Just yesterday I was vaccinating horses in a barn where there were four new owners, each with a recently purchased horse. These were mature horses that had no concept of barn manners, and worse, the owners had no idea how to handle them. The barn owner was on the property, but during most of my visit was in the house. I was in the middle of every veterinarian’s nightmare. For the safety of all of us, I finally had to have the two of the owners step aside and have my technician, Erin, handle the fractious animals. I was more than annoyed with the barn owner.
In contrast, I always feel safe in Sherrye Trafton’s barn in Brunswick. This is the first time in my articles that I have named names, but Sherrye has made such a point of safety that she deserves the recognition. She trains all her personnel and owners on how to hold horses. Whether the animals are getting vaccinated, massaged, or having their feet or teeth done, good horse handling is a real blessing for the equine professional who is attending them. When you as the horse handler do everything right, you create a far safer environment for everyone involved, including the horse.
The first rule is an obvious one. Each horse being worked on should have a handler. There are many horses that seem to be trustworthy on cross ties, but this is one veterinarian that will not work on them that way. Horses are hard wired to escape in time of perceived danger. When 1000 pounds of scared horse backs up fast, cross ties, snaps, and screw eyes are apt to break. A cross tie breaking under the tension can become a deadly whip capable of fracturing teeth or taking out an eye
The second rule is to always use a lead instead of holding a horse by the halter, even when just bringing them in and out of their stall. If the horse goes up and you are hanging onto the halter you are apt to suffer a shoulder injury. The lead gives a few feet of reaction space and far more control.
Finally, and this seems to be a forgotten piece, the handler should always stand on the same side of the horse that the vet or farrier is working on. For example: if your vet is giving a shot on the left side of the neck, or examining a leg on that side, you should be on the left side. If the vet moves to the right side you should immediately move to that side. Correct distance to the horse is a foot or two to the side and somewhere between the head and the point of the shoulder, facing the vet. The hand holding the lead is about waist height. Now, should the animal attempt to strike, kick, or bite, quickly step sideways away from the horse and firmly pull the horse’s head toward you. This throws the horse off balance and his body will automatically shift to line up with his head. This pulls his hind end away from the vet. Done properly and quickly this maneuver will abort the kick that was about to happen.
Everyone at Trafton’s handles horses this way, and all the professionals working in that barn deeply appreciate the sense of safety this gives. When I am doing chiropractic work on horses, I continually move back and forth from one side of the horse to the other. When handlers actively participate by moving with me, I feel safe and better able to concentrate on my work. The handlers in this Brunswick barn are always aware, and move quickly to keep everyone, humans and horses safe.
Want to stay on good terms with equine professionals? Consistently practice this stance and move until it becomes automatic. You will be appreciated and recognized as a savvy horse handler.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM