Restraining a Horse (Book Excerpt)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Understanding Basic Horse Care by Michael A. Ball, DVM. This book is available from

Once the decision has been made to use some form of restraint, the device should be applied quickly, properly, and with purpose. The tentative application of restraint techniques can cause more harm than good. The horse might appear to be well restrained while nothing is being done, then react with great speed when the procedure is attempted. If a restraint device is only partially applied, there is a much greater chance of the device coming off, leaving both the handlers and the horse in a potentially dangerous situation.

The procedure should be planned out and all your ducks in a row BEFORE the restraint device is applied to the horse. For example, if you need to twitch a horse to administer a prescribed injection of penicillin, have the penicillin all drawn up and ready to go prior to application of the twitch. I am not trying to insult anyone here, but I have observed many situations in which an animal is standing there with a restraint device applied (getting more wound up by the minute) while preparations for some procedure are being made which should have been done prior to the application of the restraint device. Once the restraint device has been applied the procedure should be performed as quickly as possible (without compromising whatever safety precautions are deemed necessary by the nature of the procedure being performed) and the restraint device removed. The restraint device should not be left in place any longer than absolutely necessary.

Almost all of the restraint devices are applied to or around the head region of the horse. The application of restraint devices can place the handler in a dangerous position due to the proximity of the front feet. When placing any of the restraint devices on a horse, take great care to stand off to one side of the horse so if the horse strikes out or throws its head in a violent manner the handler can get out of the way more easily. Also, if there is an extra person helping (useful in twitch application), make sure that he or she is out of the line of fire as well. In addition, be careful once the restraint device is on the horse, especially if it is one of the self-attaching types. Many of these devices can become dangerous weapons should the horse freak out and start throwing its head around. This is another reason why a restraint device should be applied firmly and with purpose as the "half-applied" ones are much more likely to come off if the horse shakes its head. There is nothing more frustrating than getting hit in the head with a twitch handle while trying to work on a difficult horse.

Another tool to use with all the restraint devices is a bit of vocal intimidation. A stern, sure, and unafraid voice can capture a horse's attention and is a good start at adequate restraint. If you are doing the restraining, remember that there is a good deal of responsibility placed on you. In most cases you are restraining a horse because it does not like whatever procedure is being performed. This fact places the person doing the procedure in harm's way (kicking, biting, squashing, etc.). There also are many situations in which the horse can hurt itself or complicate certain procedures if it does not stand still or kicks out violently.

The following is obvious but needs to be said anyway. The handler has great responsibility, so this means paying attention to both the horse and whatever is being done to the horse--not eating, drinking, or gabbing. In addition, the person performing the procedure should always let the holder know when something is going to be done, e.g., stick a needle into the horse. The handler should always be on the same side of the horse as the person performing the procedure. This positioning ensures that if the horse attempts to kick, the handler can pull the horse's head in a direction that will move it away from the person in danger rather than making matters worse. Also, the horse's head should be held still. There is nothing more aggravating than attempting to look at a horse's foot or leg when it is moving its head all over the place (which shifts its weight around and kills your back). The final thing to mention here is that you must remember that if you are restraining a horse for somebody, you are taking responsibility for its safety. If you are uncomfortable with that or do not think you can do what is necessary, say so. It is better to delay a procedure than risk getting somebody hurt.

In addition to being smart about the restraint technique, be smart about your environment. Be careful not to get yourself (and your horse) boxed into an area where you can't get out of the way if the horse does explode or react violently. Also, don't restrain a horse next to a bunch of barn clutter; otherwise you might be applying a twitch to repair a laceration rather than to clip off some hair.

About the Author

Michael Ball, DVM

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.

Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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