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Vet Etiquette: A Calm Horse is a Better Patient

I know how embarrassing it is to have the vet come to treat your horse only to have the animal drag you around and bounce off the walls. My first horse, a feisty little chestnut mare, was a vet's nightmare. Even during her last days when she was very weak and ill, she put up a struggle. Routines such as de-worming with paste were a three-ring circus.

Looking back, I'm sure I was mostly to blame - a small, 14-year-old girl trying to control a head-strong 3-year-old filly who soon learned misbehavior was forgiven. She was never a good patient. Scheduling the vet to come for routine shots filled me with dread.

My next two mares were stellar patients, however. Shots, taking blood or floating teeth were no fuss. They would stand with their heads down, rear legs relaxed and lower lips drooping.

Why are some horses good for vets and others awful? I believe natural temperament can make a difference, but in many ways good training is the cornerstone. My last two mares no doubt benefited from having an older more experienced owner.

I talked to several equine vets, who offered some practical and useful suggestions. For example, many horses do fine when a shot is on the left side, but panic when the vet moves around to the right, noted Dr. Ellen Hoots.

"One way to help your vet is to work with your horse from both sides," the Willow Springs, NC, vet suggests. "Riders often work horses from the left side, from leading to mounting, and many times the horse is not accustomed to being worked with on the right."

"Mount them, put the halter on, brush them first on the right side," she advised.

She also recommended getting the horse accustomed to leg wraps. "Even if you don't plan to ever haul them or use leg wraps for riding, put wraps on in the stall from time to time - even on foals. That way, if your horse has a leg injury and needs to be wrapped, it's not going to panic when it sees this big bandage swallowing its leg!" She notes that polo wraps or shipping wraps are ideal for this type of training.

Another suggestion is to handle your horse as much as possible. Even as a foal, pick up its feet, tap on its feet with a hoofpick. The younger you start this, the better, she says.

Getting a horse accustomed to clippers is also helpful. "Even if you don't clip your horse, I may need to remove hair when working on a wound, and it really helps if your horse is familiar with them," Hoots says. "Run the clippers around the horse - you don't really need to do any clipping, but that way he knows the sound and feel of them."

Hoots also advises touching the horse all over. "Routinely run your hands all over your horse, especially in touchy areas such as the flanks and chest. This serves two purposes. Often owners will detect a small lump or heat in a leg before a problem begins. It also helps get the horse accustomed to being touched, so if I need to do some work on the flank, the horse is accustomed to being touched there," Hoots says.

"One more benefit is the shiny coat your horse will get. The old-timers tell me the shiniest coats are made by brushing with your hands."

When the vet arrives, owners need to be prepared and more importantly, to be calm.

"The owner definitely needs to be calm," Hoots stresses. "I don't know how many times I'll get ready to give the horse a shot and the owner is talking about how much she hates shots, and then when I actually give the shot to the horse, the owner draws back and squinches up her face in pain. The owner transfers her fear of shots to the horse."

Hoots adds that she takes time with the horses. "I think it's important for me to tell the horse what I'm going to do," she says. "Also, I encourage horse owners to ask me questions, such as why or why I'm not using a twitch - but don't demand that I do or don't. Let me assess the situation."

When the veterinarian is working with the horse, it's imperative for the handler to stand on the same side as the vet, Hoot says. "If the horse acts up, that instinctively pulls the horse away. Plus that way, I can keep an eye on the owner, too, and know if the owner is starting to get worried."

"When a horse is tranquilized, I've found that it's best to have the owner stand beside the horse holding a soft, cotton lead rope. Too many owners try to hold the horse's head up, but it's better if you let the horse put his nose to the ground if he wants," she advises.

Hoots says she believes attitude can make a difference. "I went into a large stable once and gave routine shots to all of the horses. Here was a stallion at the end, and I simply walked into his stall, threw my arm around him and gave him his shots," Hoots recalls. "On my way back up the aisleway, several of the stable help came running with halter and lead ropes, telling me they'd help me give the vicious stallion on the end his shots."

