• David Jefferson

Zimmy stood on cross ties in the alley of the barn, a flap of skin hanging down from his right knee.

“Looks like you were right, he needs some sutures. I’ll go back to the truck and get the surgery kit and some clippers.”

“Well,” snorted Sandy, “you can forget the clippers. He’s scared to death of them. I’ve never been able to get close to him with clippers running.”

“ I was going to tranquilize him first…”

“We tried that once. We TQ’d him, and he did relax, but when the clippers turned on, his head popped up, he took off, and dragged me down the aisle!”

I decided not to fight that battle and left the clippers in the truck. It must have been the noise of the clippers that bothered Zimmy because he was OK with my using curved scissors to cut the hair around the wound and being stitched back together. The episode got me thinking about horses I have known that were terrified about different things. I’ve seen many turned around with good training, and I believe that if you are willing to spend some time you can lick some of these gremlins.

Let me tell you about something I witnessed many times at the old Lewiston Raceway. Today the fairground is a neatly laid out industrial park housing businesses. From the 1800’s until around the late 1980’s there were over 100 racing standardbreds stabled on these grounds year round. They were housed in over a dozen barns on the “backside” of the track. None of the barns were fancy.

The most rickety barns in the fairgrounds were right next to the railroad tracks that ran along the east side of the property. The tracks are set high on an embankment 8 feet above ground level. The old yellow barn was 80 feet long and contained about ten stalls. The long barn was nestled at the foot of the embankment so that the tracks literally loomed over the barn. There was a dutch door to each stall. The top door was always open so the horses could look out and get some air. The back and sides of the stalls had no windows.

Picture with me what happened when a new horse was introduced to his stall in that old barn. After being led in and released, he would sniff at the bedding, circle the stall a few times, and eventually stick his head out the top of the dutch door. Good view of the race track with all the horses being jogged. No problem. No stress. That is, until the first freight train came through.

Remember, that barn was set right against the embankment, and our horse’s head is just a few feet from the train track itself. The first sound was the piercing whistle that was blown just as the train reached the railroad bridge that spanned Main Street. Next were the deep throbbing diesels of the 2 or 3 locomotives hooked together. Finally came the real noise makers, two hundred empty freight cars rattling their way up to Aroostook county to get filled with potatoes. When you hear a train from a quarter of a mile away, it’s a pleasant clickety clack. When it passes just feet from your head, it’s more like BANGETY SLAM, and there are all the other noises: squealing brakes, clanging chains and the cars banging back and forth on their couplings. The old barn literally shook when a train went through. Horses housed there had their backs to the track and couldn’t see the train. All the noise was coming from behind them, and the new horse in one of those stalls was always terrified. They always reacted by tearing around the small stall and sometimes charging the door.

At Lewiston Raceway the horsemen were mostly raised by horsemen. There was plenty of horse sense on the grounds. It never entered anyone’s head to get in the stall with a freaked out animal to try to calm him down when the uproar started. They knew that that within a week, maybe two, despite all the commotion, the new horse wouldn’t even look up from his hay when a train passed overhead. The old timers were right. The noise was just noise, and the horses’ fight or fight reflex to the commotion finally melted away The scientific name for the process is called habituation, or in everyday language, “getting used to it”, or just “getting over it”.

You may have experienced the same phenomenon if you have been in an indoor riding facility with a metal roof in the winter. When the sun comes out and the snow starts to slide, there is a thunderous roar that keeps coming. Horses not used to it often go a little crazy. Some horses never do get over it because it’s not a daily occurrence. For solid habituation to occur there needs to be a flooding, or a more constant stimulus.

Back to Sandy’s horse Zimmy who couldn’t put up with clippers. I learned a lot from Art Wilding of Sabattus. Art had a way with horses, and I miss his common sense approach. I was in his barn late one afternoon. As I arrived, Art had just put a new horse in for training on cross ties. Art’s intent was to clip him. He turned the clippers on when he was a good 12 feet away and walked slowly toward the horse, talking softly. Yikes! Rattlesnake?? The horse’s eyes bugged wide, and then he wasn’t on the ties anymore. Art walked to the end of the barn where the horse was trembling, with the broken chains dangling from his halter.

“Whoops, new experience for you, huh? Guess you’ve never been clipped. ”

Art led him to his stall and let him go. He then plugged the clippers in an outlet near the stall door, and as they were running, ran them through the bars in the stall wall so they hung inside, chattering away. The horse ran to the opposite wall and shook. Then Art turned off the lights in the barn and said, “He’ll learn that they may be noisy, but they won’t hurt him.” We left the barn. Art always claimed that horses learn best if they train themselves. He told me later that when he did night check a few hours later, the horse was completely at ease with the clippers running. The next day, with his usual patience, Art was able to clip the horse who never objected again.

