Behavior and misbehavior of the horse (Proceedings)


For decades after the discipline of psychiatry had been established as an accepted specialty, many medical schools continued to fail to train their students in the fundamentals of this discipline.

For decades after the discipline of psychiatry had been established as an accepted specialty, many medical schools continued to fail to train their students in the fundamentals of this discipline. That situation no longer exists. Medical students all have at least cursory exposure to psychiatric principles and basic psychology.

Unfortunately, the veterinary profession has lagged behind human medicine in the regard. Until recently, veterinary students received no training in animal behavior, and there were no available residencies within our schools for developing board-certified behavioral specialists.

That deficiency has now been corrected. Several North American schools offer residencies in behavior. Some schools still do not have any courses in animal behavior; of those that do, some are elective rather than mandatory. The problem with this is that the students who elect to take a course in behavior are those who least need it. They are already interested in the discipline, and even if they do not receive training as students, they are likely to pursue this interest after graduation and acquire a measure of expertise in it. The disinterested student, on the other hand, needs to be exposed to ethologic principles to become an optimally effective veterinarian.

I have long held the opinion that every veterinary student should be formally trained in rudimentary ethology and that proficiency in basic behavior-shaping methods should be demonstrated in state board examinations before a license to practice is granted. Why?

Each species of animal, including the wild ancestors of our domestic species, adapts to its environment in three ways, or it is doomed to extinction. These three methods of adaptation are anatomic, physiologic, and behavioral. Indeed, behavior is a physiologic function, enabling the species to survive and perpetuate its kind.

Even if the economic foundation of our profession were not companion animal medicine as it is today, I would feel as I do. Even if veterinary medicine were dependent on food animals and draft animals as was the case a century ago, I would still maintain that expertise in animal behavior is essential for the practitioner to best serve his or her patients and their owners.

Clinging to tradition and reluctance to take on new disciplines has cost our profession prestige and income in the past. Examples of this shortsightedness include poultry practice, artificial insemination, and physical therapy. Because we admitted behavioral science to our curricula belatedly, there are far more people in the field with degrees in zoology and psychology than there are veterinarians. Yet I maintain, the doctor of veterinary medicine is the best academically qualified behaviorists if that individual's training included a suitable course in animal behavior. I say this for the same reason that the best-trained human behaviorist is the person with a degree in medicine, a person who has gone on to obtain certification in psychiatry.

Why do I say this? There are several reasons.

Many behavioral problems are organic in origin. For example, endocrine disturbances commonly include behavioral aberrations as part of the presenting signs. The behaviorist whose training has included physiology, endocrinology, and pathology is best equipped to recognize and cope with such behavior problems.

Many problems respond to one or more of the wide variety of drugs now available to modify animal behavior. Obviously, only those individuals thoroughly schooled in the discipline of pharmacology can properly use such compounds, and many of the most effective of these drugs are available by law only by the prescription of a licensed doctor of veterinary medicine.

Of course, a mandatory course in ethology would not along prepare every practitioner to handle all cases. Referral to board-certified specialists would obviously be necessary, but without basic training, many veterinarians do not refer. They are unaware of the need for referral or of what can be dome to control and eliminate problems.

Although I have campaigned journalistically and as a speaker for veterinary behavior involvement, I am a bit dismayed by one aspect that has developed, and that is a tendency to rely too soon, and often exclusively, on behavior-modifying drugs. I should have anticipated this, because it happened in the human medical field. So many patients who could be helped with correct behavior-modifying techniques are kicked out into society today with a prescription that they may or may not take. The same tendency is happening in small animal medicine. It may be quicker and more profitable to sent the client home with medication for a pet with a behavior problem, but are we always rendering the best possible service by doing so?

It is interesting that in equine practice—and most horses today are companion animals—superb results are being achieved with behavior-shaping and –modifying techniques. Why? It is simply too expensive to control these problems chronically with medication. What is happening in equine behavior proves dramatically that most animals with behavior problems can be changed to make them more tractable, safer, more manageable, and more enjoyable to their owners.

The horse presents a unique problem to the veterinary practitioner. It is the only common domestic animal that depends on flight as its primary survival behavior in the wild state. It is a large, muscular, physically powerful creature, and when these qualities are combined with its timid flighty nature, its extreme perceptiveness, its remarkably fast reaction time, and its swiftness, we have a potentially dangerous animal.

