The first sentence out of keynote speaker Buck Brannaman’s mouth was, “Being a horse vet is a dangerous job.” Well, we in the room are well aware of that! He asked how many people in the room–this is an enormous convention hall and every seat was packed–had been hurt by a horse sometime in their veterinary career. It seemed that every hand in the audience was raised; at least those who didn’t suffer chronic shoulder or arm injuries could raise it. That is pretty sobering. As a horse owner, you may not realize the incredible stress and toll that working on horses all day long takes on your vet and farrier and other members of your health-care team. And, that’s just when the horses behave.

He emphasized that most of what equine vets do is work around a horse’s head and their feet, both particularly dangerous spots to be positioned. We are often aware that owners select their vet based on how well they get along with the horses. But it strikes me that the owners don’t always realize that they have a responsibility to keep things safe not just for themselves but also for those professionals and lay people who work on their horses. Buck emphasized that horses should be prepared to cope with every eventuality. One simple example he gave was to pick up their feet and have the horse hold a foot up for more than four seconds since this is what’s required for a vet to do a proper lameness evaluation. We’re not there just to pick a rock out of a foot; we need to methodically go about evaluating a limb and perform diagnostic tests, as one example of what exercises a horse should be trained to accept. He explained that a horse may do well under normal circumstances but the horse must also be prepared for the unthinkable. It is the owner’s responsibility to have control of the horse and to teach a horse to be controlled.

To back it up a bit, he described a little about some misperceptions of how a horse sees his world. Buck noted, “As much as we humans like to anthropomorphize the animals, horses process things only one way–they do it the way things work in a herd and how they see other horses in the herd.” The big question that is asked and answered (not consciously of course) by a horse is: “Do I move his feet or do I move mine?” This is part of how a herd works out who is boss and sub-boss and this is simply how horses relate to one another. It is the very reason that an alpha horse can keep the herd peaceful and calm without any need to display overt aggression. At least, that’s the case once the dominance order has been established. Sometimes it takes only a few ugly faces by the dominant horse, but sometimes there is a lot of skirmishing in the paddock to work out who is top pony. Once the hierarchy is established, if that lead horse leaves the herd to say, go for a ride with his human, then the lieutenant horses that would take over in his absence will keep the herd in order until he returns. Then he retakes command.

This understanding of horse behavior is critical to understanding how to prepare a horse to be appropriately halter broke, in terms that Buck feels is really halter broke. That isn’t just a person being able to lead a horse from point A to point B. It is far more than that–the ability to get to the horse’s “head” through moving his feet.

I suppose this quest for a good relationship of horse and human isn’t all that much different from the hierarchy established within any human place of business, or in a group of any age people in a social situation. His idea of giving a horse a peaceful place of calm to be isn’t much different than the feeling we humans like to have in our social interactions. It’s not much fun to be tense inside while trying to eat and drink when you’re worried about how you come off to the people around you. Confidence is always a comfort zone, and so, too, it is with animals. So, with this in mind, there really is a joint responsibility between horse owner and vet to be able to give a horse its best chance at health care by having the horse cooperate and tolerate being poked, prodded, and manipulated, even when there is some pain involved. Every horse can become a better citizen with more effort by the horse owner and experience by the horse. A calm, reassuring vet’s hand and demeanor top off the recipe.

Buck Brannaman teaches his insights with patience and concern for the horse. We all have the same objective in mind, no question about it. We thrive on the horse-human interaction and the horses thrive on the security in knowing their person and surrounding people are reliable and consistent with trust-worthy actions. I’ll bet this is how we like to be treated as people, too.

Nancy S. Loving, DVM