Restraining a Horse for the Vet

Dr. Stacy Tarr’s tips for restraining horses during veterinary exams.

Dr. Stacy Tarr’s tips for restraining horses during veterinary exams.

By Christine Hamilton in The American Quarter Horse Journal

When giving oral medications, put your fingers on the halter’s noseband and your thumb down in the corner of the horse’s mouth, then turn their head toward you with your body against the shoulder and your elbow at the neck. Journal photo.

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.”

If you’re confused about vaccinations, equine nutrition, first aid or anything else relating to horse health, then check out the “Your Horse’s Health” DVD collection. On this three-disk set, veterinarians Dr. Thomas Lenz and Dr. Kenton Morgan expertly guide viewers through the basics of keeping your horse healthy.

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.”

“Remember that prevention is as key as is early diagnosis and treatment,” advises Dr. Thomas Lenz. From diseases and disorders to soreness and injuries, the “Your Horse’s Health” DVD collection will help you keep your equine partners out of trouble.

“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.

6 thoughts on “Restraining a Horse for the Vet”

  1. Dr Tarr sounds like he/she works smart and is somewhat savvy around horses. However, as a thoroughbred farm owner and handler i can tell you that there are some horses that can kick you with a hind leg even when you are at their shoulder this typically is a shorter backed horse. I agree with the idea ear twitching makes everyones life harder handling that horse for bridling and working with their head the rest of their life. In so far as the twitch goes, that is short lived, the smart ones won’t let you get one on more than once or twice. AND i have seen a few that stand with the twitch on and then all of sudden bull forward and that loosens the tight tension you had on the long handle and they are free of it. What we find to be interesting is most of the veteranarians don’t get much training in vet school on approaching a horse or handling one. they all seems to be in a hurry and coming marching right upto a horse with a needle in hand like they are in attack mode. That sets the stage for a war. So the time you save hurrying in and approaching a horse like that is lost when the horse starts acting out and then won’t even safely let you tranquilize him he is so mad. i think farm owners should also have a handler that is capable of keeping the vet safe and themselves and the vets need to be taught to be a little more savvy.

  2. Our previously abused and bullied gelding was impossible to vaccinate. Our wise vet suggested we take him to the office and put him in stocks. I expected to see him climb out of the restraint but was suprised to see him calm and the vaccinations completed without incident. Security/comfort from the restraint?! Whatever the reason, the horse developed trust not fear. Learning is a life-long process! Thanks for the great article.

  3. I believe the horse owner should take ownership on the behavoir of the horse as well. I worked with my horses thoroughly before ever having the vet or shoer out and they both appreciate it greatly. Teaching a horse basic manners before you need to work with them, especially in an emergency situation is vital to the horse’s and your safety. Within 3 months of getting one of my horses, he went through a fence and I was the only one there, so the previous training I had done with him paid off. I have seen horses drugged that could still become very violent.

  4. Wonderful article. I definitely agree with not using the ear twitch and even a regular twitch. I would rather my vet sedate my horse than use either of those solutionts. I also have a mare that does NOT like vaccinations while held with a lead rope but as soon as she gets to the vet’s office and is in the stocks, she stands quietly and everything goes well. Have been thinking of building a set of stocks but just don’t have the right spot picked out yet.

  5. I have conditioned my horses to be calm and happy for the vet, myself and the farrier by humming, rewarding immediately after a procedure with a treat and a kind phrase. This has enabled me to get things accomplished, even when there is often no help available. Horses and ponies are smart, recalling the past and the good behaviour respone is a one they remember when treated kindly, sometimes even with humour. If you’re going to twitch, remember to reward immediately afterward with a treat and a short walk after the twitch is removed and the negative association won’t be as directly linked.I have been able to call back my Arabian horse when she escaped down a road from a horse show, loaded my horses on a trailer after 9 years with no rehearsals and nursed them back to health after serios hoof infections with their cooperation and trust while administering care.

  6. 5-13-2011
    My farrier taught us a good twitch method that works on our QH mare for the infrequent times she does not want to cooperate but does not leave bad memories. Take a piece of bailing twine; attach one end to the upper halter ring; slide down the halter and take through the bottom ring; run the twine over the nose loosely and through the opposite halter ring; hold the twine end in your hand then lift the upper lip and place the twine from over the nose between the lip and gum where they join; give a firm but not harsh pull to the twine. For some reason the twine under the lip over the gum triggers calming endorphins. Our mare stands quietly every time. When the horse begins to get restless again, give another firm tug to release more endorphins. We usually talk in a calm quiet voice (may be chewing her out, but she normally only understands tone) to the mare during the procedure. These methods seem to make things run smoother. Our equine vet also uses this twitch technique. We like this method as it is gentle, good feel for the horse and effective.

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