Prep Your Horse for a Successful Vet Visit

Prepare your horse for the veterinarian with these strategies from noted clinician Julie Goodnight.

When you travel with your horse, there may be times when you’ll need to call a veterinarian.

If your horse is well-trained, well-behaved, and easy to work with, you’ll make your veterinarian’s job much easier and more effective. Even the best vet must struggle to examine a horse that’s stomping, biting, moving away, or just not cooperating.

Top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight believes you must be your horse’s “captain” at all times to gain and maintain his respect. If he knows that you’re the herd leader, he’ll look to you for guidance in any situation, even when he’s uncomfortable, hurt, fearful, and far from home.

Here’s how to teach your horse three lessons in ground manners: hold still; accept touch; and place each step. (Note: As you teach your horse these lessons, always stay safe; if you have any problems, ask a qualified trainer or certified riding instructor to help you.)

Lesson Prep

• You’ll need: A rope halter (to place pressure on your horse’s poll and sensitive facial areas); a 12-foot-long lead rope with a knot to connect it to the halter instead of a metal snap (the knot will allow your horse to feel a correction without causing undue pain); leather gloves.

• Before you begin: Choose a time to work with your horse when he’s fed, rested, and wants to move.

Lesson #1: Hold Still

Select a point several yards away where you’d like your horse to stand. Walk him to that point, and say “whoa.” Step away at a 45-degree angle from where his nose is pointing, so you’ll be in front, but safely off to the side if he does move on.

Once in place, point your toes toward your horse’s nose. Allow the rope to drape, holding it near the end. Stay still as long as he keeps his feet in place and doesn’t move his head from side to side (Photo 1A). If he does, it’s time for a correction (Photo 1B). Note that the lesson will go more quickly if he realizes his mission and can associate what he does just before a correction comes.

Start the correction by waving the lead rope up and down about one foot so that the movement travels through the rope and affects the halter knot. Make one correction, then allow your horse to lower his head and stand still again. If he picks up a foot or turns his head to the side, correct him again. Be consistent with your corrections until he learns the new rule.

Next, face your horse with your feet pointed toward him. He shouldn’t move at all. Your physical presence and your leadership should keep him still. If he moves, lead him back to where he started. If you allow him to move, for instance, one step toward the gate, you’ll reward him for moving, rather than standing still. He should stand just where you tell him, until you cue him otherwise.

As your horse begins to figure out this lesson, back up even more, and lay a portion of the rope on the ground between corrections (Photo 1C).

Lesson #2: Accept Touch

Your horse needs to learn that if he accepts touch, the touch will soon go away — that it’s easier to stand still and accept the touch instead of fighting.

Don leather gloves, stand at your horse’s left side, and place two fingers at the left corner of his lip. He should open his mouth slightly.

Move your fingers slightly back and into his mouth, avoiding his front and back teeth (Photo 2). He’ll most likely shake his head and pull away from your touch, but keep your fingers in place no matter where he pulls you.

Watch for an instant of relaxation. As soon as your horse lowers his head or stops resisting, pull your hand away. Keep up the pressure until he accepts it, then remove your hand immediately. Repeat the process until he allows you to open his mouth from both sides without resistance.

Use this same technique to teach your horse to accept your touch on other parts of his face and body.

Lesson #3: Place Each Step

If your horse needs a flexion test during a lameness exam, your veterinarian will need to pick up and hold your horse’s foot and leg without resistance or leaning. If your horse needs an X-ray or MRI, he’ll have to place his foot on a small plate.

Have a helper hold your horse, or tie your horse to a sturdy post. Stand at your horse’s left shoulder, facing his hindquarters. Place your left hand on his left shoulder, and lightly move it toward his fetlock. With your thumb and index finger, gently squeeze the tendon just above his fetlock joint.

When your horse picks up his foot, lift it so his lower leg is parallel to the ground, then hold that position (Photo 3A). If you feel him squirm or pull away, maintain your hold, moving with him until he relaxes.

When your horse relaxes and accepts the foot hold, gently lower his foot to the ground, and place it in a precise spot (Photo 3B). Don’t let go or drop his leg. If you do, he’ll learn that he can place his foot wherever he chooses.

Repeat this exercise several times on each leg.

Julie Goodnight ( lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (

Heidi Melocco ( is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.

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