Real World- Having to Medicate an Insecure and Defensive Horse

Sometimes there comes a point where we don't have the option to interact with our horses in the "ideal" situation.  Below is an example scenario showing that even under less than ideal circumstances, you can still "help" your horse without making him defensive- and get the job of medicating done.
Hello Sam,

I have a friend who speaks fondly of your experience and your approach with horses. So I am hoping you can help me. Currently I have a horse with infectious conjunctivitis (sp?) aka Pink Eye. He is not trained and rather strong willed but well natured and wants to please we just don’t seem to be able to communicate with each other.
I am currently trying to get medicine in his eye and he is refusing, so far he has been backing up, turns his head or throws his head really high. This is not my preference but his eye is pretty bad and I have to get this medicine in his eye, I think he has already lost his sight.

Here is what we have tried to get him to succumb. Twine under the lip, unsuccessful lip twitch (Romeo knew what that was and refused altogether) I am worried I pushing him too hard. So we stopped asking our neighbors for help and I am just trying to get him to relax and trust me, again. Not going well, so now that I am well aware of the fact I have truly screwed this whole thing up I don’t know what to do. Tonight he was a little sheepish avoiding me (I think he is mad at me) and he back himself into the corner of his stall (it surprised me, he actually looked rather defeated). Fortunately, he did finally let me pet him, brush him and rub my hands on his face.
If you have any suggestions or ideas that will help me I would really appreciate your feedback.

Romeo is 5 years he has not been broken, I bought him year ago, with big dreams of breaking him myself and training him. He was a rescue horse that was left in a stall to starve when the owner abandoned the home.

I have to say “my bad” I got caught up in the whole childhood “Black Beauty” fantasy, only to realize at 41 truth of the matter it is a much bigger project requiring someone who is much more trained than me. He is a bright strong willed horse with a real sweet side. Unfortunately, I am the only one who sees it. I truly believe he has so much untapped potential.Thanks M

 Sam's Response:
Hi there… I’m sorry to hear of your/your horse’s situation. Sadly it’s become very common - the person falls in love with the blue sky potential of a dream and the horse pays the price. But never the less they are incredibly forgiving and most can “come around.”

You’ve got a lot of stuff to address- without the ideal “take your time” mentality because of his current eye condition. So this will be slightly “crash course” advice rather than the ideal long term. Trying to manhandle your horse into submission won’t work- certainly not if you’re going to try and get any ointment in his eye. The conjunctivitis would have to be really severe to cause blindness- he may also have other issues going on. I’m not sure if you’ve had a vet’s opinion- although Yuma is lacking for any quality equine vets- there is a clinic in El Centro that brings in good vets from San Diego once a month. If you’re looking to physically help the horse you want to be sure you’re aware of all possible health issues. Starvation and lack of nutrition in horses can have very long term affects depending on the severity of the situation.

Number one thing you’re going to have to attempt is recognizing pressure. There is spatial pressure and there is physical pressure. Right now I’m sure your horse has only been around physical pressure- holding on to the lead rope, rubbing on him, etc. Just as people like personal space, so do horses. I would start of with desensitizing “101” by having a halter and lead rope on him- leading him around, stopping, rubbing on whatever body part he presents- (head, side of face, under jaw, neck near head, etc.) and as soon as it seems to feel good, walk off and let him follow you. Too many times people “love” their horses and hover around them, constantly touching and “harassing” them and it drives the horse nuts. The length of the time you are rubbing him may start off at 3 seconds or less. As he shows signs of becoming more relaxed to your touch, you’ll touch him slowly increasing how long you’re rubbing on him before you walk off. I’m sure right now he’s pretty convinced that when you’re handling him it’s to do something that makes him uncomfortable, and therefore he acts defensive towards you to avoid having his eye messed with.

I also have a feeling a “pattern” has emerged in how you interact with him and how he responds to you. Horses are great people trainers. You’re going to have to establish that when you do something, it means something. Like when leading him with the rope, if you walk off, he should be right with you. If you halt, his feet should stop as soon as yours do. Too many times horses have a “teenager” attitude and only offer the bare minimum and people accept that. Until a situation like trying to get eye ointment on arises, people don’t see the “holes” in the level of respect or lack of from their horse towards themselves.