Although food animals like cattle are of similar size and strength, it is customary to use physical restraint to manage them. This might include chutes or crushes, stanchions and headgates, nose rings, and nose tongs. Zoo practitioners often rely on squeeze cages to protect themselves from injury caused by unruly patients. When necessary, small animal practitioners use muzzles and other physical restraint devices such as a "cat bag." The equine practitioner, on the other hand, is usually expected to step up to a frightened animal that outweighs the doctor many times and do whatever is necessary.

For these reasons, competence in the science of equine behavior is essential for the veterinarian who is going to work with that species. In the past, most of that competence was gained by means of experience. This was sometimes painful, literally. Today, most students have little or no experience in handling difficult horses, and it is necessary that training in behavior shaping and modification be a part of basic veterinary education. This applies to all the species we commonly treat, but it is especially important in the horse.

When I graduated from veterinary school in 1956, the horse population of the United States was down to 2.5 million (this from a 1910 high of 22.6 million horses and mules). Today, we are back up to about 7 million horses. The increase is entirely in recreational horses. Indeed, the number of working horses has continued to diminish.

Increasingly, pleasure horses are owned by women. Most women are much less coercive than men typically are in handling horses, which is no doubt one reason why this easily intimidated species bonds readily with women (and children). It behooves us as practitioners to use methods of handling horses that are humane, as gentle as possible, and avoid presenting an image of brusqueness and insensitivity.

Originating in the Pacific Northwest of the United States a couple of decades ago, a revolution in horsemanship swept the country, which had reached the far corners of the earth by the end of the century.

Actually, there is nothing new about the kind of horsemanship we are talking about. It has always been used by talented trainers; however, for the first time, this nonconfrontational, humane, swift, and effective training philosophy, is becoming popular worldwide. Why? It is because today's horse owners are better educated and more receptive to the science of psychology and because of the information explosion that is occurring in most technologies.

Video, publication, and jet travel, which allow clinicians to travel rapidly, are spreading the word. Below are some of the better-known trainers who are masters at behavior shaping in the horse. These people have produced books and videos and also do clinics all over the world.

If you are involved with horses professionally or recreationally, I urge you to become familiar with as many of these fine horsemen as possible. After 6000 years of domestication of the horse, these people are advancing the art of horsemanship so rapidly that most of the traditional methods of the past have become obsolete.

This list is by no means complete. There are other progressive horsemen, but it is my policy to only recommend those whom I have personally seen work with horses and students and whose techniques are particularly valuable to the veterinarian:

1. Alfonso Aguilar, APDO, Postal 20-6, Morelia, Mich, CP 58193, Mexico

2. Buck Brannaman, 642 Highway 14, Sheridan, Wyoming 82801 (telephone: 307-672-5876)

3. Ray Hunt, Rocky Bar Stage, Mountain Home, Idaho 83647 (telephone: 208-587-4192)

4. Marty Martin, PO Box 379, Lafayette, CO 80026 (telephone: 303-665-5281)

5. Dr. James McCall, PO Box 90, Mt. Holly, Arkansas 71758 (telephone: 501-554-2450)

6. Pat Parelli, PO Box 5950, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147 (telephone: 970-731-9400 or 800-642-3335)

7. Dennis Reis, 411 Highland Ave., Penngrove, CA 94951 (telephone: 800-732-8220 or 707-792-0629)

8. Monty Roberts, PO Box 86, Solvang, CA 93464 (telephone: 805-688-4382)

By means of natural selection, each species acquires genetically fixed physical and behavioral characteristics that help to ensure it s survival in its natural environment. In the case of the horse, the principal physical characteristic that has helped it to survive is speed, and the principal behavioral characteristic that enables speed to be an asset to the wild horse is flightiness. The horse is a grasslands-dwelling species. Its major natural predators are the great cats, and its primary means of survival is instantaneous flight when frightened by an unfamiliar sensory stimulus. The stimulus may be visual, olfactory, tactile, auditory, or a combination of any of these. The flightiness of the horse is the reason it so often injures itself or the people who handle it, and is also the reason why the horse is so often perceived as a stupid animal. The horse's flightiness is not stupidity; it is nature's wisdom and helps the horse to survive in its natural open environment. The horse is a timid creature, and his timidity and flightiness are genetically fixed traits that have been modified but not eliminated by generations of domestication.

