Restraint Techniques For Horses

Veterinarians are constantly seeking ways to perform procedures on horses as quickly and safely as possible. The inherent risk with working with an unpredictable animal has caused veterinarians and handlers to develop various methods of restraint.

Andy Anderson, DVM, of Equine Veterinary Associates in Broken Arrow, OK, and Dean Scoggins, DVM, equine extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois, led a discussion of various restraint techniques in a roundtable discussion over breakfast.

Horses are like elephants--"They don’t forget," said Scoggins. "We have an obligation to not create a situation where there are later problems." By using restraint that does not scare the horse, owners and handlers will have an easier time handling the horse in the future.

Australian hobbles-One of Anderson’s favorite restraint methods is Australian hobbles, which are made out of soft nylon. The horse’s left front leg is tied to the right hind leg, and the right front leg is tied to the left hind leg. When a horse gears up to kick, his front legs are pulled out from underneath him, and he lands on his knees. If he tries to strike with his front legs, he ends up sitting like a dog. Anderson said this method is pain-free, and the horse does not go ballistic by being tied this way. He finds this method especially useful for a horse that is not halter-broken but that might need medical attention several times a day. This method usually results in a more docile and cooperative horse. Both Scoggins and Anderson agreed that the veterinarian and owner need to discuss this method since it can be misunderstood, and they recommended that the veterinarian have the owner sign a consent form. Anderson strongly discourages the use of Australian hobbles on a heavily sedated horse.

Tying—Both agreed that tying a horse for long periods of time can help teach a horse to accept restraint, thus creating a horse that is easier to handle on a daily basis. Anderson ties the horse securely at the height of the withers with some slack and using a rope halter until the horse has accepted it. One of the worst things that a handler can do is to untie the horse if he starts to struggle. If the horse  is still struggling, he has not yet learned to accept the restraint and his struggling is reinforced by the reward of release.

Anderson also likes to rub on the horse's legs and body so that the horse will understand that he can be touched anywhere and he must stand there. Most horses enjoy this rubbing after a short time.

Anderson modifies his tying technique for anti-social horses that exhibit hostile or aggressive behavior towards people. He will tie the horse in a safe secure location for 22 hours per day for five days. He lets the horse loose to eat, drink, and move about for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. The horse learns that the caretaker is the one responsible for their survival, and after a few days is eagerly greeting the person. Although to some this might sound like a cruel or an unusual form of restraint, it teaches a horse to like people and accept restraint, and results in a happier horse. He warns that a horse will look like he has lost a lot of weight, but within 24 hours the horse looks normal again. This effect is from restricting the forage time to two hours a day. He says he has never harmed a horse with this method.

Ears—Both agreed that the ear can be a good restraint tool, although in Colorado there is a law prohibiting using the ear to restrain a horse. Anderson says he will end the restraint by rubbing the ear 50 times since horses enjoy this so much. He cautions that once you are committed to getting a hold of the ear, don’t let the horse get away (or you might teach him that struggling results in an escape reward). However, using this restraint technique improperly can result in an ear-shy horse.

Drugs—Calming drugs, such as xylazine and ketamine, are useful and sometimes necessary tools to restrain horses for procedures, especially for surgeries.

Twitch­­—Many of the veterinarians at the table have used the twitch in various instances for restraint; however, Anderson said he has managed to avoid using the twitch for the past 15 years. He said as soon as he stopped using the twitch in his practice horses quit trying to strike him.

There are many ways to restrain a horse, and the goal for veterinarians and handlers is to avoid a war in which the horse learns to hate being handled and restrained. Trying various restraint techniques such as those above can identify which techniques work best for individual animals, creating procedure-compliant horses.

About the Author

Sarah Evers Conrad

Sarah Evers Conrad has a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and equine science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career at The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care magazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as the managing editor of Equestrian magazine and director of e-communications and served as content manager/travel writer for a Caribbean travel agency. When she isn’t freelancing, Conrad spends her free time enjoying her family, reading, practicing photography, traveling, crocheting, and being around animals in her Lexington, Kentucky, home.

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