Equine psychology and its application to veterinary practice (Proceedings)


Each species acquires, by means of natural selection, genetically fixed physical and behavioral characteristic which help to ensure its survival in its natural environment.

Each species acquires, by means of natural selection, genetically fixed physical and behavioral characteristic which help to insure its survival in its natural environment. In the case of the horse, principal physical characteristic which helped it to survive is speed, and the principal behavioral characteristics which enables that 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 he so often injures himself or the people who handle him, and it is the reason he is so often perceived as a stupid animal. But, the horse's flightiness is not stupidity. It is nature's wisdom and helps the horse to survive in his natural open environment. The horse is a timid creature, and his timidity and flightiness are genetically fixed traits which 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 that this can by explained by the fact that the ass' normal habitat is precipitous, rough terrain. The instantaneous flight reaction when frightened could be fatal in such an environment. Therefore, when entangled in barbed wire, the horse typically panics and injures himself, whereas the ass or mule will typically "stay put."

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

In order to cope with any species, the basic behavioral mechanism of the species in the wild state must be identified and accepted. Therefore, the less a horse is frightened when working around it, the less refractory will be its behavior. The horse is a powerful but timid creature and, although completely lacking in reasoning power, is highly intelligent from the standpoint of memory, speed of learning and adaptability. Human beings, like other species, probably elicit chemical substances called pheromones during times of emotional stress such as anger or fear. I believe that horses can small these pheromones so that the handler, in order to get along with the horse, must be relaxed and have a positive attitude. Anger, even if concealed, is absolutely detrimental to one's ability to communication 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 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.

Any veterinarian can learn theses techniques, but not everybody is receptive to them. I've been presenting seminars, using live horses in my demonstrations, to veterinarians for many years. Invariably, I've had the satisfaction of having veterinarians tell me months later, "Hey, it works! I can do it, and it's made my life easier. I don't fight the horses anymore. I psych them out."

It's easy for a woman of any age to accept theses techniques. Many women use them instinctively. That's why they get along so well with the horse. They are less likely to elicit the fear-flight response. But, rarely is a man under forty years of age willing to try this approach. I believe that we have a conflict in instincts when a young male human confronts a strange horse. It is the horse's instinct to flee when frightened. It is the young man's instinct to attack the wild beast. That's how our species survived for millions of years. But, somewhere around forty years of age, we start to enjoy outwitting our patients rather than outfighting them. It is more challenging to outwit them, and it is safer, more humane and better techniques professionally.

Utilizing the above-mentioned principles will enable a veterinarian to treat horses with a minimum of restraint, brutality, risk to the horse or risk to the doctor. Practicing in this manner is less hazardous, less stressful, more enjoyable and more effective.

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