goose, who is well-schooled in unhandled horse antics from years of helping catch and bronc horses at rodeos. Then, in stall or run, Tarr will place the horse receiving treatment between Goose and a sturdy wall or fence. He then reaches under or around Goose to administer treatment to the patient.

“Don’t pet or pat these horses (to calm them),” Tarr said. “In my experience, they aren’t used to it and don’t like it. It’s stimuli, and they react to it.”

Once the patient is sedated, Tarr will use his helper horse as a blocker between him and the patient, in case the sedation breaks.

Chutes and Sedation

In some cases, especially with bucking horses, Tarr will use an alley and bucking-chute system to restrain a horse for sedation and/or anesthesia as well as other treatments.

“These horses are used to chutes and comfortable being moved and handled this way,” he explained. Plus, he added, most bucking horses are accustomed to being haltered once in a chute.

He warned, however, that to avoid serious injury veterinarians and any human helpers take care not to get their limbs trapped between a chute’s bars and a horse, which might become fractious.

If necessary for a procedure, the veterinarian can lay the horse out by opening the shoot gate. Just keep in mind that when a shoot opens, a bucking horse usually comes out in full force. “So, don’t open the gate too soon,” Tarr said. Doing so could mean a loose horse and an afternoon spent chasing him.

Young Horses

Young untouched horses also require special handling for veterinary care. Tarr showed one example of a breeding operation that devised a safe squeeze-shoot system for treating and branding young horses still at their dams’ sides. This system includes a small holding for the mare that allows the foal to see and touch her during treatment, which helps keep the foal calm. Movable, solid walls that reach the ground protect handlers from kicks and prevent potential injury to the young horse.

Ropes: A Last Resort

Sometimes an untouchable horse requires roping to catch and restrain it. In these cases, Tarr leaves the roping up to the trainers. “Often, during this scenario, horses become so excited that they will override the effects of the drugs,” Tarr said.

Take-Home Message

Treating “untouchable” horses is a rare but real challenge for veterinarians. Doing so requires an experienced veterinarian, modified drug dosages, and creative restraint techniques to keep humans and horses safe during handling.

About the Author

Michelle N. Anderson, Digital Managing Editor

Michelle Anderson serves as The Horse's digital managing editor. In her role, she produces content for our web site and hosts our live events, including Ask the Vet Live. A lifelong horse owner, Anderson competes in dressage and enjoys trail riding. She's a Washington State University graduate (Go Cougs!) and holds a bachelor's degree in communications with a minor in business administration and extensive coursework in animal sciences. She has worked in equine publishing since 1998. She currently lives with her husband on a small horse property in Central Oregon.

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