Katharine Mertens, DVM

Peer reviewed

In the fall of 2018, a keeper told me that zoo animals are trained to voluntarily participate in as much of their husbandry as possible. This astounded me. Cooperative patients are not necessarily expected in equine medicine, and we’re dealing with highly trained domestic animals.

I already had a sense that horsemanship — specifically, an understanding of equine behavior which promotes greater patient cooperation — was lacking in the equine veterinary profession. Whether the deficit rests more with my professional colleagues or with the clientele paying for care is a discussion for another time. Regardless, humans on both sides of the veterinary transaction stand ready for horses to put up a fuss.

Throughout my career I have routinely used a “neck twitch” (physical restraint via grabbing excess skin on one side of the neck) and a nose twitch (physical restraint via grabbing the horse’s upper lip), and have kicked horses in the belly if they tried to kick me first.

It wasn’t until I began training my own 3-year-old Thoroughbred that I realized such restraint techniques, with or without aggression, were most often unnecessary. As I learned how to train, I paused to consider that equine “misbehavior” probably wasn’t a matter of failed respect in need of a dominating correction, but rather of fear in need of education. I look forward to the day when equine clients feel the same way, and insist that veterinary professionals use restraint-free techniques.

Equine veterinarians may dismiss this goal as prohibitive to both safety and efficiency on the job. Indeed, a 1,200-pound, uncooperative horse can be dangerous; veterinarians, their personnel, and the horses themselves need to be kept safe while procedures get done. Furthermore, the perception that behavior issues take time to address is usually true. Veterinarians arrive on the scene to complete a medical job; we don’t have time to train.

But “fear free” certification didn’t used to be a thing in small animal medicine; now clinics tout such certification as a major marketing tool. With a little education, both veterinarians and clients can come to expect that fear-free equine medicine is possible as well.

Of course, the acutely injured or ill horse is difficult to handle not for lack of training but because of pain. The veterinarian is fantastically trained to provide immediate relief to these patients through pharmaceutical sedation, analgesics, and local or general anesthesia.  And there are times when no amount of horsemanship is going to gain the patient’s cooperation within the time constraints of an exam. The extremely needle-phobic horse, for example, will require more than five minutes of counter-conditioning and desensitization to overcome resistance to injection.  These horses may need to be restrained to allow the veterinarian to complete the task at hand.

But a little behavioral knowledge will help veterinarians determine which animals have behavior issues that are true barriers to the day’s procedure, for whom turning to restraint is justified, and which animals merely need a different approach.  Furthermore, if veterinarians can recognize and explain these differences, they can direct clients towards a therapeutic plan which will help the horse behave more cooperatively at the next visit. Better still, the behaviorally educated veterinarian can prevent husbandry-related misbehavior from developing in the first place.

Once I learned that cooperative care was an expected ideal for non-domestic zoo animals, I was convinced that we could do better with our domestic horses. Let’s consider the hunter-jumper horse who won’t accept their semiannual deworming medication. Defying logic, this horse is written off as “stubborn” because they won’t accept an oral medication. If we can train them to nonchalantly accept a bit in the mouth — not to mention carry a rider, regulate stride, and leap over obstacles in a single bound — then we can train them to accept medication in the mouth as well.

Before training to accept medication

 

After husbandry training

But such horses are dismissed as “stubborn” routinely.  And because they are so dismissed, husbandry training is dismissed, and we get dangerous behaviors. As veterinarians, we get patients for whom an oral antibiotic, for example, is no longer a therapeutic option.

Veterinarians and horse owners need to know that two things are possible: First, that trained animals can choose to cooperate, restraint-free.  Second, that fear-based arousal can be de-escalated quickly.

Soon after learning about positive reinforcement training and targeting, I was asked by a client if I could provide a sedative for their horse’s next farrier appointment. Of course I could. But the farrier appointment was one month away, and I had a new trick up my sleeve.  I asked the client if they’d be willing to learn about target training. If the training was unsuccessful over the next four weeks, I promised, I could provide the sedative medication.

Thus began my four-week adventure with Red, a 15-year-old Quarter Horse of unknown history who came to his new owner with an extreme fear of farriery. I visited once a week for less than an hour each visit, taught the horse and owner how to target, and transferred the targeting skill over to allowing hoof handling. The horse whose rearing and kicking could not be controlled at his last farrier appointment stood with a slack lead rope and ate carrots at the next one. Red learned a skill (give me your hoof) and chose to cooperate.

Thunder, a 19-year-old national show horse taught me how a different handling approach can yield a different horse in the space of a few minutes. With a negative reinforcement-based get-his-respect approach, I repeatedly dreaded the annual vaccination appointment for this horse.  As a warning to myself, my medical record noted, “Horse has NO manners! Will run right over top of you!” Each year I came prepared for a stumbling pas de deux, me with needle and syringe, him with head high and hooves flying.

But then … why not use food treats? When we know better, we do better; by last year I had learned enough about counter-conditioning to see if we could at least slow our dance to a manageable swing. First I gave Thunder a few treats, well-timed with me pinching his neck to mimic the vaccination needle.  When it came time to actually give the injection, I had the owner stand by with treats to deliver on my count of three.  One … two … needle-poke-three. Thunder munched his treats; he didn’t even flinch.

Thunder’s behavior change was dramatic, and maybe not typical. I’ve certainly encountered plenty of horses whose needle aversion is more thoroughly entrenched. But until I saw it in with Thunder, I didn’t know that such behavior change was possible. I had spent a lifetime around horses and graduated with an equine focus from veterinary school, and no one had taught me about restraint-free behavior modification until I met the zookeepers.

I’m doing what I can now to introduce horse owners to the benefits of target training and positive reinforcement, for solving veterinary handling problems. I need to conduct of formal poll of equine veterinarians, first locally and then nationally, to measure the extent to which equine misbehavior negatively impacts our profession. And if the problem is as pervasive as my individual experience would predict, then we have a real opportunity to bring the science of behavior modification beyond the zoo fences, beyond the walls of fear-free-certified small animal hospitals, and into the barns and paddocks of the horses at the center of our world.


Kath Mertens has been in private veterinary practice for 20 years, with 17 years dedicated to equine medicine. She’s delighted to bring the scientific study of animal behavior into the scope of her practice.  Follow the journey at “Horsefeathers Blog” from www.mertensmammals.com