Every veterinarian has had an equine client (or three) that resisted treatment and often a nightmarish story to go along with it. Compliant patients allow for safer and more efficient veterinary practices, so the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) teamed up with the American Quarter Horse Association at the AAEP convention to offer veterinarians a live horse demonstration titled “Ground Handling the Problem Horse.” The session combined the instructional talents of Joe Wolter, trainer for the renowned Four Sixes Ranch in Guthrie, Texas, and Mark Fitch, DVM, who practices in Boulder, Colo.

Practitioners typically follow a strict schedule and do not have a lot of time to spend convincing a horse to comply with treatments. The nature of the trainer’s job is different. Wolter said, “When I work, I don’t have a time constriction, so I feel for you. Hopefully, I’ll do my job, then your job will be easier.”

Fitch said that he often handles problem horses by himself, as a handler might not anticipate the interaction between him and the horse and can end up in the way or injured. Also, it’s important to have a place where the horse can move around in case of a panic—for that reason, Fitch doesn’t like treating horses in cross ties. The demonstration was completed in a large round pen bedded with shavings, and with little clutter or distraction other than the audience, audio/visual crew, and the stabling area within earshot. Event organizers brought in several problem horses for the presenters to address.

Intranasal Vaccines

Intranasal vaccines present an unusual treatment circumstance for horses—having a fine mist projected up through the nostril can be startling and even unpleasant for some horses. Fitch worked with a horse which strongly objected to such vaccines, and slowly introduced his fingers to the horse’s muzzle area, gradually working towards its nostrils, stroking and calming the animal until it was chewing (a sign of submission) and dropping its head. After patient handling, Fitch was able to administer the vaccine with compliance.

Wolter added, “I might finish up getting him a little softer at his nose before you leave (or finish working with the horse).”

Hind Limb Handling

Event organizers presented another horse with a history of resistance; this mare disliked having her hind limbs handled, a trait that can hinder flexion tests to determine soundness, joint inspections, and any treatment where the veterinarian must work with the horse’s hind limbs. After working gradually to be able to touch the legs, then pick them up for a short period of time, Wolter suggested that you hold the actual hoof as you’re getting the horse used to the weight of its leg being held. The horse will have less of a feeling of restraint there than on its fetlocks or legs.

“If she’ll relax, I’ll let it be easier for her,” he said. He worked with the mare’s leg, stretching it forward, back, and sideways, to relax her and get her used to the motion. Most importantly, Wolter suggested that with a horse like this mare, it’s important to start with short periods of time and build on that time.

“These (recommendations) are probably more applicable to what the owner can do, so when the veterinarian or farrier shows up, he doesn’t have to be a horse trainer. Hopefully, you’re fitting (these exercises) to this horse, this day, and this situation,” he added. Horses should end mentally soft and not trying to defend themselves.


Many horses merely flinch during injections, but some can be so evasive they rip the lead rope away from the handler and send everyone on a wild chase. Especially in a case where the horse is this evasive, Fitch explained that it is extremely important to set the horse up so it can succeed. A slow, gradual acceptance of handling in the area of the shot is warranted. “Some of these horses you can pet, others are needle shy,” said Fitch. “If he can’t handle a pet, don’t stick him with the needle.”

But again, sometimes you are restricted to the methods used for giving zoo animals shots—Fitch calls it the “drive-by shooting” where the shot is administered with one fast punch when the horse least expects it. Often this method is used after all other attempts at getting the horse used to gradual

“Horses are astute at learning patterns,” said Wolter.

Rectal Temperature

Fitch finished with a fractious broodmare which was resistant to handlers taking her rectal temperature. “The most sensitive spot on a horse is the mouth and the rectum,” said Fitch. He gradually moved his hand on her body towards her hindquarters, got the mare used to his hand beside her tail, then lifting the tail, then finally touching around the perineal area until she was comfortable enough for thermometer insertion. The entire process took around 40 minutes, but ended after the mare showed strong progress. Both presenters emphasized that how you handle the situation the first time is the trick—if you make progress and end the treatment on a good note, it will take a fraction of the time to gain compliance for the next treatment.

But you also need to take the attention span of the horse into consideration. Wolter said, “If you could work the mare for five minutes, then put her away for 20, I almost think that is good enough.” In school, “I learned the most in the first 10 minutes of class,” he added, “then I started thinking about recess.”

Working with the Owner

Wolter reminded the veterinarians in attendance that the owner might not have the greatest horse-handling skills, which contribute largely to the horse’s reaction to treatment attempts. Terry Swanson, DVM, moderator, added that the veterinarian has the opportunity to steer people and encourage people in the handling of their horses. Some horses need more help than that which can be offered on a treatment day, so they told veterinarians not to hesitate to send owners to a skilled trainer.

But how do you discreetly direct a client “who knows all the answers” in the handling of his/her problem horse and thinks he/she doesn’t need help? Fitch assures that if you set an example with the eventual compliance of the horse, it will give you an opening to suggest improvement and ways to handle the behavior.

The take-home message was that veterinarians should be constantly seeking ways to work with these resistant animals, and that the horses are typically ready to learn. “As long as you’re always searching, I really believe you’ll get better and better,” said Wolter. “The horse does offer opportunities—we need to learn how to take them.”

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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