As well as many of my colleagues, the equine veterinarians, I have to deal with the uncooperative patient from time to time. It seems to me that there must be some rule according to which we are called to such patients at the end of a very long working day or after a busy night shift. 😉
The scale of the unwanted behaviour of horse patients varies. Some horses never pass the border of what I call “mild disagreement” expressed by turning their head away from a human, rising their head or stepping away). In other horses, unwanted behaviour gradually escalates. Some horses might react aggressively or might try to save themselves by running over everything and everyone that comes in their way.
Of course, many of the veterinary procedures are perceived as unpleasant or painful stimuli by the horses. But according to my experience, pain or discomfort are not the only stimuli that elicit horses’ aversive responses to the medical procedures.
Most of the dangerous responses I’ve seen in the horse patients were actually learned (trained!) behaviours. The learning process happens continuously during the life of an individual – so it goes on also during the vet visit.
Of course, the primary aim of vet care is not in training a horse but by making tiny changes in our approach we can a lot for prevention of the unwanted behaviour of a horse patient.
I am one of the vets who recruited from the ranks of horse girls. Basically, I’ve been working with horses for most of my life. I’ve seen various kinds of unwanted responses unintentionally trained in ridden horses. Their (new) owners were very keen on changing this behaviour. On the other hand, usually, nobody cared about the fact that the horse showed dangerous behaviour in association with veterinary care.
Several years ago I fell in love with the science of animal training. I became fascinated by learning theory, specifically by using operant conditioning. It was like discovering the unexplored land of communication with my pets. I perceive this moment as the beginning of change.
Thenceforth, I‘ve read many books, dozens of articles and studies, I’ve been attending seminars, workshops and online courses with animal trainers, I’ve been online watching astonishing ZOO animals training all over the world.
Obviously, what still fascinates me the most, is the veterinary and husbandry training – a cheetah or a tiger voluntarily cooperating for blood sampling, a hyaena trained to give a urine sample on cue, a hippo holding his mouth open for dental care, a dolphin lying still for an abdominal ultrasound…
Having watched wild animal trainers’ achievements, I had many questions in my mind: Why we don‘t use this for routine health care in domestic animals? Because they are domestic? Tamed? Obedient? Not dangerous? Friendly? Easy to restrain?
So why it‘s so often seen, that it‘s impossible (or at least very dangerous) to load a horse (or even a cat!) for transport to the veterinary facility? Why cutting dog‘s nails sometimes looks like a fight between predator and his prey (where is often quite unclear who is who)? Why a horse, normally ridden by children, rears in his stall when he hears a vet speaking behind the corner? Why is another horse impossible to catch when approaching him with wormer? Why doesn‘t he even let you come close enough to put his head collar on?
Asking these questions, one day I found myself facing another one:
Why it‘s not common to work with domestic animals the same professional and systematic way?
“Teaching horses to cooperate during the health care? What? Oh, please, that‘s ridiculous… Who has the time for this? Do you? It’s always easier to use some kind of intimidation (hidden in words like respect, personal space, leadership or alfa, of course) restraint or sedation instead. And the animals don‘t have the brain capacity to get it anyway.”
But in my opinion, there is no time for fighting the patients either…
After I’ve learned so much (now I know it was actually very few 😉 ) about science-based animal handling and training, I couldn’t work with my patients in the same way anymore. It would be like giving them a medicine about which I knew it was not the best option but it was proven to “always work well”.
Well, then I started to think about what behaviours did I reinforce with my approach and how to change it to teach horses the right responses and to make the healthcare less stressful. At the beginning of my new route, I was often seen as the crazy one who does something between horse whispering and some kind of strange horsemanship. 😀
But soon I started to have amazing results!
By connecting the non-aversive animal training with the medical care we have an opportunity to do a big step towards a better human-animal relationship. With just some tiny changes in our behaviour, we can train the horses to do something very important for their health – teach them a few easy tricks that can literally save lives.
Soon I realize that the only way to make a change is to start to speak about my work and educate the horse owners, vets, and other equine professionals. So that’s why I started this project.