You’re going to have spend multiple short periods daily (3 to 4 minutes or less to start in each session with him) catching your horse, rubbing on him and then turning him loose again, because you’re going to have to re-establish you’re not catching him ONLY to medicate him. You’re going to need to establish being able to rub with your hand and rag ALL over his face, neck, etc. without him trying to “slam” you with his head, knock you away, or flee from the “pressure” of your hand touching him. You’re going to need to establish him yielding to the pressure of the lead rope. If you draw it towards you, he should follow the pressure of the rope, as soon as he does, you should be releasing the pressure the rope is causing, to show him you’ve acknowledged his effort. You’re going to need to establish if you draw his brain (and head) towards your left or right, he needs to lightly turn his head towards or away from you… If you send a “feel” down the rope (having the line ripple until the snap under his chin pops him the jaw) he needs to stop immediately what he’s doing.

All of these tools you’re going to need to get ointment in his eye. Because every time he tries to avoid you- you’re going to have to have multiple “tools” of communication that MEAN something to him, in order to address what he comes up with as an “alternative” to when you’re trying to medicate. After he runs through his “options” and you’ve addressed each one, he’ll finally stand and let you medicate him. Again, by the time he’s reached this point of being pretty confirmed that being around you means discomfort and stress, it’s going to take a bit to “undo” that mentality and build trust so that he can stand quietly for you. Short and multiple sessions of working with him- not hour long “harassment.” You want your horse to want to participate. Remember, always end on a good note- if your horse “tries” you MUST acknowledge it by leaving him alone. Too many times a horse finally “tries” for a person, and then the person takes advantage of the effort and demands more from the horse.

Good Luck,
Horse Owner's Response:


I just wanted to give you a progress report as to how Romeo and I are getting along and the small steps I have been taking to re-establishing trust. Early this morning when I cleaned his stall I just gave him his space and feed him. He pretty much avoided me like the plague. However, after I finished with all of the horses I headed up to the house and returned about 30 minutes later to see how he was doing, fortunately, he came to the fence and let me tickle his nose and pet the left side of his face I let it go at that and left the area again. I returned again and this time walked into his stall with a halter he walked to the other end of the stall. I decided to approach he didn’t move or refuse so I haltered him we walked the field and worked on some basic commands, he was receptive. I remained only on his left side since he is very cautious of his right side. After a little while, I did push a little bit, (because time is an issue in this scenario) I tied him to the tree so I could give him a bath. He seemed receptive, I started on the left and gradually worked my way to the right, at first he was very leery and defensive then he realized this was a good moment. I am not sure he truly relaxed but it was a turning point. After he was done with his bath I rewarded him by letting him pasture for awhile and return to his stall on his own. I gave him his space.

A couple hours later I returned again, casually waiting outside his stall for him to approach to be scratched this time I didn’t have to wait so long. I gave him some affection and then moved on by using this opportunity to give my other horse a bath and check her eyes (so far so good – knock on wood). As I returned to my stock area I would take a few minutes to pet and scratch Romeo, after a few trips I could rub my hands on the right side of the face but only for a few seconds. After about an hour of grooming and cleaning Chelsea I wanted to try haltering Romeo again, so I entered Romeo’s stall he returned to far end of his stall this time I didn’t follow instead I stood, halter in hand waiting patiently for Romeo to come to me. He was puzzled but came forward cautiously trying to figure out what I was up to. I just waited until his head was practically in my chest ready for me to halter him. At this point, I placed the halter on his and we simply walked around then tied him up in his stall. This time I applied fly spray using a cloth so I had to touch his body with a cloth and my hands. The sound from the spray bottle made him a little uneasy but I backed off and let him think about it when he took a step toward me and leaned in I continued. He was fine at this point. When I removed the halter he followed me wanting more affection.

We have not attempted the medicine, however I was able to wash his eye and I figured I could attempt some medicine on a cloth tomorrow and see how reacts. I figured after three days of fighting he deserved a break. I am sure medically this may have been a bad decision but we were getting nowhere and relations were taking a drastic nose dive, so I made judgment call. If you have any suggestions beyond your prior advice or believe I am missing the point I would appreciate your feedback especially before I return to the scene of the crime.

Again, I really appreciate your feedback.
M and Romeo

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