Poor socialization can stem from a variety of circumstances


Private equine practice is largely a matter of lameness, reproductive issues, trauma care and preventive medicine. There are occasions, however, when behavior problems directly affect medical care, and veterinarians must be able to address these issues to deliver appropriate treatment.

Private equine practice is largely a matter of lameness, reproductive issues, trauma care and preventive medicine. There are occasions, however, when behavior problems directly affect medical care, and veterinarians must be able to address these issues to deliver appropriate treatment.

Blind horses are often pushed away from food and shelter and isolated by the rest of the herd. This blind Appaloosa is being kept away from hay.

Daily work with horses tends to make most practitioners feel as if they have a good grasp of equine behavior. We handle them, examine them, perform various procedures on them and generally get along well with horses. Abnormal equine behavior is infrequently encountered and usually is "outside" typical veterinary concern. These cases often are referred to trainers, therapists, or perhaps to a veterinary behavioral specialist. But veterinarians see some types of management problems often enough in the field to make it worthwhile to devise an identification and treatment strategy.

Orphan syndrome

Doctor H. received an emergency call to treat what initially seemed to be a routine case of choke in a 7-year-old mare. The owner loudly exclaimed that this was the last straw with this horse, and she was at the end of her rope. The mare had been given to her three years ago. The horse is extremely talented and very athletic, the owner said, but she just will not learn or try. The current medical problem, though minor, was simply the latest misstep in what seems to have been a frustrating relationship.

As Dr. H. began to pass his nasogastric tube to relieve the choke condition, he noticed that the mare acted "abnormally". She was not aggressive, not timid or fearful, but was slightly pushy and resistant, and she did not respond normally to the procedure. His normal methods of dealing with horses in such a situation did not reassure or calm this mare. She simply did not seem to care. Dr. H. could not completely decide what was different but could sense that this mare was not like most he had treated.

After the choke was cleared, Dr. H. began to talk to the owner and eventually found out that the mare does not like to be with other horses in pasture. She stands by the gate waiting to come in to the barn and once inside, stands looking at whoever is working around the barn. She is pushy when being led but can be handled easily and is tolerant of being ridden. But she shows no desire to please and no interest in learning or working and is generally "dull".

This mare fits the general description of a mature horse that was poorly socialized as an orphan foal, and that indeed was the situation that Dr. H. uncovered when he continued to question this owner, who was unaware of the significance of this point and had dismissed it as a possible cause of the training/handling problems she was experiencing. The mare had been orphaned and was raised by a caretaker who had spent too much time with it and failed to get the foal adjusted to other horses. Such horses are overly bonded to humans, according to Dr. Sue McDonnell, a PhD behaviorist at the Havemeyer Equine Behavioral Lab of the University Of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. While true orphans make up most of the horses in this situation, foals that spend too much time away from their mothers also can exhibit these behaviors.

Mares that become ill soon after delivery and are consequently separated repeatedly for treatment, surgery or rehabilitation also can end up producing foals that are poorly socialized. Though much has been written about orphan foals and specific techniques for rearing and socializing them, there is little recorded about these animals when they mature or the potential problems they can present if early socialization is done incorrectly.

If orphan foals become overly bonded to humans, they tend to follow people (as a dog might) even to the point of leaving horses at pasture and spending time near gates or fence lines to be closer to people. In an article on mare and foal bonding problems in the 2005 Clinical Techniques in Equine Practice, Drs. Elkanah Grogan and Sue McDonnell state: "As the (overly human-bonded) foal matures, it may have mild to severe handling problems associated with what appears to be interactions with people as if they were a horse." These handling problems have been described as "dull to discipline," pushy or "bargy" and poorly responsive to other horses. These descriptions fit the choking mare seen by Dr. H.

A belled goat, sheep or other companion species can be a good buddy for a blind horse and provide support and leadership around the pasture.

A "problem" horse can get passed from one trainer to another, and its early history can become lost or confused. Improperly socialized orphan-horse behavior should be considered by practitioners when this dull, unresponsive behavior is observed or if training issues support such a condition.

