Defensive Horsemanship Keeps Owners Safe when Working with Horses

A person who practices defensive horsemanship is less likely to be hurt while handling a horse, Robert M. Miller, DVM, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., said at the recent American Veterinary Medical Association meeting July 31-Aug. 3 in Atlanta, Ga.

"[Because they are a prey animal,] horses are always afraid," he warned, and said people must act in a reassuring manner to avoid being kicked.

Many people stand right in front of or right behind a horse, working at arm's length to avoid being kicked, but Miller prefers to work up-close and personal from the side of the horse.

"I like to press myself against the horse’s body; I want the horse to feel me and focus on me. It is concerned and wondering what I am doing. If we work at arm’s distance, the horse continues to worry," he said.

The safest place to stand is next to a horse’s shoulder. Don't face the horse, but turn slightly so that your side is closest to the horse. When working with a horse Miller makes sure he touches the horse in what he calls "the three points of contact."

To clean a front foot, for example, Miller stands by the shoulder, bends over, and rubs the leg gently to gauge the horse's reaction. Then he faces the back of the horse, picks up the foot, and bends it up between his legs. His elbow rests around the girth areas (contact point 1), the horse is pressed against his legs (point 2), and the hoof is in his hands (point 3).

To clean a hind foot, Miller reaches from the safety position at the shoulder and runs his hands across the horse and down the leg to test his temperament. Maintaining close body contact, he moves back, slides his hand down, and picks up the foot. If the horse is reluctant to pick up the foot, he pinches the hock.

His whole body from the hip down is pressing against the horse, the foot is resting inside his arm, and his hand is working on the hoof.

To examine any area of the head, Miller stands by the shoulder (point 1), puts his forearm against the horse with his hand toward the face (point 2), and grasps the halter (point 3). He uses the other hand to check eyes, ears, and mouth.

"I'm not standing in front of her. My head is somewhat protected by my arm and shoulder, and it is the side of my body not the front that is exposed to her," he said. To take a temperature, Miller starts at the shoulder, and runs his hands over the back toward the rear to gauge the horse's reaction. He moves toward the rear legs, but stays on the side of the horse and reaches around to tickle the horse under the tail. This elevates it and desensitizes the horse. (Move back to the shoulder to shake down the thermometer, because that shaking action might frighten the horse.)

When he's ready to take the temperature, he faces the back and puts one hand over the back of the horse (point 1), presses up against her side (point 2), and reaches behind the horse (point 3), tickles the tail, and gently inserts the thermometer by rotating it back and forth, rather than pushing it in.

"My hip's in her stifle. I will press my knee into her leg, and I often touch the top of her foot with my foot," said Miller. "She can feel me all the way down, and I can feel her. If she kicks back, I'm not in the way."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.