Having the vet out for your horse isn’t an ideal scenario. Your horse is hurt, you’re stressed, it’s expensive, and now it’s going to take twice as long because the horse just won’t cooperate. Here’s how you can make the situation better for your horse, your vet, and yourself the next time your horse needs help.

The Problem

A recent study found that 95% of equine vets work with difficult horses at least monthly (Pearson et al, 2020). The kinds of dangerous behaviours they encounter, in order of prevalence, include: bargy or pushy horses; horses that won’t stand still or are needle-shy; head-shy or clipper-shy horses; horses that kick with a hind foot; horses that pull away; and horses that refuse to load. 81% of the vets surveyed had sustained at least one and up to thirty horse behaviour-related injuries in the past five years.

Whose Job is It?

Your vet is the professional, but that doesn’t mean they are going to train your horse to accept veterinary intervention. They need to get their job done, preferably without injury to themselves or further injury to the horse. The vets’ go-to method of getting the job done in this study was chemical restraint, with 99% of the vets placing it at the top of their list of useful restraint methods. Physical restraint came next, with everything from nose and neck twitches to bits, bridles, and holding up a leg (Pearson et al, 2020). Physical restraint can cause undue stress or injury to the horse, sometimes making the intervention even harder next time (McGreevy et al, 2018), and chemical restraint (sedation) can be expensive.

Unfortunately, methods of behaviour modification such as positive and negative reinforcement and overshadowing that encourage the horse to engage in the process and leave the horse more relaxed and better behaved for the next intervention (McLean, 2008), fell to the bottom of the list (Pearson et al, 2020). Only 7 and 8% of the vets considered negative reinforcement or overshadowing respectively to be very or fairly useful, and 50% considered negative reinforcement to be unhelpful or even useless! 67% had never heard of or did not understand overshadowing.

Clearly, if your vet is to find your horse a pleasure to work with rather than the cause of yet another injury, there is some work to do. It starts with how horses learn.

Your Part of The Solution

A horse is said to be under ‘stimulus control’ when the handler’s cues are responded to consistently, regardless of what is happening in the environment (McGreevy, 2010). Impossible, you say. Horses are horses. Stimulus control in a familiar environment is certainly possible, however, and with further training in different contexts, it becomes easier to control the horse even in a new or frightening situation, because the training is more consolidated. If, on the other hand, there is no training and the horse simply follows the handler if he feels like it, there is no base to fall back on when it is needed, such as in an emergency situation.

Applying learning theory to your horse’s ground training (and ridden training too) will create a horse that can calmly and promptly respond to light pressure cues, preventing some of the most common behaviours that veterinarians come up against, particularly barging, not standing, kicking, pulling away, and refusing to load.

The other common difficult behaviours are linked to a stimulus, like a needle, the clippers, or a trailer and are often found only in a veterinary context. These are the behaviours where overshadowing and combined reinforcement are most useful, provided the handler and veterinarian know how to apply them. Becoming familiar yourself with how your horse learns will set you up to be able to train him consistently so the foundation is there when you need it.

Your Vet’s Part of the Solution

There was an association seen in the study between the vet’s years of experience and the prevalence of unwanted behaviour he met with. More than half of the unwanted behaviours reduced in frequency based on the vet’s increasing experience. There are a few potential reasons for this.

First, more experienced vets have learned the hard way which handling methods tend to work safely and which do not (Pearson et al, 2020). These vets essentially learn about learning theory on the job. A second reason may be an increased willingness to turn to restraint methods earlier in the visit. Finally, vets consistently experiencing dangerous behaviours from their patients may leave the equine sector.

Gaining experience comes from being willing to learn. Once you’ve done your part in training your horse and learning about how you can help your horse learn and behave using learning theory, share with your vet. Although 79% of the surveyed vets thought they had a decent understanding of learning theory, only 10% were able to answer 5 out of the 6 test questions correctly. 46% reported receiving no training in learning theory (Pearson et al, 2020).

So, take your horse’s part. Instead of allowing potentially damaging physical restraint like an ear twitch for an injection, ask if you could use a page from learning theory’s book instead. Explain the method you’d like to use, and demonstrate your part if possible to show the horse can do it and you can handle it safely. 

Being an advocate for proper understanding and use of the horse’s learning processes can only help to create a positive experience for you, your vet, and your horse.

References

McGreevy, P and McLean, A. (2010) Equitation Science, Wiley- Blackwell, Oxon. 

McGreevy, P., Berger, J., de Brauwere, N., Doherty, O., Harrison, A., Fiedler, J., Jones, C., McDonnell, S., McLean, A., Nakonechny, L., Nicol, C., Preshaw, L., Thomson, P., Tzioumis, V., Webster, J., Wolfensohn, S., Yeates, J., Jones, B., 2018. Using the five domains model to assess the adverse impacts of husbandry, veterinary, and equitation interventions on horse welfare. Animals 8, 41.

McLean, A. (2008) Overshadowing: A Silver Lining to a Dark Cloud in Horse Training. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 11:3, 236-248.

Pearson, G; Reardon, R; Keen, J; and Waran, N. (2020) Difficult horses—prevalence, approaches to management of and understanding of how they develop by equine veterinarians. Equine Veterinary Education. Open access: doi: 10.1111/eve.13354

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