Safe Horse Handling for Vet Techs

Safe Horse Handling for Vet Techs

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

In a perfect world, horses would be easy to catch, lead, handle, and restrain. However, horse care approaches are anything but perfect, and cooperative horses do not happen by chance. How a horse behaves when you ask him to do the things he wants to do versus how he reacts when his cooperation is immediately necessary can vary greatly. Handlers and veterinary technicians must be prepared for how a horse might react when he is in distress, pain, or just isn’t feeling right.

Below are a few horse handling pointers I have learned during my years providing veterinary assistance.

Safety First

As a handler, the veterinary technician plays an important role in whether a procedure is performed safely. Furthermore, the veterinarian is in many ways entrusting you with his or her well-being as well as the patient’s.

Stand on the same side as the veterinarian works. When possible, being on the same side of the horse as the veterinarian encourages you to observe and focus on the procedure being performed and to better anticipate potential problems and speed up your reaction to them. It also puts you in position to easily turn the horse’s head toward you (and his hind end away from you and the veterinarian) if a problem arises.

Never stand directly in front of the horse. Nobody enjoys a 1,000-pound animal suddenly dropped on their lap. Horses tend to spook and, when they do, forward is usually their default direction.

Treat a tranquilized horse with extreme care. It is a somewhat natural tendency to become complacent when a horse is sedated, but this can be a very dangerous state. Remember dozing off in math class and then startling awake? Sometimes horses do the same thing, except their startle is much larger and more dangerous. Always keep in mind that the tranquilized horse can have an explosive startle response. Just because he is in a temporary state of relaxation does not mean the handler can relax as well.

Never surprise a horse. This is a rule to live by. Before you or the practitioner works on a horse, warn the animal using subtle clues such as rocking him a little, tapping the site being working on, talking to him, or anything that will gently make him aware that something is going to happen. This is especially true if the horse is sedated or restrained. If the horse still resists the procedure, then restraint might be a better option than surprise.


Additional restraint is often necessary to allow a veterinarian to perform a procedure safely. Be aware that methods don’t work the same way with every horse. Twitches and lip chains can be equally effective when used properly; however, some horses behave better with one or the other. I find that Thoroughbreds, for instance, generally respond well to a lip chain. They’ve been exposed to them regularly during racetrack life. Another horse that has never experienced a lip chain might resist that method; these horses often behave better with a properly applied twitch. Your job as the handler is to inquire about and determine which method works best for each particular horse.

Stay Calm

Last but not least, stay calm—even during an emergency. A relaxed but alert handler can help take the edge off a nervous horse, whereas a tense or panicky handler can intensify the situation.

Trying to diagnose or treat an uncooperative horse can be a frustrating and potentially dangerous experience. If a veterinarian is backed up with emergencies, having to deal with an unruly horse can adversely affect other patients awaiting emergency care. Ask owners how their horses handle potentially stressful situations, procedures, and restraint upon arrival. Being aware of this information and practicing smart handling techniques will go a long way toward expediting the animal’s care and helping the veterinarian do his or her job.

Originally published in Partners in Practice.

About the Author

Jose Madera

Jose Madera is the Reproduction Center manager at Peterson & Smith Equine Hospital, in Ocala, Florida.

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