The key to restraining a horse is not brute force, but using your head and savvy handling methods.

In his 30 years as an equine veterinarian, Stacey Tarr, DVM, has had to restrain everything from rodeo broncs to sport-horse breeding stallions in a full gamut of situations, from deworming to stitching a wound.

With equine restraint, it always helps to have size and reach, but the real key is to think smart, says Tarr, who owns and operates a clinic and equine ambulatory service in Wellington, Colorado.

“Years ago I ran the ambulatory truck at [Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital]” he says. “In student ride-alongs, I found that a lot of the smaller female veterinary students were actually better at restraining a horse because they didn’t try to use brute force straight off. They thought about what they needed to do and how to go about it.”

Tarr offers tips and advice for thinking through simple restraint when you are working alone or holding a horse for someone else.

Tarr demonstrates the proper way to restrain a horse using a halter handhold.
Tarr shows the basic halter handhold using a rope halter. Hook your fin­gers onto the noseband, then reach down and work your thumb into the corner of the horse’s mouth. Photo by Christine Hamilton.

Halter Handhold

Tarr finds this basic handhold easy to use with a nylon web, leather or rope halter. It’s handy when you are administering treatments or dewormers by yourself.

Stand to either side of the horse’s head, facing forward like you are going to lead the horse.

Using the hand closest to the horse, hook your fingers in the side of the noseband, and reach your thumb down to the comer of the horse’s mouth.

Don’t slide your entire hand into the halter noseband as pictured here; your hand can get trapped if the horse pulls away. Photo by Christine Hamilton.

From there, you can use your thumb to encourage the horse to open its mouth, and use your other hand to administer the treatment. Simply let the lead drop if it’s in the way. In that position, you can shift and stay with the horse if it moves.

“Just use your fingers on the halter,” Tarr warns. “Don’t put your entire hand into it. If you do that and the horse jumps, that’s a good way to get your hand trapped and get yourself dragged.”

Three-Point Contact

Veterinarians are taught to use “three-point contact” when holding a horse for someone else. The idea is for the handler to be positioned to touch or contact the horse in three different spots. It offers the handler better stability when a horse moves. The principle is applicable for all sizes of horses and people, and in a variety of situations.

“It helps you to have better control of a horse, especially if you are handling it with just a lead rope and without the help of a set of stocks,” he says.

Tarr shows how to achieve the first two points of contact when restraining a horse.
First point of contact is the hand on the halter noseband. Second point of contact is the elbow at the side of the face. Photos by Christine Hamilton.

As an example, in these photos Tarr is using his hand, elbow and hip to give him three points of contact on the horse’s body. The first contact is his left hand on the halter noseband, the second is his left elbow up alongside the horse’s face, and the third is his left hip in the horse’s shoulder.

“When you stand like this, if that horse lunges forward, you are prepared and positioned to use that three-point leverage to turn it, and stop it,” he explains. “It also puts you where you can’t get pawed or kicked.”

Tarr demonstrates the third point of contact.
Third point of contact is the hip at the horse’s shoulder. Photo by Christine Hamilton.

Hand Twitch

One common hand twitch that is effective is a neck twitch. Simply grab a roll of the loose skin on the horse’s neck in front of the shoulder and squeeze it.

”A neck twitch is mainly a distraction,” Tarr says. “It’s not like a lip twitch where the twitch causes an endorphin release that blocks the pain. I use this to hold a horse for minor things, like giving a shot, drawing blood or trying to clip a muzzle.”

It’s quick and easy to use, and, in his opinion, a far better choice than another common hand twitch, the ear twitch. For Tarr, that creates too many handling problems in the long run.

“I don’t ever ear a horse down,” Tarr says. “I’ve seen people grab an ear and twist on it, and a horse doesn’t forget. It makes anything you have to do with them in the future that more difficult. There are better ways to get around one.”

The basic neck twitch is an easy restraint for quick procedures.
Tarr demonstrates a basic neck twitch that can help distract a horse for quick procedures, such as a vaccination. Photo by Christine Hamilton.

Know Your Horse

To determine the best method of restraint, you need to know your horse, Tarr says, and learn to read the situation. “Sometimes one method will work with one horse and not another,” he says.

“I spent 15 minutes once, using that handhold trying to get my thumb into the corner of one mare’s mouth. Then I stopped and took a break. I walked over and stuck the dewormer in her mouth and she was fine. She wasn’t upset at the dewormer; she just didn’t want my hand on her halter and my finger in her mouth.”

“Don’t just pick a fight with a horse and make them do something your way. At some point, you have to let them teach you to do it their way.”
Above all, he advises, know when to get help.

“The best thing is to know when you are out of your realm and you need to get more help,” Tarr says. “Recognize those situations where, if a horse is being that difficult, you need to get a professional.”

Good Practices When Restraining a Horse

When you have to hold or restrain a horse for the farrier or the veterinarian, Stacey Tarr, DVM, points out some basic good practices to keep in mind.

  • Be Prepared: Be ready to do what needs to be done before you apply restraint, to minimize the time needed for restraint. For example, have medicine drawn up and ready to inject before applying a twitch, so you can have it on and off faster.
  • Work in an Open Area: Restrain a horse in an open area, without a lot of clutter around. You need to be able to safely move with a horse if you need to.
  • Find Good Footing: Sometimes a stall is a better place to work, with good footing and more confine­ment. Avoid restraint on concrete or slick pavement where a horse could slip and fall.
  • Stand to the Side: Never stand directly in front of a horse you are holding or restraining. When you stand to the side or at the shoulder, you are better able to control a horse that slings its head, strikes or rears.
  • Pay Attention: Don’t be distracted, on the phone or eating, while holding a horse for someone. If the horse spooks or moves, it’s your job to keep the person working on the horse safe.
  • Stay on the Same Side: When holding or restraining a horse, make sure you stand on the same side as the person working on the horse. From that position, you can see what’s happening and are better able to push or pull the horse away from the other person.

This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of Western Horseman.

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