In a web site advice column written by a veterinarian, he claimed that if a blacksmith trims or shoes a horse incorrectly so that the horse becomes lame within a couple of weeks of work, the horse will make the connection that the blacksmith was the cause of the lameness and will hate the blacksmith and refuse to pick up its feet for the blacksmith from then on. I can believe that horses might remember if the blacksmith hurt the horse at the time of the trimming, and it will associate that blacksmith, or maybe even foot work in general, with pain. It is then likely to resist future foot work. But if the lameness develops some time after the blacksmith leaves, even if this happens again and again for years, I doubt that a horse would make the connection of the foot work and the lameness. Please comment from a behaviorist's perspective.        via e-mail

It's probably not possible. There is a lot yet to learn about the complexities of horse cognition, but associative learning involving delayed consequences--even beyond a couple of minutes delay--is likely way beyond a horse's ability.

Think how hard it would be to train a horse, even with positive reinforcement, to make the association between something that happens today and something that comes on gradually even a day later. In a punishment paradigm, delay is even more problematic than in a reinforcement paradigm. In fact, that's why most behaviorists recommend against punitive methods. Unless the timing is immediate, the horse just seems confused by the aversive experience or makes unintended associations with intervening events.

I could also imagine that if the horse becomes lame after foot work, he might be noncompliant with foot work at the next visit because of the actual pain at the time.

There is one example of efficient animal learning in which the adverse consequences are believed to be delayed. It is the “bait avoidance” learning phenomenon. When animals (most of this work has been done with laboratory rodents) become sick on a novel flavored food, they avoid ingesting foods with that flavor. Presumably there is a delay between tasting the food and getting sick. But the animal seems to learn quickly to stay away from that new flavor.

I have a new 7-year-old Paint horse. He doesn't mind having his front hooves cleaned, but he doesn't like his back legs touched. He will raise his leg, then he kicks out, making it impossible for me to hold onto his leg to clean his hoof. He has been checked out by a vet, so there are no health problems. Any help in how to teach this horse to let me clean his back hooves would be appreciated. How could a horse get to be this old without allowing his hind feet to be cleaned?        via e-mail

I'm glad to read that you view this as a learning issue, rather than a basic “bad horse” situation. Since the horse is good for manipulating the front feet, the prognosis should be excellent for teaching him to lift and hold the hind. Most horses are more sensitive about the hind legs and feet than the front. Since there is often greater danger working around the hind end, sometimes a horse gets to be seven years old without having much training with the hind feet. Or worse yet, sometimes when necessary, handlers just end up twitching or tranquilizing the horse so he never has the opportunity to learn.

For the horses that will lift a hind foot, then resist by kicking back, we want to be really sure they have no pain in the limb when held in that position. For the training, we try to lift very little at first and straight up, keeping the limb under the body rather than wrenching it out to the side. To train, we would touch the leg wherever tolerated, say “lift,” then lift the hoof just an inch or two, hold for a couple seconds, and gently set the hoof down. Then we would immediately give a treat, simultaneously saying “good.” We repeat that sequence three or four times for each hind leg. Next session, we repeat the four to five lifting replicates, lifting an inch or two higher, again taking care not to wrench the limb out to the side. We also start holding the leg up gradually longer, and start trying to brush the sole a little.

Over the course of about five or six sessions asking for a little higher and a little longer, the horse should be willing to lift normally and you can just go all around to clean four hooves in your usual sequence. You can drop back to intermittent food reinforcement, but always give the “good” conditioned reinforcement.

Can one horse learn to crib from another? I run a boarding barn where we sometimes get a cribber. There are lots of good reasons to say no to a cribber, but I have always wondered about the dogma that horses learn to crib from other horses. Personally, I have never known of one horse learning to crib from another horse, and when I ask other barn managers, they usually don't know of a good example. But some of our boarders have strong beliefs that this behavior is contagious and do not want their horse exposed. Does anyone know the real answer to this?      via e-mail

Unfortunately, I don't think anyone knows the real answer to this, which has been controversial for decades. It's one of the most commonly asked questions.

It's my impression that most equine behaviorists have not seen one horse learning to crib from another, but there are a few well-known behaviorists who think horses can. My own experience supports the conclusion that if one horse can learn to crib from another, it is extremely rare.

Our herd at the University of Pennsylvania has always had one or more cribbers. For a few years in the 1990s, we deliberately kept a large number of cribbers for use in pharmacology research aimed at understanding the underlying physiology of cribbing and for developing treatments. In that population, there were a large number of adult non-cribbers exposed to cribbers, and no non-cribbers ever started cribbing.

A reasonable argument is that it is more likely that young animals would “pick up the habit” than an older animal. Anecdotes in support of this argument are difficult to evaluate. Cribbing usually begins in juveniles, usually between two and five months of age. Certainly there have been foals that experienced their first cribbing while in the presence of a cribber. So whether that is purely coincidence that it just happened to be with a cribber at the time it started, or whether exposure to the cribber played any role, is difficult to know. It would also be difficult to test without doing a prospective study with a large number of horses, in which foals are kept with or without cribbers under otherwise standard conditions.

So, the risk of an adult horse learning to crib from another horse is likely very slim. There is growing evidence that factors related to the social and nutritional stress of weaning, including changes in the gut pH and gastric ulcers, might be much more important risk factors.

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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