Grandin on Keeping Horses Calm During Handling

Grandin on Keeping Horses Calm During Handling

Author and animal behaviorist Dr. Temple Grandin offered tips and basic concepts for working with livestock at the 2013 American College of Theriogenology Symposia and Conference.

Paying attention to details is crucial when considering unusual equine behaviors, their causes, and how to manage them.

Case in point: A new addition to the Louisville, Ky., zoo’s zebra herd had been skittish and generally experiencing a tough time acclimating to his new home.

Temple Grandin, PhD, featured speaker at the 2013 American College of Theriogenology (ACT) Symposia and Conference, held in Louisville Aug.  7-10, stopped in at the zoo, observed, and asked some questions. She recognized that the zebra had reason for not relaxing: an adjacent lion exhibit.

"Only a certain zebra had trouble," Grandin explained to a veterinary audience in her Aug. 9 presentation, in which she emphasized the importance of factoring in such specifics when handling livestock. "There is individual difference in animal behavior. It was one particular zebra; he had lived in a much more wild (situation with) less human contact."

So she advised that zoo facility managers install some shrubs so that this zebra could hide and feel protected from the big cats.

Grandin designs livestock handling facilities and is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She’s authored more than 400 papers and seven books and was recently the focus of an HBO movie highlighting her journey as a visionary in her field with autism. While she focused much of her ACT presentation on production livestock, such as pigs and cattle, she shared tips from her experiences managing horses as well.

"When you have a behavior problem with an animal, (what’s most important is) getting a good history,” she said. “People tend to overgeneralize: 'My horse goes berserk,' (for instance) and I don’t know what that means. What I find out is it only went berserk in the cross-ties, no other place." In such cases, the solution is simple, she said. "I can just remove the cross-ties from that horse’s life."

Grandin showed a diagram of a horse’s visual field and blind spots to remind the audience why livestock animals respond to stimuli in unique ways; a horse doesn’t see depth well, and he will put his head down to look at something by his feet. “Let the animal have an opportunity to take a look,” she said.

It's important that owners recognize relaxation vs. agitation in horses to be able to manage them well (and stay safe in the process). She said that, with the exception of certain breeds, a relaxed animal has soft, brown eyes; he tips his ears forward; and his head is down. Signs of agitation and fear include swishing the tail in the absence of flies ("just before they kick your head"), high head carriage, sweating, defecation, and quivering of the skin/muscles. "The whites of the eyes show in a fearful animal."

She shared some basic concepts and tips she’s learned in working with livestock:

  • Watch animals’ ears for warnings of impending responses to stimuli. Horses tip their ears toward whatever they're monitoring, a sort of "ear radar" an owner can monitor.
  • Animals tend to want to travel from dark to light (as from a dark barn toward the light of outdoors), but they do not react well in a transition to blinding light.
  • Nonslip flooring in facilities is essential because animals get agitated when they begin to lose their footing.
  • Animals differentiate between screaming and yelling more than equipment noise. (Bottom line, don't scream and yell around horses and other livestock.)
  • "Never surprise an animal," she said. "Don’t do tickle touches. Make it feel like mama’s tongue. Don't do hard pats."
  • Slow, gradual movements are best. She mentioned when HBO camera operators moved a long camera arm above the corral slowly, it didn't scare the livestock. When moved quickly, it did.
  • Factors impacting an animal’s "flight zone" (a term generally used with sheep and cattle to describe how close a handler can get to an animal before it flees) include genetics, previous experience with handlers, amount of contact with people, and the quality of that contact. Tame animals generally don't have a flight zone.
  • Avoid making sudden, erratic silent movements. She gave the example of the cinematic team not getting a cow acclimated to a Styrofoam board (used for reflecting light) before the cow reacted in fear.

Grandin pointed out that new experiences are both scary and interesting to animals and that people should be cautious around the animal that’s lived a too-sheltered life: "Animals with flighty genetics are more likely to become agitated in a new place. We need to get animals accustomed to new things. An animal’s first experience with a new person, a horse trailer, needs to be a good first experience. They make 'fear memories.'"

Horses and other animals associate such fear memories with sensory experiences: "pictures," as in a horse afraid of black cowboy hats (and not white ones) because he had alcohol sprayed in his eyes during a veterinary procedure; specific sounds, as with an elephant fearful of diesel vehicles; and touch sensations, as when a horse has had an unsavory experience with a jointed bit. "Animal fears are very specific," she said, citing wild mustang handling as an example. "A man on a horse and a man on foot are different things to mustangs."

For the horse that becomes very agitated or fearful, "maybe at a veterinary clinic, let it calm down for a half an hour," she said. "It takes a half an hour for an animal to calm down after it's gotten scared. Give it time to calm down."

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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