May 12, 2011
Dr. Stacy Tarr’s tips for restraining horses during veterinary exams.
By Christine Hamilton in The American Quarter Horse Journal
Dr. Stacy Tarr loves his job. He’s a large animal (mostly equine) veterinarian in Fort Collins, Colorado.
But it can be tricky. Holding a 1,000-pound animal for a veterinary procedure on a farm call isn’t always easy and can make Dr. Tarr not like his job so much.
With several years of ambulatory practice under his belt, he has a few words of advice on restraining horses.
Take Your Time
Dr. Tarr believes restraining a horse successfully starts with good, basic horsemanship and patience.
“When a lot of people talk about restraining a horse, their method is often just about making the horse mad,” he says. “Often, if you just give the horse a little time, you can get what you need done.”
He finds that if a horse is getting upset in a procedure, a time out for everyone often helps.
Dr. Tarr sets a tone of patience and calm from the moment he walks up to a horse. “You don’t just walk up and stare in a horse’s face and walk right into his face,” he says. “You let him have his space, ease up on him and let him tell you what he thinks of you.
“I catch a lot of horses that are hard to catch because I do that. I don’t know how else to say it but I kind of live in their world a little. Let them make (getting caught) their idea.”
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Don’t Go It Alone
Dr. Tarr always takes one of his veterinary technicians on farm calls. It would be ideal if every farm had a small set of stocks to help hold horses, but that’s not the case.
“Someone experienced always rides with me in the truck,” Dr. Tarr says, “someone who can hold the horse for me, knows what to do and won’t get in the way.”
Even in an emergency, it’s best to do what you can and wait for help rather than to get hurt trying to treat a horse alone.
Watch Where You Stand
There are a few good rules of thumb for a handler to follow when holding a horse.
First, stand at the horse’s shoulder, out of the way in case the horse paws or lunges forward.
Second, stand on the same side as the person working on the horse. “If I’m doing something on the hind end, the handler needs to be on the same side as I am,” Dr. Tarr says. “That way, if the horse tries to jump or kick, the handler can pull the horse’s head toward him, and that pulls the hind end away from me.”
From that position, the handler can watch what the veterinarian is doing and keep an eye on the horse’s head and expression, all at the same time.
Dr. Tarr is also careful of where he stands in relation to the horse’s legs as he works on a horse. He always stays to the side, not directly in front of or behind the horse, so the knee or the hock won’t hit him if the horse picks up his leg.
If you’re working with the hind legs, stand at the horse’s hip, facing toward the horse’s back end.
“That way, if you get cow-kicked in the leg, it’s more likely to buckle your knee,” Dr. Tarr says. “But if you are facing toward the front and get kicked, you take it right on the kneecap or shin.”
Don’t Get in a Fight
“If a horse acts like it’s really going to be a problem, I simply drug it rather than get into a fight,” Dr. Tarr says.
He makes the decision to drug a horse before anyone, horse or human, gets upset.
“There are drugs out there that work great, are short-acting and safe,” he continues. “I tend to drug a horse lightly and then add to it if I need to. If you drug them too much, you can’t take it away.
“We block painful areas and try to make it easy on a horse,” he adds. “I tend to take a lot of ‘guff’ and work through it. If I’m hurting them or making them uncomfortable, I can understand that.”
Getting Stronger With the Horse
“I can get kicked at, and it won’t bother me,” Dr. Tarr says. “But when a horse paws at me, I get his attention, because in most cases that’s aggression. That’s usually not fear, it’s ‘I’m coming after you.’ ”
That’s one of the reasons he likes to drug a horse immediately if it looks like it’s going to be a problem.
“When they’re drugged, they’re not as likely to rear or paw,” he says.
Although Dr. Tarr will use a twitch, that’s not his first choice.
“When a horse paws, everyone wants to go to a twitch,” Dr. Tarr says. “But when you twitch a horse, for a couple minutes it keeps him still, and then it starts to wear off and make the horse mad.
“If you use a twitch, you’ve got to get done in a hurry.”
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“If you stand in front of the horse with the lead rope holding that long-handled twitch, the horse can’t come over the top of you and can’t reach you to paw you,” he explains.
For safety reasons, Dr. Tarr does not like the small, clamp-style twitch, with a clip that attaches to the halter: It’s designed for you to use alone (which he doesn’t recommend) and requires you to stand within the horse’s reach.
“The only thing you never do is ear a horse,” Dr. Tarr says empathetically. “It has no advantages. If a twitch won’t hold a horse, earing one won’t. All earing does is make a horse mad and ear-shy.”
As a last resort, he has had to knock a horse out to get a procedure done, but that’s rare. Ninety-nine percent of the time, patience, the right medications (to sedate or block) and working quickly will get the job done.