Another trainer that I have always admired is Jenny Wells of Wales. I was at her barn a few years ago and heard a commotion outside. She had taken a willful mare in for training. One of this mare’s tricks was to pull back on cross ties until they broke and then it would be:

“OK! Free again. Works every time! All I have to do is pull back!“

Whoops, not in Jenny’s barn! Jenny, like Art, liked to let them train themselves if possible. For a puller she used what her clients call “The Naughty Tree.” There is a chain wrapped around the trunk of a stout tree several feet up. A strong lead is run from the horse’s rope halter to that chain on the tree. In the lead she had built in an emergency release in case the mare went down. The tree was a lot less yielding than we would be and far more patient. Jenny watched from the barn as the mare tried all her tricks to get free. The second the mare relaxed, the tree stopped pulling. She was literally teaching herself not to pull back when tied.

The point of these stories is that horses can and will get used to about anything. Most fears can be eliminated by exposure. The exposure has to be long and often intense. Of course, there are days when you don’t have the time to do this kind of work, but if it is at all possible, plan it so that the horse is doing the training. Rewards (the release) that way are immediate.

The art and science of habituation is fascinating, and as an equine vet I deeply appreciated being around and working on animals that were well and thoughtfully trained.


  • David Jefferson

During America’s early days, from the first settlers to around 1900, horses were the power that transported us, tilled our fields, and pulled the wagons that brought us goods. Knowledge about horse care was handed down through families. Many of the traditions and remedies have survived. Some are solid. Some are silly.

The first that comes to mind is how everyone, worldwide, is taught to approach and mount horses from their left side. Coming at them from the right would have worked equally well, but the left side is what horses are used to. Because they are creatures of habit, even more than us, this is a tradition that makes sense. A horse approached from the right is apt to shy. Imagine having to approach your dog only from one side. Dogs are more like, “whatever, let’s just play!”

There was a Standardbred racetrack in Lewiston, Maine, until the late 1980’s. It was there that I was first exposed to some of the old horse superstitions. I remember Charlie’s barn in which there was a big bulb of whole garlic nailed to the wall in each horse stall. I asked him about it. The old horseman replied that it kept shipping fever away. I asked how he knew that. “My father always did it, and it’s always worked for me.” When I suggested vaccinating his horses for flu, to keep his horses healthy, Charlie scoffed. End of discussion.

At that same track I learned another thing not taught in vet school. In the racing community there is a prejudice about horses with white feet. The saying I used to hear in Standardbred circles was:

One white foot try ‘em.

Two white feet deny ‘em.

Three white feet, feed ‘em to the crows.

There are a number of variations on that ditty to be found online. It is interesting that in some breeds like the American Saddlebred and the Clydesdale, white legs and feet are desirable because they make those horses flashy. True confession: in my years of practice, it really did seem like a white foot on a horse was more subject to the bacterial condition of feet called gravel. Just sayin’… I have no numbers to back that up.

Over 40 years ago I visited a classmate who was a Thoroughbred race track vet in New York. His daily calls included working the backside at Belmont Park. One day I accompanied him on his rounds at that famous track. I was surprised at some of the old traditions that are deeply set in the Thoroughbred industry. For example, when Standardbreds are to be groomed and harnessed, they are always taken out of their stalls. On Thoroughbred tracks all horse preparation is done in the stalls. The horses are secured by a light chain that runs from their halter to an eye bolt screwed into the back wall. Administering medications, grooming, and any fussing with them is never, ever done on the barn floor. When I asked a trainer why they didn’t take them out and cross tie them in the barn alley way like trainers and grooms of other breeds, he was amazed.

“Why, that would break their spirit!” If I asked the same question today I’ll bet today any horseman on that track would say the same thing. Old ideas die hard.

There are a variety of liniments available for horses’ legs. They fill the tack trunks of every race stable in the country. Most of the liniments have secret formulas, but almost all contain some iodine. It makes the liniments dark and pungent. The idea behind liniments is to increase the circulation to the legs. I often saw owners rub liniment on a newly injured leg. I never understood why anyone would put something warming on an already hot leg. It’s like throwing gasoline on a fire. The thing to do for any acute leg injury in horses and people is lots of ice or cold water for a few days to cool things down. Then the liniments can do their job.

I remember some of the old timers on the track putting a slab of raw steak on a swollen leg and securing it with a leg wrap for 24 hours. It always seemed like a waste of good meat to me. I was never convinced that it did much except attract flies.

Curious horses are apt to get porcupine quills right on the sensitive end of their noses. Owners often called me to ask if they should snip the quills to let the air out so they pull easier. That’s an old wives tale which doesn’t help. Quills are hard to pull out because the pointed ends of quills have hundreds of tiny barbs just like those on a fishhook. The quills are hollow, but snipping them doesn’t make it easier to remove them. If there were just a few quills, I’d tell owners to use needle nose pliers to try and pull them. It hurts, and most horses will only put up with so much of that. A nose full of quills usually means a vet visit and some heavy sedation.