Dr. Tom Newton of Virginia Equine Clinic near Manakin-Sabot, agrees with Hoots on handling your horses as much as possible.

"If you have a foal, it's important to start working with him consistently at birth. I believe that mares and foals need to bond immediately at birth, but shortly thereafter, start touching your foal," Newton says. "Put your fingers in his ears, nose and mouth, shine lights in his eyes take his temperature often."

"As a foal gets older," Newton says, "allow strangers to handle it."

"It's a great idea to have someone of the opposite gender come in and touch your horse," he explains. "If the horse is owned by a woman and the only man coming out to the horse is the vet, then the horse may not be comfortable around men, causing a problem for the vet." Have an opposite-gender friend pet your horse, give him treats and be kind to him, Newton advises. He also stressed the importance of letting your vet spend time with the horse.

"You don't want the vet to just do the negative all the time - let the vet give your horse a treat; leave the horse with the impression that every time the vet comes is not a bad experience."

A good way to prepare your horse for the vet is by doing regularly some of the things the doctor does.

"Get the horse accustomed to having his temperature taken, put your fingers in his ears and shine lights in the eyes. Hold your horse's mouth open and pull its tongue to the side," Newton suggests.

"Many times, what vets do to the horse isn't painful-the horse reacts negatively because it's never had these things done to it before. If it's accustomed to such things being done, the vet's visit can go smoother."

Like Hoots, Newton also prefers to have the owner stand on the same side he is working on, and "never stand in front of the horse; always stand at his shoulder. This is especially critical when holding a twitch."

If possible, allow the horse plenty of pasture play before the vet's arrival.

"We see clients who work all week and keep their horse in a stall. Then when the vet comes, the horse is like a caged lion," says Dr. Justin Janssen.

"We try to get the owners to adequately exercise the animal before we arrive to let it blow off steam-provided, of course, the animal wasn't confined for lameness or serious injury. It really helps to make the horse quiet when we work on it."

The Sheridan, Ind., vet added that foal imprinting can be critical in producing a well-behaved animal.

"Robert Miller's techniques make a significant difference in youngsters being approachable," he notes.

The next best thing to foal imprinting and for those who have adult equines is to use resistance training methods developed by trainers such as Ray Hunt or John Lyons, he says.

"There are about a dozen or so trainers using natural horse psychology. People tend to be disbelieves, they're amazed."

Janssen stresses that vets need a safe place to work.

"Don't have a wheelbarrows and vehicles around where someone could get hurt if the horse acts up," he warns, adding that good lighting and a place to get out of the wind are very much appreciated.

Janssen suggests that good organization, including having the horse caught and ready to go when the vet arrives, is key to keeping everyone calm and to an easier vet visit.

"And let me know what we're going to do to your horse, and tell me what you perceive the problem is," Janssen admonishes. "I'm not Sherlock Holmes."

Vet calls are frequent at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., so Big Barn Manager Todd Waronicki has had to learn how to keep it simple. He advises being very matter-of-fact.

"Go up to the horse with the attitude that you're going to do it and that's that. Put your fingers in their mouths to get them accustomed to the paste worming tube," he says. "Let the horse know that when you say 'whoa,' you mean it! Use your voice sternly if you don't approve of the behavior."

While the vet is working on the animal, Waronicki finds tapping the horse rhythmically and firmly with the forefinger in the center of the forehead can help.

"That really gets their attention. We also use restraints such as a twitch or a lip twist. And doing shoulder rolls can control the more active animal," he adds.

Like the vets, he also suggests vocalization.

"Talking to the horse can distract him, and you can tell him what's going on. What I've found works very well-and this sounds kind of silly -- is singing."

You may ask, does the tune matter?

"Not at all," Waronicki claims. "It can just be la-la-la. And what's really great is you don't have to have a good voice."

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