Reasons to start cooperative care with your horse: #3 Retraining difficult horses

The third reason why to start practicing cooperative care is, according to my experience, the most common one. It comes to play when the owner realizes that their horse REALLY doesn’t like vets, or specific procedures and that something should be done about it before someone gets injured… In this case, teaching the horse to cooperate instead of defending themself is an effective way out.

“Be careful with this mare, she doesn’t like vets. I don’t know what has happened to her but she must have gone through a very traumatic situation.”

This is what one of my clients said to me when I came to see her mare for the first time. In fact, she was not the only one who has ever said words like this to me. This was one of the reasons why I’ve founded VetCareTraining – an educational project focused on low-stress handling, and cooperative care, where I now share my experience.

Without any doubt, there might have been a traumatic situation at the beginning leading to making negative associations – as I was discussing in the previous article. These problems usually start with the horse experiencing a more or less traumatic event and learning from it. Without any doubt, these associations need to be changed.

However, experiencing a traumatic situation doesn’t have to be the only thing that leads to developing defensive behaviour. Many times, we don’t have the complete history of our horses to be able to say whether there was some kind of conflict or trauma at the beginning. But many times the problem develops without the owner being aware of anything bad happening to their horse.

The truth is that, in many cases, the dangerous behaviour of horses who became extremely difficult to handle during veterinary procedures was actually repeatedly reinforced over a couple of years (yes, years).

These horses were actually unconsciously trained to behave this way. Now they are usually very well sensitized to the subtle signs indicating that the procedure they don’t like is about to be performed. This is why they are high on their stress hormones before the procedure even starts.

This was actually the biggest realization about the non-cooperative equine patients that I had:

The most serious cases where the horses performed really dangerous behaviour were actually results of training. The horses were unconsciously trained to behave this way. Horses never stop learning and adjusting their repertoire of behaviour to the current conditions they live in. It means that during every procedure, we are either training them to cooperate or we are teaching them how to avoid it.

The way out

First of all, I have to say that many owners of non-cooperative horses that I met, didn’t even know that there was something they could do about their horses’ behaviour. The fact that the horse doesn’t like vets was often taken… Well as the fact. So, as the first step, it is really important to realize that the horse’s behaviour can be changed in the majority of the cases.

The way out is to rewrite the horse’s experience (see the previous article about changing the associations – this is the start point because the way the horse feels affects the way they behave) and to teach them more appropriate behaviour. And this is where cooperative care or better to say, reward-based training in general comes into play.

Using force-free reward-based training is a great way of retraining these horses. It is usually not enough just to “give the horse a treat after the injection” when it has come that far. It usually requires proper behaviour modification which needs planning and takes time. The associations must be changed first. Then the horses can be taught the START and STOP signals, and they can be offered an option to earn a reward for voluntary cooperation.

If you are interested to get some more information about how this training looks like in practice, I’d like to invite you to the VetCareTraining Academy. Create an account (it’s free), sign in, and read my case study about retraining a needle-shy mare.

"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 >