As a large animal veterinarian I spend the majority of my spring traveling around and performing annual exams and vaccinations in preparation for the busy summer riding months. I both love and dread this crazy time of year. For many of my healthy patients this is the only time I will see them in the year. It's good to catch up with the owners and scratch some old friends that I may have known since birth.
It's also the time of year that many of my patients are handled for the first time all year. They may have been turned out to pasture or kicked out and on round bales all winter. They can look a little rough and often act a little rougher. And we may as well be honest; veterinary procedures are not always pleasant for the horse. We make the visits as painless and positive as possible because the last thing any veterinarian wants is a patient that doesn't like them.
You can tell a lot about a horse by how he or she handles certain unpleasant tasks but you can tell even more about the owner of that horse and their expectations for the horse's behavior. For instance, when I go to look in the horse's mouth and the owner smirks and says, "Good luck with that, you can't touch that horse's mouth." Now, some horses have a reason for defensiveness about the mouth and are a constant challenge to handle that way. I can usually tell which ones are actually fearfully defensive and which ones have just never been taught to accept handling. And, no, I'm sorry, it probably does not mean they were twitched by some "cowboy" at some point.
Some owners are very apologetic and embarrassed about the poor ground manners of their horses but others, seem to be even proud of the fact that their horse is tough to handle. Or they laugh it off saying, "I wouldn't want somebody looking in my mouth either!" The problem is that these horses that are tough for me to handle during routine veterinary examination likely have holes that you have trouble dealing with in your partnership as well. That's not always the case, for sure. I'm not unrealistic. I have a few patients that I have to have the owner do some of the vetting like vaccinations or blood draws because their horses just aren't handled by other people often and trust is not always transferable.
But, here is my challenge to my fellow horse owners. Don't let these little picadillos just become part of your expectations for how your horse will behave. If you have a list of things your horse doesn't do or doesn't like, I would make it my priority to address those because until you do, it is bound to rear it's ugly head at the least convenient time.
Teaching your horse to accept a de-wormer or oral treatment or have their feet handled or stand still for a vaccination is part of teaching your horse to be a good citizen and is every bit as important as teaching them to whoa or jog or change leads. Too often this is left to the veterinarian that if you are lucky only sees your horse once every year.
It's all about your expectations. If you expect and accept that your horse is difficult to worm and just use the feed through to get around that issue you can also expect that won't ever change. Or you can expect your horse to stand like a gentleman and allow oral treatment without a fuss.
So, if you have one of those horses that has trouble with annual veterinary examination or fights you to de-worm him or doesn't like his mouth touched or you have trouble bridling, here are some tips for how you can help your horse become a better citizen.
First of all, if your horse is difficult for oral medication you cannot only work on it twice a year when you de-worm them. Two fights a year, even if you win, will not fix a horse that is tough to treat orally.
Be sure that your horse is comfortable with all of his mouth being handled. As an owner you should be able to (respectfully) run your hands over your horse's entire muzzle including the nares, gums, lips and chin. Make sure that when handling your horse's muzzle you use a flat cupped hand with good contact so that you aren't tickling or annoying him. Once you can handle the entire muzzle and lips with the horse standing and accepting it (without you holding him there) you can start to work on his gums. You should be able to rub the gums above and below the incisors with your finger tips. Many horses will learn to really enjoy this as it is one of Linda Tellington-Jone's tips for relaxation of the horse. From there you can move to inserting your fingers along the bars and inside the lips. The key is to have your horse accept all of this without you having to hold him there tightly by the halter. Maybe it becomes part of your routine before you mount up. Devote 5 minutes of your time to making sure your horse is okay with all of that.
Next you want to add a tube that you can introduce into their mouths. If your horse is fearful or really bad about having anything near his mouth I would start with an old empty tube that does not have any trace of medication left in it. Start just like you did with your hand and get him used to having that tube rubbed all over his muzzle then start asking the horse to accept the tube in his mouth.
I do not advocate using your finger to introduce the tube. The goal is to have the horse soften his mouth and accept the tube without your finger being in his mouth. The step of handling his mouth and lips and gums was part of teaching him to accept handling and not be fearful. Wait for him to be ready to accept the tube before you force the issue by using a finger in his mouth. I bit my horses the same way. I don't force the horse to open his mouth for the bit. Wait for them to soften and pick it up themselves and they will forever be better to bridle.
Once the horse is able to accept the empty tube you can fill it with something scrumptious like molasses, honey, applesauce etc and start delivering some little treat if he keeps the tube in his mouth long enough. You want to be able to administer the medication slowly so that they don't spit it out and so they don't get into the habit of having a wad of something crammed into their mouth and then they are released. If you give the de-wormer in a big wad and then hold the horse's mouth closed until they swallow it that's not much of a reward to the horse for them calmly accepting the medication. Instead, give it slowly, allow the horse to work it around his mouth and then you can remove the tube without the fear that they are going to pitch the whole thing.
It doesn't take long to address these issues if you don't make a big deal out of it and work on it every day. I spent a year teaching my horse that he didn't need to have a coronary when I got the clippers out. I'm ashamed to admit that for years I just drugged him until I finally realized that if I didn't fix this I couldn't really call myself a horseman. So, I made it part of our daily saddling routine. We started small and in the beginning they weren't on. They just rubbed over his body. Then eventually I started turning them on for a bit. Then I started running them up near his bridle path. Etc, Ect. Until I could clip him without a halter on. It took a year's time but only a minute or two out of routine every day. With intense time concentrating on the issue I probably could have fixed it in a matter of days, but who has time for that? I want to get in the saddle too!! Obviously you can approach these things either way. As long as you are making progress each and every time you are doing it right.
I do want to make a caveat for issues in the horse that are fear based and not just failure to accept. It can be hard to distinguish these things sometimes but as horse owners we need to be detectives in our horse's behavior and attempt to determine if the behavior we are witnessing is driven by fear. Fear based behaviors obviously can be addressed but they take more time and patience. You cannot reprimand a horse that is afraid. It adds to the fear and for many will make them combative. Learn to read the difference between fear and misbehavior and if you have any doubt at all which you are dealing with seek help from an equine professional before proceeding. Fear in the horse is often expressed through vastly increased heart rate, short shallow respiration, trembling, tight lips and tight eyelids and fleeing. Horse's can be afraid of what they don't understand so fear doesn't mean there was any abuse or tragic event in their past. Fear from lack of understanding generally goes away quickly. For some horses, fear behaviors can be so deep seated they can take years of patience and redirection of energy before they can accept the object they are afraid of.
Almost everything on your "My Horse Doesn't like . . . " list can be addressed and improved. It should be every horseman's priority to make their horse the very best citizen they can be. All of these little pieces are part of that citizenship. Raise your expectations for your horse's behavior and I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.