Own the Perfect Patient

Teach your horse seven essential skills that will put him right on top of your vet’s ‘favorite patient’ list.

The call was to suture a wound. And what a wound it was! Even from across the barn, a gaping hole in the horse’s shoulder, at least 10 inches long, was easy to see. Good thing, because across the barn was the closest I could get. After watching my (very skilled) technician unsuccessfully attempt to capture the injured horse in his stall while deftly avoiding snapping teeth and flying feet, I finally said, “Forget it. If we can’t even catch him, chances are slim we’ll be able to treat him. And no one needs to get hurt.”

If your horse won’t stand quietly for veterinary care, you’ve got some training to do. Follow the steps here, helping your horse become a better patient.

I don’t give up very easily—but when it comes to bad-behaving horses, enough is enough. Did that wound ever get sutured? Yes, it did. After fighting with the horse for several hours, the trainer was able to administer a dose of oral sedation, followed two hours later by an intramuscular dose once the oral meds kicked in. When I returned to the barn three hours later, I got just close enough to administer intravenous sedation. With the poor horse drugged and twitched, I was finally able to treat the wound.

Sound like a nightmare? Oh, yes. Yet it happens all the time. And it might have been worse! The extra time and expense of an additional farm call and several doses of sedation weren’t the only real problems that owner faced. What would have happened if we’d never been able to treat the wound at all? What if it involved an artery with life-threatening blood loss?

If I can’t catch your horse when emergency strikes, or handle him once I do, chances are I can’t save his life.

Don’t let your horse be the veterinarian’s nightmare. Help him become the perfect patient instead! In this article, I’ll teach you seven essential skills that will turn your horse into the perfect patient. I’ll tell you what they are, how they’ll help me treat your horse, and the steps you’ll need to take to teach them. (For a review of basic training principles, refer to the sidebar on page 70.)

The Basics
“I just don’t understand. He never acts that way with me!” I’ve heard this comment at least a thousand times. So why is it that your horse is perfectly fine for you—yet the minute he sees the vet, he becomes a raging lunatic? Let’s face it: Most of the things I do to your horse are things he doesn’t necessarily enjoy. I stick him with needles, clean and treat painful wounds or skin conditions, run tubes up his nose, and sometimes even bury my whole arm in his rectum. Your horse may be a perfect angel when things are going his way, but when was the last time you asked him to behave himself for something he really didn’t like?

The skills I’m going to suggest you teach your horse will help you in a variety of different ways. They’ll give you a tool to calm him when he’s anxious or afraid, will help you establish yourself as the “boss horse” of your herd of two, and will make it easier to apply restraint when he still says “no.” And they’ll build upon one another until you have a toolbox full of tricks to help both calm and restrain your horse during unpleasant events. Finally, by teaching your horse to do these things for you, you’ll be installing “buttons” I can use to encourage him to behave for me.

Skill No. 1: Turn to face.
You’ll teach your horse to turn to face you when you approach.

Problems solved: Your horse is a prey animal. The first thing he’s likely to do when he anticipates something unpleasant coming his direction is to turn and run away. When he’s in his stall, this might mean hiding his head in the corner. And if he’s really feeling defensive, this puts him in a perfect position to kick you when you approach. By teaching him a cue to turn, face, and even approach you, you (and I!) will be able to catch him easily and safely—the first necessary step in any interaction.

How to do it:
Stand at your horse’s stall door with his halter in your left hand and the end of the lead rope in your right. If your horse puts his head in the corner and turns his hindquarters toward you, take an assertive step forward and swing the lead rope toward his tail. (It’s even OK if the rope connects with his hind end, but make sure you stay far enough away to avoid being kicked.) The minute he turns his hindquarters away (and he will), step back and offer praise—especially if he turns his head and looks in your direction. Repeat this step every time he turns away, backing off immediately when he turns to look at you. Eventually, he’ll turn to face you, or even take a step in your direction. If you’re patient and consistent (he never gets to turn his hindquarters toward you), you’ll soon have him walking up to you each time you approach. If he doesn’t, all it should take is a flick of the rope.

Skill No. 2: Head down.
You’ll teach your horse to put his head down in response to a touch to his poll.

Problems solved:
Teaching your horse a head-down response is one of the most powerful cues in your toolbox, and will come in handy in a variety of situations. When your horse is excited, he raises his head to have the best possible view of his surroundings. When he drops his head, there will be an instant drop in his energy (and anxiety) as well. Is your horse afraid of certain livestock and machinery, or over-stimulated by a new environment? A simple touch is all it should take to help calm him down.

The head-down response also will come in handy when you have to bridle your horse, or handle his head for something potentially unpleasant, such as clipping his muzzle or pulling a foreign body out of his mouth. Finally, it’s a building block for Skill No. 4 (application of a twitch) and Skill No. 7 (administering oral meds).

How to do it: Stand by your horse, and place your right hand on his poll. (If he won’t allow this first step, you’ll need to spend some time gradually desensitizing him, working your way gradually up his neck until he’ll stand quietly with your hand on his poll.) With your hand on his poll, apply a little steady, downward pressure. The second you feel your horse’s head drop, even if by just a fraction of an inch, release the pressure and say “good job.” Then repeat. Continue repeating this step until your horse’s head drops all the way to the ground. Timing is critical: You must release immediately when his head drops even a tiny bit. If you’re consistent, you can teach even the most recalcitrant horse a solid head-down response within 10 or 15 minutes. And once this button is installed, you’ll be able to get him to drop his head (and energy) any time you touch his poll.

