You just saw your farrier handle your horse in a way that made you uncomfortable. Or maybe your vet tells you not to worry, but you still have a nagging feeling that something isn’t right.
What do you do?
Finding a balance between being confrontational and standing up for your horse can be tricky. Experienced horsewoman Margie Engle’s advice is pretty straightforward: speak up, but in a positive way. “You don’t have to be rude, and you can be as diplomatic as possible. But we also have to learn to be the voice for our horses because they can’t speak for themselves.” She continues, “Our horses tell us in their own ways, with their body language, and we have to be strong enough to advocate for them. In the end, you’ll feel better anyway, because you’ll have peace of mind that you’ve done your due diligence.”
If you are the one who spends the most amount of time on a daily basis with your horse, you are going to have a stronger understanding of what is normal for that horse and identify changes or new information about the horse that might pop up. Margie tells the story of a groom she worked with years ago who identified that something was off with one of her horses. The vet came over and palpated, and it wasn’t sore. The horse was sound and everything looked fine. Since they were at a show, the vet wasn’t their regular vet, so he wasn’t as familiar with that horse. “But the groom was with the horse every single day, and she knew something was not normal for that particular horse. She knew something felt different, and she kept insisting on it. The horse did end up having a minor soft tissue injury that became evident after its next class. So ever since then, I’ve kept that situation in mind.
"It doesn’t hurt to check. Some things are harder to catch and some horses are more stoic than others. If you think your horse feels off, you do have to speak up. And in hindsight, it is always better to err on the side of caution and scratch if you feel that something isn’t one hundred percent.”
Requesting further testing or asking for your horse to be handled in a different way shouldn't result in an argument but rather a discussion, one with both parties open to each other's points of view. If you are nervous, try keeping a non-accusatory tone and saying something like, Hey I know I might be going overboard, but I’d rather take the extra mile and double check to make sure everything is fine. Or, In the past, such and such has worked best for my horse, so I’d like to try doing things this way again. Being diplomatic and centering the discussion on the welfare of your horse, as well as pulling from your experience with that particular horse, can help you maintain a good relationship with those working with your horse and allow you to focus on addressing the issues at hand. By maintaining a non-accusatory attitude, emotions and ego can be kept out of the way and your horse's welfare can stay at the forefront of the discussion.
Be There for Your Horse
Margie also recommends keeping in mind that everyone who works with your horse, you included, is human, and we all make mistakes, even the best of us. One of the best things you can do is be present and be proactive. If you are worried that the vet is going to be hurried or your horse is going to be harder to manage, then be there with your horse and hold them. “You spend the extra time; you go over and give the horse carrots. And do everything you can ahead of time.
"For example, with the babies, I try to simulate what’s going to happen when they’re going to trim them for the first time. Or if your horse has a tendency to be a little bit nervous about things, work it a little extra harder that day prior to it being seen. Rather than just putting the horse on the cross ties and letting someone new that they’re not used to work around them, you be there and help work with them and give them a positive experience. Do everything you can preventatively to make the horse more comfortable.”
There’s a good chance everyone, both human and horse, is going to be more patient in that kind of scenario, and by being present, you can hopefully avoid the negative situations entirely rather than get stuck mitigating them after the fact.
You want to do what you can to avoid putting your horse in situations where they might feel scared or confused because, unfortunately, it’s much easier to teach negative things than positive things, so those bad experiences can have a lasting impact. “Even with the babies, it takes them a long time to get over a negative experience, and they remember those a lot, lot longer than they remember the good experience.” Margie explains, “It goes back to the fight or flight. That’s how this animal has survived for thousands of years. If they fear something, their first response is to flee. It’s the same with riding, it takes time and patience to teach good habits.”
Is Sedation the Right Call?
For the safety of the people working around the horse, and for the horse itself, sedation might be necessary. It is something that should be carefully considered. According to Margie, not every horse needs it. “Some horses are ok without it. Some horses can have dentistry worked on and they stand there properly. But you have to take each horse as an individual. If you know your horse well enough and the horse is ok without sedation, you can mention that he’s usually fine without it. You can ask: Can you try this without the sedation first? But you also have to be open to it when someone’s safety is at risk. It’s not just the person's safety, whether it be your vet, farrier or dentist, but your horse's too.”
And while safety is the number one priority for everyone, you also want to factor in the horse’s experience. “You don’t want someone automatically giving the horse tranquilizer whether or not the horse needs it. But there are times when, for example, they need x-rays of the horse and the horse won’t stand still. What’s worse? Giving the horse something to take the edge off and getting the x-rays done without much fuss, or having to keep after the horse and possibly getting rougher because the horse is too antsy and then maybe not even getting a clear picture that’s needed to treat the problem?”
Do What’s Best for Your Horse
When it comes to the decision to sedate or not, as with anything else related to your horse’s care, you want to trust your vet and be able to express your concerns so that you can work together to make sure your horse gets the care it needs and stays as happy as possible.
“If you have a team working on your horses for a long period of time, you all need to trust and listen and be respectful of what the other has to say. I have had the same vet for over twenty years and have full faith in them, as I do with my farriers, equine dentists, etc. But sometimes, for example if you are traveling, you end up having to use someone you don’t know well. You might not be as comfortable, and lines of communication may not be as clear. Then there’s a possibility that misunderstandings may arise.” Remember, this is your horse, and it’s ok to want to be extra careful, so you shouldn’t be hesitant to communicate anything that might be bothering you or that you are uncomfortable with.
Margie concludes, “We should all be trying to work together as a team, to always do what’s best for the horse.”