Light forms of restraint can come in handy when you need to treat a horse that doesn’t want to be treated.
Some horses won’t phase, no matter what, and others run away as soon as they hear the vet’s car pull up in the car park.
If your horse is in pain, treating the injury is be difficult when the horse doesn’t want to be touched. It comes down to knowing when to use restraints and when not to use them.
The individual personalities and experiences of a horse should always be considered. A good starting point is to figure out if the negative reaction the horse has to a specific procedure is because of fear, stubbornness or lack of training.
If the horse is refusing to cooperate due to fear, taking your time and being patient is usually the best way to go. Training and acclimatising the horse is essential.
If a bit of coercion can make an unpleasant procedure manageable and safer to perform (both for human and equine), it’s probably the best thing to do.
After all, we require horses to do things for their well-being that they consider unpleasant, such as taking deworming medicine or getting vaccinated.
You should train your horse to receive regular maintenance procedures before they need to be done
Teaching your horse to stand still while getting shoed, examined and treated will make it safe for you and others to take care of your horse.
If your horse is afraid of something, take the time to desensitise him when you have a lot of time to devote to it. Don’t wait for an emergency to do something for the first time when you can help it.
Regular and consistent training in standing still and being handled by different people will make your horse more adept at dealing with life.
The methods I’ve listed here can help when you need to medicate eyes, give intravenous or intramuscular injections, clean and bandage a wound or do an examination of an area that is sore.
Twitching a horse for a procedure
A nose twitch (photo from How to apply a twitch) squeezes the upper lip, and it is believed this calms the horse by releasing endorphins, which reduce stress and pain. This is not supported by either veterinary research nor evidence that the horse complies because of pain.
A nose twitch can be a humane twitch (in the picture above), rope twitch or chain twitch. The nose twitch is considered the most effective by many people.
The humane twitch is the only one suited to a person working alone because it is attached to the halter and doesn’t require constant holding once lashed on.
Rope and chain twitches require applying constant pressure with one hand and stabilising the head with the other.
If you have a horse that is unfamiliar, fearful, anxious, hurt, stressed, doesn’t trust anyone of the handlers or just isn’t having any of it, techniques like this may come in handy.
In a hide or neck twitch (photo from: How to apply a twitch), you grab the loose skin on the neck and twist, rolling it back into your fist.
This is similar to scruffing a cat and requires no tools besides your hand. A neck twitch does, however, require one person to do the twitch and another person to administer the treatment.
An ear twitch (photo: How to apply a twitch) is more challenging to apply because you can damage the ear cartilage if you do it too roughly. An ear twitch is mostly used if a twitch cannot be applied to the face.
There is some debate about how to do an ear twitch. Some people are adamant that tools should never be used when applying an ear twitch and they prefer to do it exclusively by hand because they feel that it is faster and has less risk of damaging the cartilage.
Ponies and horses have several hundred pounds to throw around when they’re in a panic or afraid (not to mention hooves and teeth), and in an emergency, you may have to choose between some damage to an ear, for instance, in order to subdue a horse enough to treat a bigger, more critical problem.
Bear in mind, that all horses are individuals in how they respond to pain and stress, and these methods might make the horse more nervous rather than less. Training your horse in advance is the best chance he’ll have of surviving an emergency.
Notes on the use of twitches
Twitching a horse can look nasty but is not painful for the horse when done correctly. Twitches are commonly used by veterinarians and horsemen to keep a horse still during a procedure.
A twitch is a temporary measure and should never be left in place for more than a few moments as it can cause permanent damage and it loses effectiveness the longer it is in place.
A twitch should not be used on a head-shy horse because it can cause damage if the horse refuses to keep the head still.
It is a good idea to accustom your horse to different types of twitches so that it is familiar with them if you ever need to use them.
A twitch is not a replacement for proper pain management, and its only purpose is to allow people to give horses necessary treatments safely.
How to handle a first aid situation involving horses
Accidents, emergencies and injuries can turn anyone into a frazzled mess. The most important thing to remember is that if you turn into a frazzled mess, you will rush, make mistakes, not think clearly and miss things that can be vital.
You will also project chaotic energy that will make horses and people more nervous and not trust you if you let the situation take control of you. A horse that is ready to bolt or lash out when it needs emergency treatment is not something you want on your hands.
When there is an accident, injury or emergency, the best thing you can do is act quickly, efficiently and smartly. This means keeping calm and keeping your wits about you, assessing the situation, quickly making a plan of action and then doing it.