The ass and its hybrid offspring, the mule, are renowned for their comparative lack of flightiness. I believe this can be explained by the fact that the normal habitat of the ass is precipitous rough terrain. The instantaneous flight reaction when triggered could be fatal in such an environment. For example, when entangled in barbed wire, the horse typically panics and injures himself, whereas the ass or mule typically "stays put." Not only is the mules making a significant comeback as a recreational animal but so are donkeys and even zebra hybrids (known as "zorses" or "zonkey").

Fear is contagious to a horse. This serves as a survival mechanism in wild horse herds. It is the reason why a young horse gets exited when another horse runs by him.

To copy with any species, the basic behavioral mechanisms of that species in the wild state must be identified and accepted. As a result, the less a horse is frightened when you are working around it, the less refractory is its behavior. The horse is a powerful but timid creature, which although completely, lacking in reasoning power, is highly intelligent from the standpoint of memory, speed of learning, and adaptability. Like other species, humans probably elicit chemical substances called pheromones during times of emotional stress such as anger or fear. I believe that horses smell these pheromones; thus, to get along with horses, the handler must be relaxed and have a positive attitude. Anger, even if concealed, is absolutely detrimental to one's ability to communicate with horses.

The horse can be quickly habituated to any frightening but non-painful sensory stimuli, including sound, sight, touch and odor. Once habituated to a specific frightening but non-painful sensory stimulus, the horse will retain its familiarity with that specific stimulus indefinitely. Habituation to such frightening but non-painful sensory stimuli is accelerated by repetitious exposure. For example, a gun shot may frighten a horse and cause him to attempt to flee but, if confined and exposed to repetitious gunshots, the horse is further enhanced if the repetitious expose is rhythmically applied. Habituation is still further enhanced if repetitious, rhythmic stimuli are simultaneously applied. Thus, tactile, auditory and visual stimuli, applied simultaneously and rhythmically, will quickly habituate the horse to all of these multiple stimuli. The stimuli may be frightening but non-painful, and it is essential that the subject not be allowed to escape before habituation occurs, or future exposures to such stimuli will result in increased panic rather than acceptance.

A good example of the habituation process is the "sacking out" of a colt by the horse breaker. The colt, confined so that he cannot escape, is repeatedly stroked with a waving sack or blanket. The sight, sound, smell and touch of the sack are frightening. However, rhythmically and repetitiously applied, the colt soon is habituated to the sack, and he remembers this lesson permanently, If one side of the horse is "sacked out," however, the horse lacks the power of reason to apply what he has learned to his other side. We are now dealing with a different eye and a different side, and the lesson must be started anew. Generally, I have found that it takes about 30 stimuli to habituate most horses. The moment of habituation can be detected. The fear response cases, and instead the horse's eye wanders from the source of the fear-provoking stimulus. He is no longer aware of it. He is habituated to it and, providing it is identically presented in the future, he will not fear it again. Be warned, however, that even minor variations in the stimuli may elicit future flight responses.

The calming effect of rhythmic stimuli has been used for centuries by horsemen, as in the jiggling of a halter, repetitious hissing or whistling, patting, stroking, ect.

The exposure of such multiple simultaneous, rhythmic, frightening but non-painful sensory stimuli to a horse often produces a mesmerizing effect. Similarly, in humans, repetitious visual, tactile or auditory stimuli are often used in memorization (a pendulum, a circling spiral, stroking or the monotonous voice of a hypnotist).

Horses are herd-dwelling creatures and are equipped by nature to accept dominance. Except for the rare super-dominant individual, most horses can be readily brought to a submissive attitude toward the handler. Dominance, it must be understood, is a quality not necessarily related to physical strength. The dominate horse in a herd is frequently an old, decrepit mare. Small ponies sometimes dominate a herd of full-sized horses. Dominance does not necessarily reflect athletic ability or aggressiveness or intelligence. It is a personality characteristic of its own. To use a human analogy, we tend to think of politicians and warriors when we think of dominant individuals, but religious leaders and entertainers also have that charisma which evokes the desire to be submissive to them amongst their followers.

Veterinarians work under a great handicap when handling horses. Almost everything the veterinarian does to a horse is either frightening or painful. In addition, the veterinarian is often short of time. Thus, horses are frightened by veterinarians, and this evokes the flight response. No other horseman—groomer or farrier—must handle as many horses as does the equine practitioner in a normal working day and under such disadvantageous conditions. It is necessary, therefore, that the veterinarian dominate his patient, but, this must be accomplished while minimizing the fear of the horse.

