So, You Want to be an Equine Behaviorist

Q: I am extremely interested in becoming an equine behaviorist. I want to know more about how to go about pursuing a career in this field. I live in north central Kansas and currently have one full-time job and one part-time job. I'm not sure where to go for courses in my area. I learn best with hands-on instruction so I'm not especially fond of online courses. Is there a particular institute you would recommend? What courses should I take? I imagine there would be horse training involved in this field as well as teaching the horse owner? What is a typical day like as an equine behaviorist? Any information you can provide me is greatly appreciated!

Stephanie, via e-mail

A: It's exciting to hear that you are interested in preparing for a career in horse behavior. Your questions are not uncommon. Here is a list of the course material I would recommend as most useful:

1. Horse behavior basics: natural social structure, the equid ethogram (a catalogue or inventory of all behaviors or actions exhibited by horses), natural foraging, resting, and social interactive behavior.

2. Common horse behavior problems. (You can learn about both behavior basics and problems through reading respected academic books that summarize scientifically reviewed materials and then by observing horses.)

3. The principals of learning and general behavior modification for mammals; and neuroscience or neurobiology (neuroanatomy, physiological bases of behavior, psychopharmacology). A university psychology department would be best for these two areas.

4. Basic equine anatomy and physiology and equine nutrition taught by a nutritionist or behaviorist who is interested in nutrition's effects on behavior. A good animal science program with a strong equine focus usually offers these types of courses.

5. A general nutrition and behavior course about all species, addressing of diet and feeding schedules' effects on behavior.

6. A course on counseling and human behavior modification principles. As you indicated, in most cases of horse behavior problems, you can only help the horses by helping their caregivers and trainers improve the horses' management. This often requires humans modifying their own behavior when interacting with horses.

7. Small consulting business training (billing, communications, service excellence training, etc). This is sometimes available through local school district continuing education or a community college.

It is also helpful to educate yourself on all the various lay and commercial horse training techniques that the horse-owning public is exposed to and practicing, and to understand them in light of science-based knowledge. For example, it's helpful to understand clicker and target training even if you do not use that yourself. Similarly, it's helpful to appreciate various popular round pen training methods and other "natural horsemanship" training techniques, their limitations, adverse side effects, and the common mistakes people make with various training and rehabilitation techniques. Much of that will come by observing those methods, especially once you have a science-based understanding of learning and behavior modification.

Horse behaviorists often need to work closely with veterinarians, so some exposure to vet tech training is very helpful in communicating with and gaining the trust of your patients' veterinarians. You can also learn a lot of this very quickly by working with equine veterinarians.

It is also great to acquire as much hands-on experience or at least first-hand observation of as many horse disciplines and activities as possible--to know how horses are trained in each discipline, to recognize the behavioral and physical stressors common to various equine sports, to appreciate the common handling and management styles that can inadvertently create horse behavior problems, and to know the common physical injuries seen in the various sports and the behavioral signs of those injuries, etc.

Certification as an Applied Animal Behaviorist requires a master's degree or PhD, with a specific number of credits in animal behavior along with clinical training and demonstrated research or clinical case management skills.

I don't know of any one school that has a complete training curriculum as I've outlined here. Michigan State University has been building a program with lots of horse behavior within their animal science program. The University of Delaware for about 10 years has been incorporating more behavior in their equine program. Both of those universities have psychology and biology departments that can provide the coursework as well as the graduate training if you wish to become credentialed as a Certified Applied Animal ¬Behaviorist. Some equine management programs, the one at Cazevovia College in New York, for example, include behavior in many of their courses. Best of luck

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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