Vet Talk

The View from Under a Horse

Safety comes first and the first step in safety is communication

Published: September 09, 2013

The view is better from the back of a horse. The view from under a horse lends a whole new perspective.

As the hooves skimmed my chest and face, missing by inches, and the sun-packed dirt pressed into the back of my head, it occurred to me that I might want to rethink some of my professional choices and communication tactics.

My oldest daughter claims that she is going to engrave the phrase “It seemed like a good idea at the time” on my headstone. That particular day very nearly proved the validity of this sentiment and demonstrated all too clearly just how easy it is in veterinary medicine for good intentions, client pressure, and the desire to solve a problem to devolve into chaos.

It was my first summer in the practice. I didn’t know the clientele; I was new enough to equine medicine that the area behind my ears still had that just-hatched dampness. To make matters worse, this particular horse owner was about 30 years my senior, and I was raised to be a nice girl who respects her elders. Throw in one injured, poorly trained thoroughbred filly and some sedation and you have a nice recipe for disaster – or goulash.

In any action movie worth its salted popcorn, you can see the events piling on top of each other, characters colliding, mistakes being made – there are many opportunities to turn the ship around before the iceberg.

In the speeded up cartoon sequence of moments in which the horse’s chest hit me, my head and back cracked against the ground, and the hooves flashed past my face, I wondered where I should have corrected course on my cruise toward disaster.

The appointment itself seemed innocuous enough. The filly had sustained a laceration a few weeks before that had been serious enough for me to refer her to the local university teaching hospital for consultation with a surgeon. She was due to return for a recheck, but as she’d destroyed her bandage that morning, she needed a wrap change before her trailer ride.

In my experience, one thing most racehorses do well is trailer. They get used to travel, so I’m not quite sure why this particular filly had decided that the trailer was the black box of doom, the equine equivalent of the iron maiden. However, my patient had concluded that all manner of horse-eating fiends lurked within the two-horse trailer. She also was less than thrilled about bandage material attempting to eat her leg, so sedation was part of the established protocol for her bandage changes.

Equine sedation has a funny effect – not on horses, on humans. The most experienced horsemen and women tend to throw all innate alertness out the window the minute the horse’s head begins to relax and its muzzle gives the first sleepy twitches.

Unfortunately, tranquilizing a horse does not produce a half-ton stuffed animal. It produces a half-ton animal who hopefully has decreased anxiety. However, decreasing said anxiety also tends to decrease inhibitions and response to training as well as basic motor skills. Basically, by sedating a horse, you get a really big drunk that you hope stays happy. A horse can still kick under sedation, and, like a drunk, can still lose his happy buzz if you try to steal his girlfriend – or overwhelm an ingrained phobia such as trailering.

Sedating the horse for the wrap change made sense. It’s hard to bandage a moving target and even harder if the target is attempting to move across your face. Wrap change was accomplished without explosions, alien abductions, or other untoward incidents.

The trailer ride next in the queue was where things began to unravel. I’m not a fan of owners doing anything with their sedated horses without me there. (See above statements regarding the diminished mental capacity of the sedated equid.) Too many things can go wrong with inexperienced personnel trying to manipulate a sedated horse. Of course, as I was about to prove, things can go wrong even with a trained professional around.

Mistake #1 – Going to the call without a technician

Most dog and cat owners are used to the “Please allow our staff to restrain your animal” signs. This is a polite way of saying “Please keep all of your body parts out of biting range and out of our way while we work.”

Because large animal veterinarians work in the field, it isn’t uncommon for the horse owner to act as an impromptu assistant. With newer generations of veterinarians, this macho, do-it-yourself attitude seems to be waning, and I, for one, am thankful. However, in this case, the 21st century was only a yearling, and I was the new girl in a largely male practice with a number of clients who still believed that it would take a man to get the job done. It’s safe to say that I had something to prove.

Mistake #2 – Allowing the owner to partake in the trailer loading process

I may have been squeaky new to clinical practice, but I had over 20 years of horse experience under my belt, and I knew that this horse and this owner were a bad fit. He was a middle-aged, high pressure, high intensity man, and she was a young, poorly trained, highly sensitive animal with a high flight response. Yeah…nothing could possibly go wrong there.

I should have sent the owner and his ranch hand to a safe distance, made one or two slow, careful, and quiet attempts to get the horse into the trailer, and then put my foot down if those failed.

Instead, I allowed the owner to coax the horse from behind while I led it into the trailer. Sadly, his version of coax would make your average auction feel like a low-pressure buying experience. There was yelling. And snapping of a whip from behind. And there went my sedation…

Mistake #3 – Re-sedating the horse (aka Bending to Client Pressure)

This, folks, was my iceberg. After this point, it was too late to turn port and reverse course. When the horse over-rode the initial sedation and refused to load into the trailer, that was my cue to say, “You know, this really isn’t going to work out today. This situation isn’t safe for her or for us. Let’s put her back in the stall and reschedule your appointment at the university.”

