More on Panic Attacks

Readers Respond

August's Behavior column (article #914) sparked heated debate about euthanasia for horses with incurable panic attacks. This month we feature two readers' responses and the author's comments.

It was a huge relief to have this topic discussed so directly. My colt has had panic attacks since birth, despite my working with him just as I have all my other foals.

Now, as I face breaking him as a 2-year-old (my trainer attempted and returned him the next day), I've been asking advice from horse professionals and veterinarians, but no one seems to have encountered this issue in a horse. I've agonized about euthanizing my colt (appropriately named Boo), but have wanted to give him all possible opportunities as he is a highly intelligent, well-bred AQHA reining prospect.

For anyone who has owned a horse like this and has tried to work with them, the decision to euthanize is a viable, responsible, humane one. There is little doubt in my mind that the majority of these animals cannot make useful contributions to the equine community and that they are a constant potential risk to themselves and the humans that interact with them.


Many of the people in my community are talking about the article "Unpredictable Fear" in the August 2001 issue of The Horse. There are so many training methods to help horses overcome behavioral problems, build confidence, and even teach a horse to "spook in place." I guess that's why I don't understand how euthanasia might be the answer for this mare since sacking out isn't. I agree that sacking out this mare might not be an option, but that doesn't mean there isn't another alternative. You can safely begin to re-train the mare on the ground where you aren't going to get hurt. You can start to build trust and confidence there for both you and the horse with the right program.

I live in an area where a lot of people have horses and don't know the first thing about them. There's only a handful of knowledgeable horse owners here; even fewer understand horse behavior. They come to me often, but I rarely lend advice as they don't really want to do what I would tell them anyway. They have already made up their minds or will keep asking until someone gives an easy solution. They lack experience and tend to take words from people--especially professionals--very literally.

I will let them know this topic will be discussed again. Your further explanation (below) puts the article in a clearer perspective.

Sheila Anderson, Third-Year Competitor in Reining with the FRHA and NRHA; Level 2, Parelli Natural Horsemanship Student

Thank you for your feedback. It will help us do better in the future.

First, let me sincerely apologize for upsetting you. I obviously did a poor job communicating some of my points in the article. I actually agree with almost everything you said in your initial message to me (some of which is printed above).

You're right that there are many good behavior techniques and many people with an extraordinary ability to help most behavior problem horses, and if your friends read the article again, I hope they will appreciate that there were no direct recommendations about the reader's mare, but only about my own experiences with what I understood to be similar cases that everyone had given up on. I felt a deep sense of empathy for her concern and struggle.

You are right that no one with so little information should ever recommend euthanasia for a specific horse. I meant only to comment on the question raised in the reader's inquiry, and shared what I thought were similar difficult considerations. I should have been more clear and direct that we should always exhaust all medical examinations possible and affordable to rule out a fixable physical problem.

I agree with you fully that many horse behavior problems are man-made, and most of those can be fixed with good horsemanship, time, and any number of popular techniques. I also agree that it is our responsibility to fix those man-made behavior problems whenever possible. I understood the writer of the question to say that considerable effort had already been made over a long period of time.

My colleagues and I have been involved with horses which people were ready to give up on, and have seen many successful outcomes. But every once in awhile, to save suffering of an animal for which the best of veterinary medicine and the best of horsemanship, partnership, or whatever technique could not fix, and for the safety of those involved or innocent bystanders, we have taken the responsibility for euthanasia.

Our clinic is a referral university veterinary hospital where we consult and/or take care of hundreds of horse behavior cases a year, even adopt some and pay personally or out of teaching budgets for further testing and therapy/re-training. We sometimes do find physical causes--causes that no amount of behavior therapy or any method could have fixed. Some poor horses had been everywhere, to the best of the best, with a series of owners who had spent a bundle in emotion and money, and still could not find the cause or fix the episodes. Some end up at auctions or rescue organizations, and then get sent off to unsuspecting new owners who get hurt trying to help them.

Post mortem, sometimes a serious brain tumor or other nervous system problemis found. It was undiagnosable in the living animal. Unfortunately, veterinarians don't yet have the tools to better diagnose these horses before euthanasia, or at least rule out serious central nervous system disorders.

Like you say, there are a few people who want or need to give up before you or I would, but in our practice at the university, we meet mostly very caring, thoughtful people who are struggling with decisions. They are trying to balance issues of responsible ownership, safety, and humane care, and they are hoping beyond hope for a diagnosis and solution to keep the horse alive.

Thanks again for your comments.

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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