A Few Tips and Tricks for Giving Oral Medications to Your Horse

Things I learned when I might have been my horse’s least favorite person.

Don’t ever look in the mirror after a late-night or early morning run to the barn to medicate your horse.

That’s what I did shortly after 12:30 a.m. a few weeks ago, when I returned from the barn after giving Happy, my off-Track Thoroughbred, three 60-mL syringes of milk of magnesia.

Yes, the laxative.

Happy had been none-too-pleased about the experience and made sure all 15.3-or-so hands of him were standing … oh, about 17.3. Granted, I was using a bum syringe, and while each of my hands can reach beyond an octave on a piano, using one hand to hold Happy’s head and the other to place and empty the syringe in the far recesses of his mouth proved a special challenge.

The first syringe-full administration went smoothly enough. “What is this concoction you’re about to serve?” his curious and—yes—happy eyes seemed to say.

But repugnance replaced eagerness quicker than you can say “nope.” Suddenly I, the bearer of carrots and planner of excellent riding adventures, was not to be trusted any longer.

Can I blame him, though? Milk of magnesia doesn’t taste so great. I know this because some of it ended up in my mouth. It also ended up in my hair, all over my clothing—pretty much everywhere. That’s what I saw in the mirror late that night/early that morning. I was a walking cautionary tale of how not to administer oral meds to horse.

The good news is I got better at it over three weeks of twice-daily administration of more than 230 mL of liquid medications.

Happy had a rough few weeks. First, he came up very foot sore after a trim and was on stall rest for a few days. The next week he developed a bad fever and what was probably a bacterial overgrowth in the hindgut from the transition (though gradual) back to pasture. We treated it like it might be Potomac horse fever, just in case. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Then, finally (at least I hope this was our last hiccup), he developed a bit of a gas colic. This added up to three-plus weeks of oral medication purgatory that began with flunixin meglumine (Banamine) and ended with metronidazole—which tastes much worse than milk of magnesia—and misoprostol.

Here’s what I learned through this process of convincing an 1,100-pound stall-rested former graded stakes winner (read: resolute, opinionated force of nature–but worthy of all my love):

  • Purchase more than one 60-mL syringe, in case parts go temporarily missing (I lost one plunger in the recesses of a riding boot for a few days).
  • If you’re working with a gallon of milk of magnesia, it’ll soon become difficult to retrieve it with your syringe because of the dropping fluid level. I found that pouring some into the plastic container the syringe comes in provides an easy, mess-free way to retrieve the liquid.
  • Give liquid oral medications before feeding grain, carrots, or grazing. Otherwise, the meds stick to the grain, carrots, or grass and are easier to spit out.
  • Measure out all the meds before you even retrieve the horse for medicating and tuck them somewhere safe and convenient. That way, administration is quick and efficient. As I fumbled with the syringe stallside the first few days, I think Happy’s anticipation of the task and my aversion to it were half the problem in the beginning. (I imagine it’s a lot like watching the dental assistant line up all the drills and such before a root canal.)
  • Recruit a helper if the horse resists. I don’t know about you, but sometimes it doesn’t occur to me to ask for help. When I finally did, the process went much, much more smoothly. I’m indebted to my friend for loaning me her husband to help. A few times he ended up with meds all over him, too.
  • I’ve found that using my left hand to prompt Happy to open his mouth on his right side frees my right hand to place the syringe and administer the drug from the left side of his mouth.

Ultimately, I found the best way to medicate Happy was to put his halter on him nonchalantly in the stall, hang the feed bucket containing his ration—which he inevitably ogled like the food-motivated horse he is—calmly say, “Wait,” then administer the medication. I’d hold his head high for a few seconds before releasing it, scratching him on the withers as he’d dive straight into the feed bucket. Any medication that exited his mouth landed in his feed. This worked well for a horse who is consistent about cleaning up dinner.

By the end of our medication sessions, I didn’t need any help and the process wasn’t a struggle. Granted, at this point I was giving about 20 mLs of fluid containing dissolved misoprostol and not the foul-tasting metronidazole. I could administer the meds in the aisleway, even while also holding his pasture mate, then release Happy into his stall for breakfast.

I’ve noticed now that if I’m out in the aisle, cleaning up or organizing, after Happy’s finished his grain and has turned toward his hay, he watches me very closely in a comically inquisitive way. It’s as if he’s acclimated to the dosing and is checking to see if there’s something else I intend to administer before I leave: “Need to give me meds, Mom? I’ll comply if carrots are involved.”

I assure him: “Not this time, buddy, you’re all good.”

He turns back to his hay and happily munches away.