Feature Article

Partnership Development for Life: Handling Horses with Care

By Maria A. Wagner, EqDT

Recently I found out how important it is to be a partner with your horse and have strong mutual trust. In a most unfortunate turn of events, I was forced to leave my horses for two weeks at another farm. Due to the circumstances surrounding the situation, I was unable to go to the farm to manage my horses. Upon their return to my farm, I found that four had lost weight and all were wary and head shy. Usually this type of behavior would take quite a while to resolve. However, as I have a unique partnership with my horses, these issues resolved within two days.

Neck Bend
A bendable neck means a tension-free neck. I ask horses to bend and find their 'comfortable place' before I begin or resume work. I stop work immediately (even if I have just one swipe left) if I sense tension coming on.Nose Press
Before and during speculum work, I press the acupressure points on either side of the nose to induce relaxation. It is calming to the horse, and helps the jaw muscles and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) be relaxed, for the horse's comfort.
I approach horses in a very easy way with a shoulder to their shoulder. (I also speak softly and whistle a lot while I work.)

I am often asked how I can come into a barn to float or train horses and have them behaving in a way that their owners never thought was possible. While I have spent most of my life studying horses and watching their behavior, it became most important when floating a horse. I have to put a speculum on them, which looks like something from the Inquisition, insert my float into their mouths and then file the points off of their teeth. For the most part, the procedure is well tolerated. Nevertheless, there are horses who are not so tolerant for reasons ranging from a bad experience to just having a bad day. Seeing as I am going to spend a short time with each horse, and usually only once per year, I am restricted in determining what type of personality and behavior each horse is going to have.

A non-resistant horse is a calm horse and a pleasure to work with.

Being very familiar with the way a horse behaves is definitely an asset. When working with a horse either floating the teeth or in training, the first thing I explain to the owner is that horses don’t know what good and bad or right and wrong is. They only know live and die. This is the key to developing a partnership with a horse whether it be on a short term basis, as is my case, or for the rest of the horse’s life with the owner. For example, I have a tendency to approach horses in a very easy way with my shoulder to their shoulder. I am neither at their head, the belly, or the rear which are the areas that a predator would attack. Should the horse choose to step away, I step away too. Usually the horse becomes curious as to why I have backed off and will turn his head either enough to see me with one eye or sometimes just walk over to me. I always scratch the horse on the shoulder and move to the neck. This is the critical moment when the horse will choose to allow me to touch the most vulnerable area, the head. This could be within less than a minute or over ten minutes. Horses don’t use our concept of time and so I use theirs, which is there is no time except day and night.

Horses will tilt their heads to help make themselves more comfortable or to avoid expected pain - I pay attention and check it out, adjust my work, or give them a rest.
The speculum holds the mouth open and can easily create discomfort. It should be closed at every opportunity to minimize discomfort and stress on the delicate TMJ.

I always give any horses that I’m working with plenty of space by using a nine- to twelve-foot lead line. They will either respect my space as I have respected theirs, move farther away from me, or turn out to be space invaders. Each situation has a solution which is based on their personality, environment, and all previous experiences. Space invaders are immediately removed from my space by creating a minor commotion such as waving the end of my lead, facing them directly, and giving moderate to loud commands such as back. Those that move away from me are given their perception of space which is usually their body length. I then gently draw them back with pressure and release until they are about three to four feet away from me. Usually by that time, the horses have figured out that I’m not a threat and their curiosity takes over. I extend my hand, palm up, below the withers, towards them, and leave it there until they decide to take a sniff. Then I walk away, and repeat the process. Usually, by the second or third time, they decide that I’m not threatening them in any way and think, this is just too boring so I might as well just let this person pet me as that feels good anyway.

Even the most unfloatable horses can come to accept dentistry. When their concerns are recognized - that is, when we listen and make the needed adjustments and don't force things - they may even help!
After finishing, I check my work and do any needed final touches. We have bonded.


In general, I want to work with the live instinct and avoid the die instinct. If the horse starts to really behave in a manner that shows any fear, I will release so that he can be allowed to go to the safe place in which he believes he can live. This can be applied in a pasture, paddock, on the trail, in the arena, and in the stall, as well as a number of other situations and places. Basically, the horse is not capable of learning our language or rules and therefore, we have to learn theirs. By learning how they think in general, anyone can achieve that perfect partnership with horses, which is based on mutual understanding and respect that we both can enjoy for a very long time.fin


About Maria:
Maria Wagner, EqDT began her career in Equine Dentistry after graduating from the American School of Equine Dentistry in Virginia, and working with a local rescue and the SPCA. She offers dentistry and training services through Black Jack Equine Services, and is currently pursuing an Associates Degree in Specialized Technology for Veterinary Technician. Maria is under the direct and indirect supervision of several veterinarians in the areas in which she works. She can be reached at 215-529-4388.