Skill No.3: Pick up feet with rope.
You’ll teach your horse to pick up his feet in response to pressure from a rope.

Problems solved:
Working on your horse’s feet is a common, and often necessary event. Whether it’s for trimming and shoeing, treating a wound, opening a sole abscess, or administering a nerve block as a part of a lameness exam, your horse must willingly pick up a foot, and allow you, your vet, and your farrier to hold it up. If your horse refuses to pick up a foot when asked, jerks it away after a short period of time, or throws a fit when asked to stand on three legs, it not only becomes impossible to provide proper care, but also puts his caregivers at risk for injury. By teaching your horse to allow his feet to be picked up with a rope, you have a way to safely overcome foot-handling difficulties.

How to do it: As with the head-down response, you may need to desensitize your horse to the rope around his legs before you start. Simply spend as much time as you need to make him comfortable with the rope draped around his legs. Once he’ll let you place it there, start by looping the rope around his pastern, just underneath his fetlock joint. Hold both ends of the rope in one hand (while holding your horse in the other), and apply gentle, up-and-forward pressure. As soon as your horse moves his leg even a tiny bit, release the pressure. Then repeat. Each time your horse moves his leg in response to pressure, release and repeat; he’ll eventually lift his foot and hold it in the air. You can teach this response on all four legs. Once you’ve mastered this skill, you’ll be much more successful picking up your horse’s feet and holding them up for however long it’s needed.

Skill No. 4: Hand-twitch.
You’ll teach your horse to allow you to firmly grasp his muzzle.

Problems solved: If your horse is sick or injured, and he resists my efforts to help him, a twitch can be a powerful tool—but only if I can apply one. Many horses violently fling their heads in the air the minute I grasp their noses or approach them with a twitch. By teaching your horse to tolerate a hand twitch (use of your hand alone), this technique can be used for light restraint. It also will set the stage for a real twitch to be applied when needed. Finally, it’s an important step for successfully teaching Skill No. 7 (administering an oral medication).

How to do it: Begin by asking your horse to put his head down, using the head-down cue you’ve already taught. Then gradually habituate him to your hand touching, holding, and ultimately firmly grasping his muzzle. Each time he resists by raising his head, ask him to put his head down and try again. When he allows you to touch, hold, or grasp, reward him by immediately letting go and administering a reward.

Skill No. 5: Shoulder roll.
You’ll teach your horse to allow you to grasp and hold the loose skin at the base of his neck.

Problems solved:
Like a nose twitch, a shoulder roll can be a powerful restraint tool when your horse says “no.” It allows you to stay in a safe position when working with a horse that responds by kicking, striking, or body-slamming you when he’s resistant. This restraint technique is especially useful when your vet needs to administer an injection or draw blood from a recalcitrant horse without help. Many horses react violently when you first grasp the skin in this area, especially if they anticipate unpleasantness to come. If you can teach your horse to tolerate this handhold in the absence of unpleasantness, it will be much easier to apply, and more effective when you really need it.

How to do it: Similar to teaching your horse to allow a hand twitch, you’ll begin by desensitizing your horse to your hand—in this case, to its being placed at the base of his neck. Once he’ll tolerate a touch, you can gradually increase the intensity of the touch—progressing to a pinch, grasp, and eventually a strong hold. By using a combination of desensitization (gradual increase of intensity) and positive reinforcement (reward when he stands quietly), he’ll eventually learn to tolerate the application of a shoulder roll.

Skill No. 6: Tail touch and taking temp.
You’ll desensitize your horse to having his tail lifted and a thermometer placed in his rectum.

Problems solved: When your horse is sick or injured, taking his temperature is an important part of a basic health evaluation. If your horse clamps his tail or threatens to kick, it can become impossible to insert the thermometer. Not only that, but it’s also generally much easier (and safer) for me to perform a rectal exam when your horse is colicky if he’s tolerant to handling around his hind end.

How to do it:
Desensitization is the key to developing this skill. Have a friend hold your horse and cue him to put his head down. Stand to the side of your horse’s flank and place your hand around the top of his tail. If your horse tenses up or threatens to kick, back off and have your friend ask him to put his head down to help him relax. Gradually progress until you can lift your horse’s tail, touch his rectum, and eventually insert the lubricated thermometer without resistance.

Skill No. 7: Oral meds.
You’ll teach your horse to tolerate a syringe of medication in his mouth.

Problems solved:
Administering oral medications is a necessary evil when it comes to caring for your horse—even if it’s simply to administer a dewormer twice a year. If your horse flings his head and slams his body into the wall when you approach him with a dosing syringe, teaching this skill will put that problem to rest.

How to do it: Once again, you’ll begin by asking your horse to drop his head using your head-down cue. If you’ve already taught him to tolerate a hand twitch, he should be desensitized to handling around his mouth as well. Load a dosing syringe with a yummy-tasting substance, such as applesauce or sugar water. With your horse’s head in a lowered position, and a light hand twitch applied, you should be able to easily administer a small amount of the sweet substance—which provides an immediate reward. If your horse is historically naughty for oral medications, repeat this several times each week until your horse looks at the dose syringe as a treat. Chances are he’ll hardly notice the next time you have to administer a medication instead.

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