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Reasons to start cooperative care with your horse: #2 Changing the associations

Changing the horse’s associations with veterinarians or with specific procedures or circumstances – this is another advantage that practicing cooperative care can bring us. In this article, I will focus on how these associations are made, how they work, and how they affect the horse patient’s behaviour and well-being.

Do you like going to your dentist? How does it feel when you sit in the waiting room and you can hear what’s going on in the office? If you don’t mind going to the dentist, you probably feel OK even if you would rather be somewhere else. If you have healthy teeth, you may like visiting your dentist because you want to hear him saying something like: “I don’t see such beautiful teeth very often!”

However, if the dentist’s office scares you more than the worst nightmare, the feeling in your stomach now whispers to you: “Run! Nobody is holding you here. You still have a chance to save your life!”

The difference between you feeling like “that’s OK,” or “you’re gonna die” is in the experience you have once made in a similar situation – probably when you were a child. And it could be really just one experience when you’ve associated the dentist’s office with pain, fear, or both. This experience now influences how you feel when you are sitting in your dentist’s waiting room or when you look at your diary on Monday and you see that you have to see your dentist on Friday.

The power of associations

As I wrote above, the difference between the human who is completely calm when sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, and the human who is terrified to death is their previous experience.

The first one probably has healthy teeth and all of their previous experience at the dentist was nice. The second one may have some problems with their teeth or may have had undergone a painful procedure. That’s why their experience is influenced by pain.

In horses as well as in other living being, the associations work the same way.

Making associations

Making associations is one of the types of how we, our horses, and other living beings learn. It’s an involuntary learning process. It means that we don’t have voluntary control over which association are we going to make in which situation. We cannot decide which association we are going to make – whether we are going to like something or not. It just somehow happens to us (and our horses). It’s not a matter of rational thinking and reasoning.

Imagine you are a small child sitting in the dentist’s chair for the first time. The dentist is checking your teeth and you immediately know whether it is unpleasant, painful, fun, or “not a big deal”. You also know whether you are afraid (and how much) or not. This is valuable information your body provides you with to keep you away from danger. You can react according to this information even before it reaches the part of the brain that enables you to think about it.

There is one more important thing happening on this level. If you feel fear or pain in a specific situation, your brain starts connecting these two things. It’s called classical conditioning. It works the same way also for positive feelings but these are not very common for the horses to feel during most of the veterinary procedures.

If you feel fear, or if something painful happens to you in the presence of the person in a white coat (which happens quite often in hospitals), you associate these unpleasant feelings with the white coat. Or with the hospital. Or with the smell of the disinfection. Or with the syringe. And so on… When you see the white coat, or when you smell the disinfection the next time, your brain starts pumping the stress hormones into your circulation to get you ready for saving your life.

This is actually a recognized diagnosis called the white coat syndrome. Seeing a person in a white coat has been proven to trigger fear in these individuals. This fear originated in the associations they have previously made with persons in white coats.

It has been described in humans and in dogs. Even if most of the domestic animals don’t see as many colours as we do, white colour is easily recognizable for them and it appears to be somehow irritant. That’s why in many of the small animal clinic, the personnel changed their dress code.

Among equine veterinary practitioners, almost no one wears a white lab coat. We prefer something more comfortable and practical. However, in horses, we can also see their own type of the white coat syndrome.

Many horse owners think that it’s the smell of the disinfectant that tells their horses that the strange person is a vet. But in fact, it can be anything. Horses may associate any movement, touch, noise, smell, or object with an unpleasant veterinary procedure. Even a certain way of manipulation or restraint can inform the horse about what is going to happen.

Now, imagine that a caretaker who feeds the horses every day wears a white coat (or a stethoscope or they smell like a disinfectant). What association would the horses make? Every time they see the person, they get their meal. They would very soon associate this typical vet-related gear with food, and they would greet that person with joyful whinnys! And this is what I meant by “changing the horse’s associations with the veterinarian”.

Changing the horse’s associations

There are more ways of how we can make the veterinarian’s visit less stressful for our horses, and how we can change their associations with the veterinarian, or the procedure. The easiest thing is to use food rewards. To add some treats into treatment so that the horse associates the procedure with the opportunity to earn rewards.

There are more ways of how food can be used:

  • As a distraction, so that the horse concentrate on eating food rather than on the procedure
  • As a mean of reinforcing the desired behaviour (positive reinforcement) when we teach our horses to cooperate (cooperative care is based on positive reinforcement training)

What happens somehow “along the way” is that the horse starts associating food (and pleasant feelings connected to eating) with his environment which is:

  • The time, and place where the procedure is held
  • The owner, the veterinarian, and other people who assist
  • The smell of the disinfectant
  • The stethoscope and other vet-related objects

Because of this the horse’s associations, emotional state, and finally his behavioural responses start changing. This process is called counter-conditioning. It can be used intentionally when we want our horse to stop being afraid of something. But it also happens as a “side effect” of cooperative care when the horse associates a veterinarian or a procedure with food instead of fear.

When done correctly, the horse no longer perceives a person of a vet or a certain procedure as a source of fear but as an opportunity to earn a reward.

"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 >