University of Vermont AAHS

Safety Advice for a Horse Vet

Dave Cross, Ph.D., D.V.M.

[reproduced from Winter 2000 Caution:Horses, Vol. 5, No. 4]

The education of a veterinary student involves participation in clinical rotations including food animal and equine clinics. Unfortunately, the experience level of students with horses and large animals varies widely as does the desire to work with these animals. Even though students receive instructions about safety issues while on clinics, the potential for injury exists.

There are multiple factors that need to be considered when working with horses or other large animals. Obviously their size is an important factor but also their behavior. Although horses have been domesticated, they still retain a powerful flight mechanism. The environment, the handlers and their level of competency and an apparently excellent memory also must be taken into account when working around these animals. Knowledge of basic horse behavior (and that of any animal) is important for any veterinary student to possess. A vet may be presented with a horse that is very calm and approachable to one that is very nervous and "flighty". A key to working with horses is knowing the behavior and being confident around the animal, something that comes with experience.

Understanding the behavior of the horse is basic to the goals of the AAHS in the educational programs that encompass secure seat riding and ground handling safety. Basically, the horse is a prey animal evolved to react to real and perceived threats by running away. Training and handling serve to control that instinct and in some cases, direct it to the desired response. Yet even the calmest or kid safe horse will revert to a flight response when scared or startled. When working around horses the veterinary student (and everyone else) needs to keep this in mind.

Prey animals like herbivores, have their eyes positioned laterally on their heads giving them a wide range of vision. A horse has binocular vision directly in front of it and monocular vision that covers the area around the rest of the body except for directly behind it. In this way a horse can see movement and react quickly. This explains why a rabbit jumping up out of the grass or a piece of paper blowing by can result in the horse shying away.

Horses also have a defined "personal space" and when a person enters that space the horse will react to that intrusion. At one extreme, the horse may allow someone to approach to within 12 or 15 feet before running off, leaving you to contemplate new and descriptive names for the horse. At the other extreme, you may not notice the horse react at all when you approach. But look closely; the horse may shift its weight away from you or may turn its head slightly so that now it can see you.

When approaching the horse, do so from the shoulder while letting the horse know you are approaching. This is the least threatening area for the horse. Walking up directly behind the horse, slapping it on the rump and shouting HI HORSE! Is to be discouraged. Also observe the horse’s head because a lot of information can be obtained by the position of the ears. A horse will direct one or both ears toward a sound whereas ears held out to the side may indicate a sleeping, sick or sedated horse. Ears pinned back indicate a threat or anger and may be followed by the threat of a bite or kick.

The "normal" behavior of a domestic horse is put to the test when that animal is presented to a veterinary medical teaching hospital (VMTH). First, the animal may be is sick or injured and its behavior is altered as a result. It may be depressed and uninterested in its surroundings or may be painful and harder to handle. Second, it has arrived at the clinic after a trailer ride of variable distance and time, a trip which may be the first for that particular animal. Third, the horse is entering an environment full of strange smells, sounds and people. Some horses may not be disturbed by the situation but others could become more nervous than normal and more likely to shy. A mare with a foal by her side poses the added consideration of maternal behavior and her desire to be near and/or protect her foal may make her more difficult to control. The foal may not be used to being handled or restrained and can present safety problems as a result.

The clinic setting will involve examination or treatment rooms where the student on the case will take a history and begin a physical examination. Other students are likely to be present and also working on the horse. This room or area can become crowded with the owner(s), student, technicians and clinicians and if the horse is there for an emergency such as a colic, the situation can be even more hectic. People may be coming or going from the area to get lab samples or bring results and students may be coming in to observe. There may be delays waiting for a clinician or lab work, leading to inattentiveness, which could result in an accident if the horse is frightened or painful.

What can a vet student do in this situation, especially if one’s experience with horses is limited or nonexistent? The following is a list of various suggestions that may help.

1. Regardless of your background with horses or large animals, listen closely to the safety instructions from the staff and clinicians. It may save you a crunched body part. Large animals can hurt you inadvertently and without malice. A poodle stepping on your foot does not compare with a horse doing the same thing.

2. I have been a instructor in equine science programs at various universities and one of the first issues I tried to address with each new class was basic safety issues, including behavior of the horse. Understanding the behavior of whatever animal you are working with is important. Knowing the basic body language can help you protect yourself from injury or at least know when to ask for help or get out of the way. Try to take the time to learn by asking questions and observing.

3. Realize that some procedures will put you in a bad position. These include rectal palpation, abdominocentesis and induction of anesthesia in a horse. Keep the level of communication at a high level with everyone involved and make sure the horse is properly restrained for the procedure being performed.

4. PAY ATTENTION! A situation can change in a heartbeat and you don’t want to have a horse tap dancing on your back because you were daydreaming or talking. Although I would have to plead guilty to the latter at times, I always tried to know where the horse was and what was happening so I could react. Listen to the techs and clinicians and if you are not clear on something, then ask.

5. Ask for help when treating your cases in the hospital or treatment room.

6. Keep yourself between the stall door and the horse. Try not to leave the stall door wide open while treating an animal. You might be amazed how fast a sick horse might decide to leave if the opportunity presents itself.

7. Either stay close to a horse when moving around it or walk around it out of range of the feet. Lead the horse from the left simply because that is the custom and horses are used to it. Use caution moving a horse through the hallways and communicate with others so they can move out of the way or at least be warned that a horse is coming by. Keep a distance between strange horses in case one shies suddenly or a fight develops (and don’t let them nose each other through the stall fronts for the same reasons. Plus you may not know why the other horse is in the hospital).

8. When you graduate and enter practice, you become the person in charge of the safety of everyone involved. It is not difficult to find court cases where the veterinarian is held liable for an accident that happened while treating a horse. Note where people are standing, what safety challenges the facilities present and do not be afraid to take control of the situation. For example, I have told stallion owners that everyone involved in collecting semen from the stallion will wear a helmet and will listen to what I instruct them to do or I won’t do the work ( personally, I use an Ohio State football helmet, both for safety an also to aggravate University of Michigan fans). Take the time in school and preceptorships with practicing veterinarians to learn how to control those situations.

Enjoy the clinics, don’t stress too much about national boards (easy for me to say since I’ve already been there, done that) and stay safe.

Dave Cross holds a Ph.D. and a D.V.M. He is a member of the Board of Directors of AAHS.

Dave was born in a log cabin in the wilds of the extreme south of Ontario, Canada in the early ‘50s where he had to walk 10 miles uphill in a blizzard to school everyday until the family moved twenty miles northwest to the more temperate suburbs of Detroit. The chance to work with horses came when Dave moved to Kalamazoo county, Michigan in 1976. Encouraged by a friend to take up horseshoeing, Dave became a farrier until a knee injury forced a serious reevaluation of career options. Relocating to Kentucky to attend Morehead State University, Dave developed a strong interest in horse breeding and eventually became stallion manager for the program. A mad desire for further education led him to graduate school where he earned master of science degrees from Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University (the tour of the Big Ten years). At Ohio State, he was also manager of the Animal Science horse facility. He moved to Missouri in 1992 to become Assistant Professor of Equine Science at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State). In 1996, he decided to fulfill a lifelong ambition to be a veterinarian and entered veterinary school at the University of Missouri. After graduating this past May and turning the geriatric veterinary student club over to a successor, he accepted a position as an associate veterinarian at Beadle Lake Large Animal Clinic, a predominately equine practice in Battle Creek, Michigan.

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