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How to easily get along with an equine patient

Tired fighting with non-compliant horse patients but not so much interested in diving into the behaviour modification problematics? Here I have a few easy tips for you how to get along with horse patients safely and effectively without eliciting a defensive response.

Although the biggest responsibility for horse behaviour lies on his owner, this article is addressed primarily to the vets, veterinary technicians, and other professionals.

Horse behaviour and learning theory for practice

OK, at the beginning of this post I wrote that it would be also for those of you who are not so much into the science-based training but basal knowledge of these principles is simply the alpha and omega. It is essential to know how the natural learning processes of the horse work and how to use them in practice so that they would work FOR you and not AGAINST you.

We, the vets, have got a thorough education in medicine. During our studies and then, for the rest of our careers, we read plenty of books and scientific papers to keep our knowledge up-to-date. Not many of us, though, have deeper knowledge in the field of learning-theory, science-based training or handling equine patients. These topics are still considered to be the domain of behaviourists and trainers only and their importance in daily work with horses tends to be overlooked by many vets.

Misunderstanding the equine body language as well as lack of skills in handling a potentially difficult patient can lead to conflict situations and often also to injuries. This is why I put together the most important information about how to get along with an equine patient in a smart way.

THERE IS SO MUCH THE HORSE LEARNS FROM A SINGLE SHORT VETERINARY VISIT!

3 things to be aware of

To make your daily work with your horse patients easier and safer start with being aware of the following three things:

  • Horse’s emotional state (stress and tension vs. calmness and relaxation)
  • Preventing the avoidance behaviour (not to teach the horse to avoid the procedure)
  • Shaping the right behaviour (elicit and reinforce the correct response)

1. Horse’s emotional state

Don’t forget that you deal with a horse who will always react as a horse. Concentrate on a whole animal, not just on the health problem.

Horse body language can provide you with a very valuable information according to which you can predict the horse’s next behaviour. Be aware of any signs of fear like high head position, snorting, increased muscle tension, decreased blinking of the eyelids, increased respiratory rate or trembling.

The healthcare is always safer and easier when the horse is relaxed. You can actually do a lot for helping your patient relax:

  • Calm down yourself and slow your movements
  • Retreat a few steps and continue with the procedure less offensively if the horse is too frightened
  • Take a short break and small-talk to the owner (this is a great way to relieve stress in both the owner and the horse)

2. Preventing the avoidance behaviour

Many of the vet procedures are perceived by horses as unpleasant or painful stimuli which the animals try to avoid. It depends on the horse’s temperament, experience and level of stress, how intensive the avoidance behaviour will be. When the stress threshold is reached (see the post about low-stress approach), it can even progress in the instinctive flight response which can be really dangerous.

How to approach the horse

Start to think about and prevent potential avoidance behaviour as soon as you are about to approach the horse.

The safest direction to approach the horse is usually from the side, at the level of his shoulder joint. This part of the horse’s body is sort of a balance point – your approach most probably doesn’t cause any forward or backward movement of the horse. Gently touch the horse’s shoulder area, give him a scratch at the withers, and if the horse remains calm, retreat a step or two and wait for 2-3 seconds. This is a great way to start every veterinary procedure.

Scratching the horse’s withers simulates the mutual care of horses in the herd. It has been proven to lower the horse’s heart rate and calm him down.

3. Shaping the right behaviour

Be more PROactive and less REactive

Don’t wait how the horse will react to the examination or procedure. Don’t take the patient’s initial compliance as a guarantee of success. I’m sure we’ve all been through dangerous situations that looked  SO EASY at the beginning. Take the action and shape the correct response.

Handling the horses during the vet procedures is more or less about the negative (removal) reinforcement. To avoid the development of unwanted behaviour, it is necessary to be familiar with this principle.

Why is it so important? In my first article as well as in the Free eBook I wrote about the origin of the equine patients’ unwanted behaviour. The most dangerous behaviours I had to deal with, were actually unintentionally trained by the incorrect applying the negative reinforcement.

The intensity of unwanted behaviour not always depends on how much painful the procedure is. Many horses develop serious avoidance behaviour to the deworming, for example. In fact, this is a typical example of unconscious training. If the horse manages to increase the distance between his mouth and the wormer (which is very easy: for the average-sized horse, it’s enough to lift his head up), the behaviour leading to it, is reinforced.

The unwanted behaviour is then usually further reinforced by repeating the same mistakes, accompanied by an increasing level of stress (in both the horse and the human).

Conscious and gentle use of negative reinforcement…

…should be perceived as a minimal standard for the professional handling of the equine patients, in my opinion. It requires as little as realizing what behaviour do we want the horse to perform and then reinforcing that behaviour.

In practice, the target behaviour is usually standing still. So concentrate on reinforcing this behaviour during the procedure. Reinforce it by taking the pressure away for a short amount of time (a few seconds). The owner may not even notice it but for the horse, it is a clear information about what kind of behaviour pays off.

Think in advance: before applying the pressure (starting the procedure) be sure that you will be able to maintain it not to reinforce the unwanted behaviour. So if you know that the horse will lift his head up as you touch his mouth with the wormer, touch his neck first. You don’t lose the contact and you can reinforce the correct behaviour. Then progressively move to the horse’s mouth.

 

What if something goes wrong? Then stop, think, and change your approach – don’t let the horse practice the unwanted behaviour.

REMEMBER THAT IF THE HORSE IS TOO DIFFICULT AND THE INTERACTION WOULD BE TOO DANGEROUS, IT IS OK TO REFUSE TO TREAT THE HORSE OR TO ASK FOR A HELP.

Professional approach to a horse patient not only helps to keep you safe but also contributes to gain your client’s trust. These are not always logical things (like price) what motivate your client to call you next time. According to my personal experience, calm, low-stress and professional handling of a horse is highly valued among the horse owners.

 


Not to settle down with just one quadrant of the operant conditioning, the next article will be about using the positive reinforcement for the equine patients. This article will be released at the beginning of the New Year.

"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 >