1) Stay calm
Under stress people usually act in one of two ways; some people crumble under stress and become gibbering idiots (these usually do more harm than good in a shitstorm).
Others become more focused and kick into high gear when they are needed in a crisis. These people tend to stay calm and are prepared to make even difficult choices if needs be.
When something happens, first take an assessment of the situation;
- How bad is it?
- Can you fix it yourself or do you need the help of someone specific like the vet, farrier or emergency services?
- Restrain your horse and either call from your cell phone without leaving the horse alone or get someone to stay with the horse while you make the call.
Delegate tasks to people standing around: tell them to bring first aid kits (and from where), get buckets of water, handle or move horses, step back, call emergency numbers etc.
Also, remove or get someone to remove hysterical people from the scene and give them a drink of water.
Giving people something to do will usually calm them down. Only let people who are calm handle horses in an emergency. Nervous or hysterical people might cause the horses to bolt and result in more damages and injuries.
2) Call for help
Especially when you are alone, calling for an extra pair of hands, such as a friend or neighbour, can be of invaluable assistance.
Getting the vet or emergency services on the scene as fast as possible in a critical situation might mean the difference between life and death.
If you have other people around the stables, tell them to stop what they’re doing and come with you immediately.
In an emergency, you might not be sure if you need help or not, but it won’t hurt to have them along, and if it turns out to be something you can handle on your own it is better to be safe than sorry.
Keep all emergency numbers saved on your cell phone, on all phones at the stables and your house. Also, keep the numbers in the first aid kit as well as somewhere visible next to telephones or in easily accessible areas.
Numbers can include emergency services like the police and fire department as well as your vet, farrier and insurance company.
3) Stay safe
It is essential that you stay safe because if you get injured, you won’t be able to help your horse.
A horse will defend himself at all costs and will lash out, even at you, when he is in a blind panic and relying on his instincts to survive.
If a horse is afraid of something he encounters every day, such as being washed with a water hose or going into the washing stall, you must re-train him so that he overcomes his fear.
Otherwise, he might pose a daily threat of injury or mishap to the people and horses around him.
In case of emergencies, like fires, make sure to move all animals and people as far away from it as possible.
Try to have a person hold the horses or have them put in a small pen or paddock safely away from the fire. In any type of emergency, try to prevent horses from running off on their own as they might cause more damage and become hurt if left alone.
Keep calm and don’t approach a runaway horse with the intent to snag his lead rope quickly – he will know what you’re doing and get away from you.
Instead, try to coax runaways to come to you with the help of food or treats. By projecting calm and assertive energy, even in an emergency, horses will naturally begin to gravitate towards you when they aren’t sure of what’s going on or are injured.
4) Keep wounds clean
When treating an injury, make sure to first wear rubber gloves or wash/disinfect your hands to prevent contamination.
Clean out debris and foreign objects from the wound, and give it a rinse with water, antiseptic cleaner or saline solution before dressing it.
Put pressure on bleeding wounds as fast as possible and tie a pressure bandage if the bleeding doesn’t stop. Pain and blood loss can cause shaking and shivers, fainting and a feeling of cold – try to keep the patient warm and conscious. You can use blankets to keep patients warm.
For muscle injuries, like pulls and tears, get an ice pack and tie it onto the injury.
An instant cold pack can usually go on the skin with nothing in between, but a freezer pack should always be wrapped in a cloth or towel as to prevent it from sticking to the skin.
If you’re unsure of what to do, keep your vet on the phone to give you instructions. Describe the wound as best you can and don’t be afraid to ask for help and directions.
5) Know the locations of your first aid kits
Always know where the first aid kits are in the stables, barn, house, car and trailer.
Have the kits and cupboards marked clearly: if they don’t come with stickers you can use red or green tape, paint on a marker or buy “first aid” stickers to make them easily identifiable.
Getting an injury treated as quickly as possible is the best chance you have of it healing up completely – the longer an injury goes untreated, the longer and more complicated the healing process may be.
Make sure that all people who use the stable know the locations of the first aid kits and medicine cupboards.
A good idea is to have key staff, that is fully trained to respond in an emergency, present at all time. Educating all the people using the stables in first aid is a good idea, especially if it’s more of a DIY-stable where there is less or no staff.
Go over the first aid kits and how to use them, as well as their locations. Share telephone numbers and show where there are telephones if needed. Tell people about the emergency procedure and show where emergency exits are located.
It’s advisable to generally involve and inform staff as well as horse owners in the safety procedures of your stable, barn and paddock.
In an emergency, it is more useful to have many people know precisely what to do rather than have everyone running around in a panic because they haven’t prepared.