Since escape (instantaneous flight) is the horse's principal survival mechanism, one of the keys to dominating the horse is to deprive him of the ability to flee. Thus, the use of such mechanical restraining devices as halters, hobbles, etc., are instrumental in rendering the horse submissive to the handler. For example, most mares, following parturition, will display aggressive behavior when her foal is approached. This is a useful protective device in the wild. Note, however, that once haltered, the mare will usually abandon her aggressive display and show only anxiety for her foal.

The old bronc breaker's trick of tying up a hind leg served less to prevent kicking than it did to render the colt psychologically impotent by removing its ability to flee. The old-time horse tamer's trick of tying an outlaw horse down on the ground and crawling all over it did much the same thing.

The horse is intelligent enough to be able to quickly choose between the lesser of two evils. Unless undesirable behavioral characteristics have been previously established, the horse, therefore, will accept a frightening painful stimulus. For example, a needle-shy horse will stand quietly for an injection if given the choice between it and a lip chain, judiciously and expertly used by the handler. An even better example is the use of a lip chain to train (not restrain) a horse to accept a stomach tube. The stomach tube is a perfect example of a frightening but non-painful stimulus. The horse sees it, smells it and feels it. Moreover, the horse is defensive of its body openings. The bot is a cosmopolitan equine parasite, and the horse therefore is particularly reluctant to allow anything up its nose. To compound the problem, if the horse has been previously twitched for tubing, he may associate the tube with the pain of the twitch which is only a couple inches away. The twitch gives the horse the choice of slight or intense pain. Most horses' is there fore related to the presence of a twitch.

The lip chain, on the other hand, causes no pain at all until pressure is applied. When the horse uses evasive head action to avoid the stomach tube, the chain is tightened. When the horse keeps his head still and allows the tube (actually, I use my forefinger for the initial training) to enter his nostril, the chain is left slack, the horse is praised in a soothing voice and caressed (rubbing around the eye is especially appreciate). This is positive reinforcement.

Please realize that I do use a twitch. It is a legitimate means of restraint, but as a training device the lip chain is more effective on most horses for the reasons I've stated. You mush also realize that, as a busy practitioner, I can only devote a few minutes' time to train a horse to a naso-gastric tube. In most cases this is sufficient time, but if I think that too much time will be needed, I will use conventional restraint methods, or I will sedate the patient if deemed preferable.

It is worth the time it takes to train the horse. That horse will be a more cooperative patient in the future. The horse respects me and is submissive to me, rather than fearing me and fighting me. It is safer to work on that horse in the future. I can work more quickly. I like horses and I like them to like me. Certainly such methods present a better image of the equine practitioner than conventional restraint methods which look brutal, even if they are not. Most of the veterinary schools which I have visited in North America or in Europe do not teach about behavior in horses or methods of handling them utilizing psychological principles. How can we veterinarians hope to get along with our clients and our colleagues if we don't learn to get along with an animal we profess to love—the horse.

We should mention the concept of imprint training: The horse is a precocious species in that, like many prey species, the young are fully developed at birth and can run from danger soon afterward. In such species, imprinting can occur immediately after birth. Foals, therefore, learn quickly in the first few days of life. Ideally, training should begin at the time of birth, and the foal, by one week of age, can be already trained to many procedures which are customarily delayed. For example, the on-week-old foal should lead, stand tied, load into a trailer, stop, turn, back on command, and allow any part of its body to be handled, pick up its feet on command, and be submissive to human beings. A foal, imprinted in this manner, will retain its memory of these experiences, even if not handled for months afterward, although it is preferable to periodically reinforce the lessons.

I try to teach my clients the concept of imprint training. Although, horsemen are often resistant to new ideas, many clients accept them. Many farms now imprint train their foals, and they are a pleasure to handle as weanlings and yearlings is the procedure is done properly during the postpartum imprinting period.

Using these principles enables a veterinarian to treat horses with a minimum of restrain, brutality, risk to the horse, and risk to the doctor. Practicing in this manner is less hazardous, less stressful, more enjoyable, and more effective.

I have authored several books and videotapes, and although they are marketed to the lay horse-owning public, I produced them with the veterinarian in mind. The practitioner may find them helpful, and they may even help to keep the harried and hard-worked equine practitioner out of serious trouble. I hope so.

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