You may have heard about cooperative care being practiced in ZOOs, veterinary clinics, and also being practiced by the dog, cat, and horse owners. You may have seen some videos or read some articles about cooperative care. But you may be still wondering WHY to practice cooperative care with your horse(s). What are the key benefits… So, let’s have a closer look a this!
This is my number one reason for practicing, teaching, and promoting the use of cooperative care with horses.
When working with horses, your own safety always comes first. It doesn’t matter if you are riding, working from the ground, or caring for a horse patient. You should always do your best to keep yourself safe.
I’ve been teaching an Equine First Aid Course for a couple of years. I taught riders, horse owners, breeders, and other horse people how to handle the most common equine emergencies, and how to be prepared. Here’s one thing I have been repeating many times during this 2-day event: “Always do your best to keep yourself (and other people who help you) safe. How do you think you can help the horse if you get injured when trying to rescue him?”
This applies not just to equine emergencies. For handling a dangerous horse patient, it is true as well. How do you think you can help the horse if you get hurt during the procedure. Especially if you were the only one who was able to handle the horse somehow…
Many of the dangerous situations could be prevented if the horse knew what to do, how to behave, and that no one wants to hurt him. In other words – if the horse was ready. If he has been taught to cooperate during the most common procedures or, at least, to tolerate them.
Cooperative veterinary and husbandry care is a complex approach aiming for reducing the animal patient’s stress. The level of stress not only affects the animal’s well-being but also has a big impact on the overall safety of the human-animal interaction.
One thing that makes working with horses particularly dangerous, is their flight response – their readiness to run whenever they perceive danger. It is one of the survival strategies that is deeply rooted in their genes. Horses evolved as prey animals in large open areas where the best strategy to survive was to escape the predators (and other types of danger) by running away.
Even if horses have been domesticated, and selectively bred for thousands of years, and some of their behavioural traits have changed, the flight response was not fully extinguished. It is because the flight response and other survival strategies are ruled by the part of the brain that can’t really learn.
For that reason, horses never get rid of their flight response completely. In other words – we always have to count on the fact that a scared horse will want to run away.
The higher the stress level, the more intensive the flight response. It doesn’t always look like in the picture above. The horse can just take several steps away from the threat which is enough for him to feel safe again. If this happens during a veterinary procedure, and we keep on approaching the horse in the same way, his stress level goes up, and his attempts to escape become more and more intense.
If the horse doesn’t have time to calm down, his stress level doesn’t have a chance to drop. Then adding just a little bit of stress on top of this may result in the horse exploding “out of the blue”. This is called trigger stacking. It happens quite often during veterinary procedures because there are usually more stressors that the horse has to deal with.
The horse’s avoidance behaviour or flight response triggered by stress can easily put us, and the horse patient at risk of getting inured. However, stress is not the only reason why dangerous situations emerge.
Another reason is the process of learning. Horses learn all the time. The learning process never stops. It means that they also learn during veterinary procedures.
One of the reason why some horses display dangerous behaviour in specific situations is that they have learned this behaviour. They have found out that this behaviour works, and therefore it’s appropriate in this situation.
I’ve met a few horses who reared up immediately after a specific touch on their neck – that type of touch that usually precedes injection. These horses were quite calm (at least at the beginning). They didn’t rear out of being highly stressed. They just performed their perfectly acquired “trick”.
Teaching horses to cooperate, guiding them step-by-step through the procedure so that they know what to do, and have time to relax makes our work way safer.
I don’t think that all of the procedures can be done completely stress-free (especially when they cause some pain to the horse patient). But all of them can be done (and should be done) at the lowest stress level possible.
For the sake of our own safety, as well as our patients’ safety, we should do our best to avoid provoking the flight response in horses. This requires keeping their stress level low. This is where cooperative care can be very helpful because horses can be taught how to behave in specific situations. Horses learn that such situations are safe and that they, in fact, are opportunities to earn rewards.
Cooperative care is the way of helping horses feel safe during veterinary and husbandry procedures. When they feel safe, they don’t feel the need for escaping or fighting back.
When they feel safe, we are safe.
As I wrote earlier in this article, the horses’ stress is not the only thing that contributes to the fact that equine veterinarians’ work is quite risky business. Another one is learning.
According to my experience, horses who have mastered avoidance behaviour by learning and repeating it frequently can be even more difficult to handle than highly stressed horses.
However, these horses can be successfully retrained – and this is where cooperative care training comes to play.
I have documented retraining a needle-shy mare (her problems lasted for several years). I retrained her using positive reinforcement. Most of the training was held at liberty.
At the end of the training, the mare was vaccinated at liberty, and a blood sample was taken from her on a loose lead by another vet. Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of her final vaccination and blood sampling. But from the materials I had, I made a case study. You can find it inside the VetCareTraining Academy.