Treatment for this problem is far easier when the foal is young. Drs. Grogan and McDonnell remind owners and veterinarians that orphaned foals should receive limited human interaction, and caretakers should "particularly disassociate human presence with mealtime."

It is imperative that orphans be introduced to equine companions, and often, older mares, geldings, ponies or donkeys can serve as a surrogate family. But if this is not done and you are faced with a mature horse that is maladjusted, there are still a few steps that can be taken.

Placing these horses in a pasture with a quiet companion for an extended period of time may help some animals, though many will revert to their original behaviors when humans are around. Because these horses tend to see humans as equals, they might simply need more forceful and directed training than usually employed with better-socialized horses. But caution must be used because these overly human-bonded horses sometimes react aggressively to increased force and aggression toward trainers or handlers.

Drug therapies, ranging from tranquilizers to mood enhancers and antidepressants, have been tried with little consistent response. Spotting these horses for what they are and making trainers aware of the source of the problems can be a tremendous contribution from an equine practitioner. Educating breeders and owners about the proper methods for raising orphan foals is the best means of avoiding these problems.


There are many stereotypic behaviors seen in equine practice. These are repeated sequences of behavior that are, for the most part, without purpose and include cribbing, wood chewing, pawing, head bobbing, stall walking and weaving. It is estimated that 15 percent of domesticated horses show some aspects of these activities, and many behaviorist say these actions are incomplete forms of normal behaviors that develop when individuals lose control over their environment. For most horses, this means excessive stall confinement, lack of work or exercise and reduction in social contact, resulting in boredom and frustration.

Boredom and frustration in stallions (and occasionally geldings) sometimes manifests in stereotypic self-mutilation. This behavior is so common that it is now referred to as equine self-mutilation syndrome (ESMS). This syndrome is believed to affect slightly less than 2 percent of horses. Affected horses exhibit random face, neck or muscle twitching. They can kick or paw without pattern or direction. Theses horses can show vocalization, again without direction or purpose, and they might bite at their chest or flanks. Researchers recently have attempted to draw parallels between ESMS and Tourette's syndrome in humans. Both conditions involve head and neck twitching, hemiballismus (constant, unidirectional, purposeless striking out with either arm (foreleg) or leg (hind leg), preoccupation with environmental boundaries (walking the perimeter of an enclosure) and occasional bizarre vocalization. Both diseases are juvenile onset and show a strong male predilection. Hereditary concerns are present with both Tourette's and ESMS; stress will make both conditions worse, while activities that are mentally absorbing will lessen the signs of both.

Interestingly enough, neither ESMS nor Tourette's syndrome cause impaired performance, and there are numerous examples of top human and equine athletes with these conditions.

There are some medical conditions that can cause apparent self-mutilation behavior, and practitioners are always encouraged to perform a complete physical examination on suspected horses. Squamous cell carcinoma of the urethra has been diagnosed in a number of such cases, and allergies and skin conditions were found to be responsible for self-mutilation in others. The vast majority of cases, however, will have no medical cause and should be treated as behavioral in nature.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman and colleagues at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine have investigated the use of various agents for the treatment of ESMS. They found significant reduction in this behavior after the administration of various drugs, such as acepromazine, detomidine, naltrexone and buspirone. These dopamine blockers, alpha-2 antagonists, opium-receptor antagonists and serotonin agonists provide evidence of a neurophysiologic basis for ESMS and further support the link between ESMS and Tourette's syndrome. Though these drugs reduce the unwanted behaviors seen in these diseases, the duration of action is not long enough to make such treatment a practical reality. Treatment of ESMS still should be directed at altering the horse's environment and the situations that brought about the clinical syndrome. Reduction in stress is important and can involve a change in stabling, turn-out, work schedules and so forth.

