There are three basic types of restraint that can be effective during an emergency: location restraint, physical restraint and chemical restraint. This month, Colorado veterinarian Ruth Sorensen discusses hobbling, a form of physical restraint that helps a handler control a horse in an emergency. Our series on emergency restraint techniques concludes with an article exploring the various restraints and special techniques used to restrain a foal, mule or a donkey.
There are many different types of hobbling techniques, and three will be discussed here. However, before attempting to hobble your horse, keep the following in mind:
• Horses that have had their coordination or balance com•promised by sedation, or horses that are suffering from neurological disorders (such as EPM) should not be hobbled.
• Hobbles should not be used to restrain a horse during a painful procedure. Hobbles are effective restraint for addressing an emergency, but should never be used to restrain a horse in lieu of providing pain management.
• Hobbles should never be placed on a joint, or placed on so tight as to restrict blood flow.
Standard hobbles connect the front two pasterns together. Also known as two-leg hobbles or straight hobbles, standard hobbles are typically bought as a set and are made of many different types of material, such as leather, nylon or neoprene.
Backcountry horsemen and packers often use this type of hobble to restrain their stock in areas without fences. Horses can still walk when they have been hobbled in standard hobbles, and some (especially those who are really comfortable with them) can even hop or break into a modified lope. However, because standard hobbles do restrict a horse's use of his legs, he needs to be properly trained and exposed to hobbles before they are used on a regular basis or in an emergency.
Standard hobbles can have an almost calming effect on horses that are used to them. They can cause panic and distress to horses that have never been exposed to them before, especially in an emergency.
For more on training your horse on standard hobbles, see "Hobblin' Along," in the November 2008 issue of Western Horseman.
Scotch hobbles connect a hind pastern to the neck, and can be tied so that the hind leg is suspended in the air or rests comfortably on the ground. Either way, the purpose of this restraint is to prevent kicking, which is accomplished by tying the rope tight enough to catch the force of the kick on the horse's neck. (Another option for working on the back legs is to have a handler hold the opposite hind leg up, as it is difficult for a horse to kick on three legs.)
Since this hobbling device can be confusing, especially for those who are new to it or don't use it regularly, practicing the technique will ensure you're prepared to use it in case of an emergency. It will also get your horse more comfortable with the feel of the rope, though this technique doesn't require much, if any, previous exposure for safe use in an emergency.
To Scotch hobble your horse, you'll need a 12- to 18-foot-long rope, made of thick, soft cotton. (A thin rope, such as baling twine, should never be used as it can cut the skin.) The handler and caregiver should be on the same side as the hind leg that is to be tied.
Place the rope around the horse's neck, holding one tail of the rope in each hand. The end of the rope that comes across the back of the horse's neck should hang straight down the shoulder and be shorter than the other end (maybe about five feet in length). The rest of the rope should come across the front of the neck.
Bring the long tail from the shoulder down to the hind leg, looping around the back of the hind pastern. As you make a loop, bring the rope from the inside of the leg to the outside, so that the rope crosses (essentially your rope will make a figure eight around the horse's neck and hind pastern). Bring the rope back up to the neck, so that both tails of the rope meet about at the shoulder, and tie in a slipknot.
Initially, the tension should allow the hind foot or toe to rest on the ground. For many horses, the feel of a rope around the back of the pas•tern is enough to discourage kicking and calm the horse. If you find you need more control, however, the rope can be tightened, lifting the hind leg. If you are suspending the leg in the air, the leg should not be tied higher than two inches from the ground, and frequent breaks should be taken.
Australian hobbles can also be used for restraint, though Sorensen admits she doesn't use this type of hobble as she has found the Scotch hobble to be the easiest to use.
Australian hobbles are similar to a sideline hobble in that they attach a front leg to a hind leg. However, side•line hobbles attach corresponding front and hind legs, whereas Australian hobbles attach the front right to the left hind, and the front left to the right hind. The idea of Australian hobbles is that when a horse attempts to kick, the force of his back legs slips his front legs out from underneath him. If he attempts to strike with his front end, he pulls his hind end to the ground.
This article is part of a series on equine first aid, based on an equine first-aid certification course designed and taught by Colorado veterinarian and equine educator Ruth Sorensen, DVM. Learn more about her classes at equinelearning.com.