To benefit our equines, tasks are often performed by specialized individuals: farriers, equine dentists, and veterinarians. For those who can afford more, there are nutritionists, saddle fitters, trainers, chiropractors, and body workers. There are acupuncturists, equine scientists and researchers.
How is the horse best served by this array of talented workers? Often horse owners can feel empowered, educated, and inspired by the help provided. But we may also feel lost, humbled, overwhelmed, and underserved.
At Cayuse Communications, we’re interested in a discussion around the merits and hazards of hiring professional help. As part of this conversation, we consider the relationship between veterinarians, their human clients, and their equine patients.
Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She presented an arena demonstration with fellow trainer and rider, Katrin Silva, at the Best Horse Practices Summit.
The author of The Middle Road and To Catch a Horse, she rides and teaches dressage and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.
Amy Skinner writes:
I had surgery this week. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, but the nurses, doctors, and surgeons all worked very hard to ensure that my experience was as pleasant as possible. The nurses joked with me, and we talked about the Netflix show I watched while waiting for surgery. The anesthesiologist even gave me lidocaine before giving me an IV, to make sure that the needle did not cause me pain. I got loopy on some drugs, was treated with respect by the nurses. Each took their time to explain exactly what to expect and what would happen for me. I was as relaxed as you can be during a medical procedure. I went home thinking pleasant thoughts about everyone in the hospital. As I feel I have a relationship with these medical professionals, I don’t feel apprehensive about my post-op appointment. I’d even say my experience has lent itself to me healing well.
While I was in surgery, my mare was not having a good medical experience. The story was relayed to me when I got home: a simple procedure of removing stitches in her shoulder did not go smoothly, and escalated to the point of the vet being asked to leave. Since I wasn’t there, I can’t say for sure what happened. But before that event, I was able to single-handedly flush out the wound with a catheter without haltering my horse. After the event, I couldn’t get near the spot without her becoming defensive and even aggressive. My best horse, who has handled beautifully for the most part until this event, has been traumatized by the vet.
With equine vets, I’ve had more good experiences than bad ones. I think fondly of the great Dr. Cindy Kimbrell, who helped piecemeal my poor mustang back together after a horrific injury. She was incredibly gentle with my wild, sometimes fractious horse. Her fantastic veterinary skill combined with a wonderfully gentle hand, and good bedside manner made for a good outcome. Her skills saved her life, my life, and his life that day. She listened to the horse and handled him in the way he needed.
Negative experiences, though, tend to stick in our heads and linger.
I have great respect for vets. I appreciate the duress they are under daily, working with dangerous large beasts who are trying to avoid their attempts to treat their ailments. I understand that even simple procedures put veterinary professionals at risk, and that many horses have poor ground manners or are not easy to work on. I also understand how financial strain and financial pressure can impact one’s mental state. Suicide rates are sad and worrisome.
As a horse trainer, my job is to prepare my horses for the real world, especially as it relates to farrier, dental and vet care. I do my best to set them up for success. But how to prepare a horse for poor treatment? Rough handling that creates fear responses. Fear responses may create more rough and punitive handling. It’s cycle that is easily avoided.
A horse’s memory is sharp when it comes to bad experiences. One bad appointment can lead to long-term repeated bad experiences.
Alternatively, a few extra moments of preparation, “getting to know you” handling, a little sedation when needed, a little lidocaine when appropriate can go a long way. [When it comes to sedation, vets and clients are not always in agreement because of cost and other factors. But I’d rather see a fearful horse sedated than manhandled. I don’t envy the mental tight rope a vet is forced to walk – between safety, pleasing the client, and being effective with the job they came to do.
As Dr. Sheryl King mentioned here, it could be that hubris combined with lack of education is at work.
When I assist in teaching the equine behavior and handling portions of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue courses, I find that the most resistant to safety protocol, out of the fire fighters, policemen, animal control, and other emergency responders, are the vets and vet techs. They must be reminded of basic safety protocol, such as not putting your head between the two hind legs of a downed and kicking horse. Fire fighters and policemen, unfamiliar with horses, often have a healthy respect for their strength. But vets often have a disregard for safety and handling procedures. Maybe this is from repeated exposure and desensitization to danger without repercussion – better known as Dumb Luck.
I have students who are vets . They are lovely folks who seem to soak up all the equine behavior information I can give them.
But I often wonder:
Why is this information not a basic tenant of their vet schooling?
How are graduates supposed to vaccinate, stitch, and do scary and painful things to horses without a solid understanding of how horses’ minds work?
It isn’t enough to learn the in’s and out’s of equine anatomy without learning the in’s and out’s of behavior, psychology and best handling practices.
Why is this essential information not required for this high-risk population?
If the patient is afraid of the needle, isn’t training to nurture calmness just as important as the ability to give the injection? Bad handling breeds bad behavior, which begets more bad handling. It’s a tragic cycle.
The equestrian world is in a tight spot: we desperately need large animal vets. They are underpaid, overstressed, underappreciated, and under-prepared for dangerous work. As horse owners, we must do our best to prepare our charges for veterinary care. But horses will never love being poked, stitched, and prodded. We must support better prepared, better educated, better supported and happier, safer vets.