Increased activity almost always reduces mutilation behavior, so training and play time should be altered accordingly. Increased social contact, when possible, is also beneficial, and goats, sheep and many other companion species have been used with success. The affected horse's diet also should be modified to reduce carbohydrates and increase the percentage of roughage. While ESMS is difficult to cure completely, it can be controlled in many cases, and continuing research into this condition and Tourette's syndrome eventually might yield a practical medical treatment program.

Physical limitations

Horses that lose their vision can present another challenging situation to the equine practitioner. Initially, clients will need assistance with the trauma or particular medical condition that causes blindness. It is estimated that 1 to 2 percent of horses will lose sight in one or both eyes during their lifetime. Dr. Ann Dwyer, a veterinary ophthalmologist practicing in New York, has written a chapter on the practical management of blind horses in the 2005 edition of Equine Ophthalmology. She lists recurrent uveitis as the most common cause of blindness in horses with corneal damage. Trauma and tissue degeneration are other possible reasons for vision impairment.

And of course, clients have problems of their own when trying to care for a blind horse. This is the area where veterinary expertise is requested and where, according to Steve Smith, many practitioners let their clients down. Smith runs a sanctuary farm that caters to the needs of blind horses and oversees BlindHorses.org, which provides information, resources and help to owners faced with caring for a blind horse.

"Many veterinarians are unfortunately unaware of some of the methods of dealing with blind horses and consequently do not offer clients all the options following a situation that has produced or will soon produce a blind horse," Smith says.

Many clients are told that their horses are in pain or will not tolerate an unsighted life and are encouraged to euthanize by some practitioners. But each blind horse must be treated and evaluated as an individual because most can adapt to eventually lead a good quality of life.

Once the initial medical management of the blindness is set, veterinarians can help clients and their horse transition to sightlessness by offering a few simple guidelines. First, allow owners and animals to adjust to this new situation. Reassurance is simple and effective. Most blind horses adjust to their new condition faster than owners. Since blind horses depend greatly on hearing, owners must learn to constantly talk or whistle around their horses. Verbal clues also can be taught through repetition, and blind horses can learn to follow, stand, back, step up and step down. Not all horses are good natural learners, but if you think of all the physical clues that a dressage horse learns or all the visual clues that a roping horse learns, then it is not unrealistic to believe that a blind horse can learn many commands and verbal clues that can greatly enhance its ability to interact with humans and its environment. Teaching a blind horse to step up into and out of a trailer is also very important, and though it might take a while, it can be done. Many references are available for owners wanting to learn these techniques, and Dr. Dwyer's chapter is a must-read for veterinarians seeking to help their clients.

Blind horses are cautious about their surroundings and should be taught about the fences surrounding their enclosure and any unusual obstacles in the field. Horses make mental maps of terrain and are very good at remembering boundaries. Many endurance riders pre-ride sections of trail that they know they will have to ride at night during competition. They find that even one pass-over trail can be remembered by some horses, and that information will be valuable later. Most blind horses seem to develop this mental mapping ability, so showing them gates, fences and trees is important. Be careful to remove wires or low-hanging tree limbs that they might encounter. Show these horses where water and food sources are, and if necessary, spread gravel around problem areas so that the blind horse can feel the difference in footing and have an idea as to location. It will take time but many horses learn to negotiate their pastures with surprising ease and confidence.

Social interactions are difficult for blind horses. Much of normal equine behavior is controlled by visual cues — swishing tail and flattened ears for anger and so forth. Unable to see these clues and act appropriately, the blind horse usually falls to the bottom of the social order, and some horses will even pick on and ostracize a blind herd mate. Finding a buddy animal for a blind pasture horse is important, and there are some horses that will readily accept this role. These animals can be fixed with an attached bell so that the blind horse will be able to hear and follow or stay close to its companion. Goats and other animals often do well in this special role.

There are times when equine practitioners must deal with selected behavioral issues in order to provide quality care to both their clients and their horses. Unfortunately, because these problems are encountered rather infrequently, many veterinarians might not fully understand how to approach these cases. Identifying the cause of abnormal behavior is the first step, and it can help clients greatly to understand why their horses are acting in unusual ways.

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