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How to Give Medication to Your Horse

By: Ann Compton

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If the thought of administering medication to a recalcitrant child makes you blanch, consider the fun involved in getting a pill down the throat of a 1,000-pound horse - or worse, 10 pills, which is the normal dose of many equine antibiotics.

Even if you haven't had to give your horse a round of antibiotics, chances are you've had to stuff a phenylbutazone - commonly called bute, which is the equivalent of aspirin - in his mouth at some time. It's amazing how long those equine mouths are. Equally amazing is that no matter where in the mouth you place the pill the horse can work it back out – usually spitting it on your clothing - dissolved into mush so it can't be reused.

Over the years, I've experimented with different ways to accomplish this task with an assortment of horses. Somehow, it seems that even my mare, who will eat absolutely anything if it's even remotely near her grain, can smell a bute tablet a mile away. And, no matter how voraciously she devours her food, she can pick around the tablet and eat every other morsel of grain in the bucket, while leaving that little white beacon sitting at the bottom, mocking me.

Initially, I found that slicing a carrot or apple and wedging the pill into a slot carved into the food worked well - but that only lasted about a day.

Next, I mixed the pills with applesauce, which rated only a sniff. Then we tried molasses, corn syrup and sugar. Again, some interest was shown but not enough to get the pills down the hatch. Finally, in desperation, I resorted to the old tried-and-true method of using a syringe to pump the medication into the horse's mouth and hold his jaw shut until he swallowed.

On occasion, however, this has been difficult when the horse decides to lift his nose up to the rafters while you are doggedly holding on. Be brave, eventually you will come down.

Horsekeepers' Pill Secrets

In the meantime, several of my fellow horsekeepers have shared their secrets for getting horses to consume medication. I haven't tried them all, but I will share them on the theory that what works for one may work for another.

  • Unless your vet instructs you otherwise, first dissolve the pill or pills in as little hot water as you need. Then mix the paste you've created with some applesauce. Spoon the concoction into a large syringe, like the kind you use for wormer, and refrigerate until you're ready to use it.

  • When applesauce is not handy, crush the pill into powder, place the powder in a tablespoon, insert the spoon into the horse's mouth and turn the spoon upside down onto his tongue. This is quick and easy but requires a bit of dexterity, so you may want to practice with a little sugar. If you're crushing bute, make sure you don't ingest airborne particles. Several equine catalogs offer small plastic containers designed to crush pills that are effective, safe and handy.

  • If you're administering liquid medication, use an empty, well cleaned, plastic mustard dispenser to ensure that you're getting all of the liquid into the horse's mouth. That's not to say he won't dribble it out the sides of his mouth on you, but at least it's a start.

  • One of my savvy horse friends swears she has a mare who won't eat bute mixed in her own grain, but devours it out of her pasture mate's feed bucket. That would be the Grass-is-Greener syndrome or Stolen Food Tastes Better.

  • Dissolve the pills in strawberry Kool-Aid mix and water. I'm told some horses will slurp this right out of the bowl. Another friend reports that her picky eater loves his medicine if it's mixed with vanilla yogurt.

  • Mix bute with mint-flavored Maalox - in addition to making it easier to administer, the Maalox coats the stomach and helps protect it against the effects of the medication. Mix to a consistency of toothpaste and it will be easier to dispense.

  • Train your horse to accept administration of inocuous substances that taste good by the methods above. In some cases, this will make them less suspicious of medications when the time comes.

    Medication and Feeding Time

    Although most medications can be given at feeding time to take advantage of the horse's desire to eat, notable exceptions exist. Do not give trimethoprim sulfa (a common oral antibiotic) or pyremethamine (commonly used to treat EPM) at feeding, as it will reduce the peak levels and therefore the efficacy of these drugs. They simply bind to feed particles, bypassing the intestines. These antibiotics are given at least one hour before or two hours after feeding. Make a schedule and put it on a board so you have easy reference.

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