I think I tried some half-hearted, half-assed version of that statement. But it probably involved a lot of hedging and mumbling. The end result of the conversation found me re-sedating the now highly agitated filly while carrying on a four-letter monologue in my head. I had allowed myself to be intimidated by someone in a perceived position of power and by my fear of “losing the client” and thereby upsetting my new boss. (For the record, I found out later that my boss wouldn’t have minded this loss in the least.)

Mistake #4 – Trying “One last time”

Whether you are attempting to do anything with a horse or to defusing a bomb, once the words “We’ll give it one last try, and then we’re done” flee your mouth, you should have already quit.

The re-sedation didn’t work. Nor did the re-re-sedation. Changing tactics didn’t work. By this point, I was the one encouraging the horse from behind (minus the yelling and whip-cracking) while the ranch hand and owner manned the lead rope. The ominous orchestral music thrummed in my ears and people fled screaming from the decks of the sinking ship.

I had finally reached the limit of my intimidation. “This is the last time,” I said as we gathered ourselves after yet another refusal. “She isn’t going to load and this is getting dangerous. If she doesn’t go in this time, I’m leaving.” It was over 100°F outside, I hadn’t eaten lunch, and I was now over 45 minutes behind schedule. Having only myself to blame didn’t help.

The mare reached the edge of the trailer, placed one foot inside, and wheeled away. As she pulled free from the owner, the tension on the rope altered her trajectory so that instead of bolting away from all of us, she ran straight at me.

Her shoulder hit me in the chest, knocking me flat onto my back. I suppose the flat was a good thing since the next thing I knew, her hind feet were passing over my face.

One concussion later (clay dirt in summer has all the forgiveness of a cement sidewalk), I had learned a valuable lesson. In the veterinary business, the customer is NOT always right. That particular day, I abdicated my professional judgment out of fear of upsetting the client. Rather than worrying about whether he would be mad at me, I should have been worrying about the best interests of the horse and the humans.

This story has any number of morals. But for me, the biggest lesson is that safety comes first. And the first step in safety is communication.

It is the veterinarian’s responsibility to assess the safety of the situation and to insist on mitigating risks as far as possible. But as a client you can do your part to keep everyone safe. Properly training and socializing your animal goes a long way, as does knowledge of the damage your animal is capable of inflicting. But, communication and teamwork are key. If your vet says “This situation isn’t safe and we need to do X,” please, for the sake of yourself, your animal, and your vet, smile, nod, and agree. Any other course leads to a sinking ship.


Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM 
September 11, 2013

Thanks to everyone for your comments.  That day was a memorable learning experience, indeed.  I just wanted to clarify a couple of things.  Due to the nature of the filly's injury, she was on strict stall rest, and exercising her was sadly not an option at that time.  Also, on behalf of the owner, while he and I never did become friends, he paid his bill willingly that day, requested me often in the future, and never again challenged my advice as the veterinarian.  So, lessons were learned all around. 

Amelia Johnson 
September 10, 2013

As a former horse trainer, I can relate to your experience.  Trainers and vets alike need someone who is not only intuitive but also experienced to work with them at all times to avoid harm to both the animals and the humans.

Vicki Dirschl 
September 10, 2013

 What kind of owner has no compassion for his horse in a situation like that. Maybe there is the reason the horse was skittish in the 1st place.. The old you get more with honey than vinegar routine..

Joan M. Descheemaker 
September 10, 2013

It seems in the end the young Vet finally got it right. I have experience with horses, and I once had a hot Filly from the race track. Slow and Steady wins the race in these cases. It also would have been advantage for the owner to lunge the filly for about a half hour before attempting to re-wrap and injury if it were possible. At least some walking around to help her to see the trailer and assess the situation  herself. I think the filly was thinking of the first trip to the University. Something must of put her sour. Probably her stupid owner.

Kate Borton 
September 10, 2013

Thank you for your beautifully written commentary on this incident.  ALL equine owners should read this!  It is a shame that so many owners are actually harming their animals pysches with good intentions, and little consideration of an animals natural reactions.  I sympathize with you.  It IS hard to take control of a situation when you have "owner-pressure", even though you know it is the right thing to do.

Cindi Nickle 
September 10, 2013

I have the utmost respect for my Vet and cringe when he tells me he has to go on a farm call that can potentially have very bad outcome. Some people have no business owning animals and then expect the Vet to work wonders on an untrained horse. Great story.

Florence A. Clark 
September 10, 2013

Thank you for such a nice and true story .I was raised around horses all my life  and I feel they are Gods gift to us .We had the big saw mill horses they were like the Clydesdale  horses and we as children would ride them bare back. Many is the time we were under the horse holding on for dear life as those hoofs were pounding past. I'm 68 now and will always remember those were the days and smile. Thank you for all you do and give to the animal world. Thank you for caring.

Linda G 
September 10, 2013

Well written!

September10, 2013

Loved the blog post.  If your clients have a lick of intelligence, and I hope most of them do, then you are a heroine.  Who else will show up at 2:00 AM when you are crying in your barn to save you and your horse?  And as much as I love my horses, I had the same equine vet for 23 years, (Until I moved) and though I really care about my animals I care more about the human who cares for them.  Believe me, your clients love you.

Dee Feldman 
September 10, 2013

The vet is SO right by sharing what happened!

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.