No question about it: Horses are big, strong animals. Even that innocent-looking little Shetland pony in the backyard can give a burly man a good fight. Fortunately, most horses are incredibly easy to work with, or man would never have been able to domesticate them. However, there are still situations that require more restraint than a lead line and halter.
It’s important to realize that the horse may have different reasons for being resistant, and this can have an important bearing on how you deal with the problem. The two basic categories are:
Disobedience: The horse just doesn’t like what you are trying to do or asking him to do and is letting his opinion be known. Good examples of this are refusing to stand still for fly spray, clipping or braiding or fighting you for a paste deworming. Behaving for trimming and shoeing may fall into this category, too, as can some veterinary procedures.
Fear: Horses often react negatively to any situation they don’t understand, especially if doing what you require of them puts them in a vulnerable position. For example, it’s unreasonable to expect a horse to stand still while someone is attempting to manipulate a wound. All living things have an instinctive avoidance of pain, and since you can’t explain to the horse that what’s going on is in his best interest the horse may very well react like a hysterical three-year-old child.
Many veterinary procedures are not particularly painful, but they are unfamiliar and alarming enough to generate a pretty good panic reaction, too, like a rectal examination or passing a stomach tube. A young horse that hasn’t had much experience with having his feet worked on may react in a panicky way to being asked to stand with a leg held up, especially a back leg. It’s not really painful ,but not having control of his body puts the horse in a vulnerable position, and when he can’t see and doesn’t understand what’s going on either that only makes it worse.
Some things that trigger resistant behavior are actually a combination of the two types of responses and maybe even include the additional factor of past experience. For example, drawing a blood sample or giving an injection is not particularly painful for the horse. In fact, an experienced person doing these procedures can get the job done without the horse so much as flicking his skin.
A horse that has a meltdown at the smell of alcohol or the feeling of pressure along his jugular vein has prior experience with needle sticks. The resistance may be largely disobedience, “I don’t care if it really wasn’t all that bad, you’re not doing that to me again,” or may be because people drawing blood or injecting something in the past used poor technique and really did cause more pain than they should have experienced.
A simpler example would be a young horse’s first experience with clippers. They feel funny against his skin and make an irritating noise. His instinct is to be skeptical. If the horse has good ground manners, you’ll be able to control him, and he’ll find out in short order the clippers aren’t going to hurt him. If he doesn’t, he’s going to push you around time and time again and never really learn that. What starts out as a reasonable and expected mistrust of something new turns into flat-out disobedience.
Resistant behavior that is obviously a disobedience issue, not related to pain or fear, should be dealt with by training. If you can’t get the horse to stand still for routine, non-painful things like clipping, the first step is to get someone to stand at the head. You can’t clip the horse and communicate at the same time.
If reassurance and gradual introduction of the clippers, including letting the horse both see and sniff them, doesn’t get the job done, you’ll have to turn it up a notch to techniques like standing the horse against a wall (limits his ability to move around), chain over the nose (more “I mean business”), or even twitching for a while. Once the horse has learned the two basic lessons — 1) that what you’re doing doesn’t hurt him and 2) you’re not going to accept no for an answer — the problem will be solved. Never use tranquilizers in a scenario like this. It’s a quick fix for sure, but the horse won’t learn anything.
Behaving for the farrier also falls into the training category. Before asking anyone to work on a horse’s feet, you should be sure the horse is thoroughly familiar with picking up and holding up his feet for as long as he is asked to do so. If your horse tends to slam his feet down before you can even finish picking them out, it shouldn’t be any surprise that he acts up for the farrier. It’s your job to teach your horse manners that will allow the farrier to get his job done safely.
There are some special circumstances, such as a horse that refuses to hold up only one leg. This can mean either flexing that leg causes him pain or standing with weight shifted to the other leg causes pain. This needs to be checked out by your veterinarian.
Horses that are fine with having you hold their legs up and pick out their feet, but freak at the sight of a farrier, may have had bad experiences in the past. Re-education/training may also be effective at dealing with these fears, but when the farrier is there and trying to work on a horse that is actively resisting and putting him/her at risk of injury, you need to deal with the immediate situation in a way that will protect that person.
Horses obviously reacting out of pain or fear are another story. Whether it’s passing a stomach tube or cleaning up a wound, it’s perfectly natural for the horse to resist. You also have to understand that the person working on the horse is putting him/herself in harm’s way and since they are on the front line as it were, their decision as to the type of restraint that is appropriate should be respected.
Your input should be welcomed and listened to, of course, but if their decision is that a particular form of restraint is needed to keep them safe and get the job done, you have to either respect that or postpone the treatment and get someone else. Your horse may behave differently when he’s worried or afraid of a new situation or feel.