Behavioral Abnormalities Discussed by Vets

A lively Table Topic discussion on Equine Behavioral Abnormalities was held at the 2009 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention in Las Vegas, Nev. Andy Anderson, DVM, and David Hayes, DVM, moderated.

The following is a report from Anderson:

I threw my twitch away a long time ago, so we discussed pros and cons of using a twitch on a horse. People had questions about how to block a horse without a twitch and how to pass a tube without a twitch.

So many people get hurt by horses that are twitched. Why? Because there's no reward for a twitched horse. No matter how good the horse is trying to be there's no way to tell him he's a good boy. That twitch is either on or off. That's the down side.

Nobody brought up the "endorphin release" effect, so I brought it up. With the number of horses I've seen that violently explode, strike, and kick, I can't believe they are sedated by endorphins. A lot of other people in the audience agreed.

I think people misunderstood that endorphin thing when it was first discussed. Endorphins are not sedatives, they are designed to help you deal with pain. That's a survival deal to either let you fight or allow you to get away. I think it's a myth that endorphins sedate a horse. There wasn't universal consensus from the audience on that point.

Alternatives to a twitch are to distract the horse by wiggling an ear or use a lip chain. Both can be a form of distraction or negative reinforcement. If you just rub on the inside of a horse's ear, they kind of like that. If you vibrate the lip chain, it's a distraction. If they misbehave you can squeeze on their ear or bump them with the lip chain to tell them to behave.

There were several questions about needle-shy horses. We discussed why horses get that way and what we can do about it after one is already that way.

I pointed out that the horse that will stand tied infallibly will let you walk up and stick him with a needle. A horse that won't tie well, it's a guaranteed wreck to try to give him a shot.

Tie them up until they give up, then when you go to give them a shot, they stand there. They aren't being aggressive, they just want to leave.

Some horses are truly fearful. Trying to make those horses stand still is a mistake. Let them move their feet, like doing a turn on the forehand; you can vaccinate or draw blood and they are happier. Let them move in a controlled manner.

The question was raised about horses that won't tie. The audience pretty much was in agreement on that: Tie them up in a safe situation and leave them, and pretty soon they will tie and won't fight it.

I brought up the whole "horses learn by accident" theory. That brought up the "don't let them win the little battles" discussion. Set yourself up in a situation where you aren't going to lose, but do it so it's non-confrontational.

We had several questions about administering the intranasal vaccine. To me this is exactly like passing a stomach tube. You need to habituate them to having a finger in their nose before you pick up the stomach tube or intranasal vaccine. Do same as when you are trying to desensitize the ear. They can't escape, can move their feet, and you continue to rub until they think it's okay. Then you pick up your IN vaccine and run it along your thumb (that's already in the nose) and it's okay.

We talked about a lip chain; who should use it and who shouldn't and how to use one correctly and safely.

We didn't have good answer to the question about a horse that won't allow you to take his temperature.

We talked about safe foal restraint, primarily how it's safe for the foals. The discussion ranged from handing a newborn that needed to be restrained to get blood all the way up to big weanlings that are too big to hold them with their head and tail.

This report was submitted by co-moderator Andy Anderson, DVM.

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