Four leaf clovers and horse shoes have been thought to be lucky for hundreds of years. It is a tradition to nail a shoe over entrances. They are commonly seen in horse barns over stall doors. There is some debate as to whether the opening of the shoe should be up or down. Some say up so the luck doesn’t spill out. Others say down so good luck pours out. When a new client was trucking a horse to my place, I always gave our road name and then would say, “turn right when you see the horseshoe on the telephone poll.” I never considered myself superstitious, but I was aware that I nailed that shoe a certain way, and never for a minute considered doing it the other way. That would have been unlucky! You’ll welcome to visit anytime to see which way it’s nailed on.

There has always been interesting lore surrounding horses. Some of the traditions go back centuries. It’s one of the things that made being an equine practitioner such a rich and interesting experience.

  • David Jefferson

Updated: Oct 15

The following is a chapter from Dr J's forthcoming book, hoping to be released sometime at the end of 2021 or early 2022.

Joanie has an active show horse barn in Richmond, Maine. She called me one day, excited about her new purchase. She had just bought a yearling filly online and sight unseen. That’s two uh-ohs. The seller is in Georgia. I told Joanie to be sure the youngster was vaccinated for the common equine respiratory diseases at least two weeks before trucking. Too late. She had already been loaded with 6 others coming from 3 different farms in the Deep South. The truck was on its way to New England. I said, “Joanie, even if she gets off the truck looking healthy, be sure to isolate her from the herd for 2 weeks.”

Joanie called when the filly arrived 3 days later. She said the horse was the picture of health so thought she’d be OK, and she turned her out with her herd. That was the third and biggest uh-oh. Her excitement was overriding her good sense. Love is a funny thing. 24 hours later the filly stopped eating, ran a fever, and a thick nasal discharge began. All of Joanie’s other horses were exposed. Over the next week most of her horses, also unvaccinated, got sick with what turned out to be Strangles. Strangles is an upper respiratory disease of horses that is extremely contagious and although only rarely fatal, it does make horses very sick. It can take weeks for complete healing, and then the animal can still be infective for months beyond. Sounds a little like Covid, doesn’t it? Strangles is a reportable disease, so I was obligated to tell the state veterinarian. The Maine Department of Agriculture put the barn under quarantine until the last sick horse had totally recovered. The barn was shut down for a total of 12 weeks. No horses in. No horses out. No visitors. Total cost to Joanie: several thousand dollars in vet bills and the loss of the year’s show season.

Influenza is another respiratory disease in horses that will spread through barns with unvaccinated animals. Vaccines are also recommended against the mosquito borne encephalitis diseases.

The Covid pandemic of 2020 has lessons to teach us about disease prevention and transmission. Veterinarians are well trained in both. My veterinary career started with dairy cattle. Traditionally cows are housed close to each other. That is true for sheep as well. This causes problems when a contagious disease hits a farm. Social distancing is impossible so health problems spread rapidly. When a bug hits a barn, visitors should be barred and vets who travel from farm to farm have to be extra vigilant to avoid taking it to the next place.

Typical uniform for farm vets is a set of coveralls over regular clothes and rubber boots that come up at least ½ way to the knees. We typically carry a stainless steel pail, a squirt bottle of disinfectant that is effective against bacteria and viruses, and a long handled scrub brush. You learn the dance of scrubbing your boots without taking them off: toes, sides and heels. The sole surfaces are cleaned by balancing on one foot while cleaning the bottom of the other. Any object that carries disease is called a fomite. That includes our clothing, hands, and even our vehicles. No one wants to be a fomite. A vet with a reputation of being casual in moving from farm to farm would be soon out of business. Farm vets typically carry extra sets of clothing and coveralls in their truck and may change a few times in a day. Whenever possible we try to make the call to an affected farm the last one of the day.

When horses are being trucked long distance, I try to persuade owners to have a vet at the farm of origin check them out before they leave and vaccinate them weeks before they depart. Face masks don’t work on animals, so we depend on social distancing. New arrivals should unload in an isolated paddock at least 25 feet from other horses. For a period of 2 weeks disposable gloves should be worn when those animals are fed and handled. Hand washing and boot disinfecting is critical for personnel before returning to the main barn. No visitors are permitted for two weeks, no matter how much an owner wants to show off the new acquisition. Here are are some principals that veterinarians have learned both in school and on the job:

  1. Vaccines that have been properly tested and found effective are amazingly protective. For example, in the large animal world, rabies, tetanus and encephalitis vaccines are close to 100% effective. In people vaccines have virtually eliminated small pox and polio.

  2. There are disinfectants that are 100% effective in sanitizing surfaces against viruses and bacteria. When applied routinely they also slow disease spread.

  3. Almost everything we learned from the Covid pandemic including vaccines and social distancing can be applied to livestock.