No-restraint equine veterinary care

Using various kinds of restraint techniques has a long history in horse handling and training. Some of them are currently considered unethical, while some of them (like picking a leg, nose twitch, ear twitch, lip chain or taking a pinch of the skin on the neck) are still widely used. The primary purpose, of course, is to make the horse stand still and prevent him from moving away from human.

I don’t deny, there are situations where these restraint techniques are very useful – such as in emergency cases when saving the horse’s life is a priority. According to scientific research, nose twitch, when applied properly and only for a short amount of time, can even reduce horse patient’s stress and it’s assumed that it has a short-acting analgesic effect.

But in routine healthcare, I perceive the restraint quite overused and often misused. Many horses actually develop a defensive reaction to the restraint rather than to the procedure itself. This is one of the reasons why I started to promote low-restraint or no-restraint veterinary care in my practice.

What is no-restraint veterinary care?

Well, it’s not the case of chasing a free horse around the paddock with a wormer… 😉

No-restraint veterinary care, cooperative veterinary care, voluntary veterinary care, etc. – these are all synonyms for the approach which combines the knowledge of animal behaviour and learning theory with the medical care. When done correctly, it helps the patient to relax and it allows him to express two things:

  • No (without having to use aggressive behaviour to stop or delay the procedure)
  • I am ready (with a learned signal for starting the procedure)

Practical examples

In the following videos, there are a few examples of how the low-restraint or no-restraint treatment can be made. It requires a little bit of training in advance (the horse should know more behaviours before the medical behaviour itself can be taught) but it definitely pays off!


Voluntary vaccination

In the first video, the horse is trained for voluntary intramuscular injection.


This technique is based on using the reward-based training and the stationary target. The purpose of the target is:

  • to create an operant behaviour (touching the target brings the reward)
  • start button (in the next step the horse is taught that touching the target starts the procedure)
  • head position (make the target high enough so the horse’s head is in the position where it’s easy to vaccinate the horse or to take a blood sample)


No-restraint eye examination

In this video, the horse learns to participate in his eye examination/treatment. Vision is a very important sense for horses, so many of them are particularly sensitive on the eyes and the area around the eyes. For the horse, to avoid being touched, it’s very easy to lift the head and increase the distance – in other words, lifting the head is easy-to-train avoidance behaviour.


Voluntary worming

In this video, the horse learns to take his wormer/oral medication. Although this procedure is not painful, I’ve seen many horses avoiding it. First, the strange taste of the wormer or oral antibiotics warns the horse to be suspicious about this food, and second, similarly to the eye treatment, for the horse is easy to escape just with lifting his head.


With some horses, the routine medical procedures can be really challenging. Teaching a horse to participate in his own treatment and “making him a part of the team” is a great way to make both the staff and the horse more comfortable.

"Hello! My name is Katerina, I am the equine veterinarian interested in professional and sofisticated animal handling through applied learning theory. I help the horses and their humans go through the medical care in easier, less stressful, more ethical and safer way." Read more >