Potty Problems

Q:I have a serious problem with my 3-year-old Warmblood filly I recently purchased. I had her extensively vetted, and she vetted clean. However, after she arrived, I learned that her previous owner had conditioned her to not urinate in her stall. They did not put shavings on top of the stall mats, which, of course, made her inclined to not urinate as it would splatter her legs and feet. We have 12-by-14 stalls, which we bed pretty deeply, and it never occurred to me she would not "go" inside. She would wait until turnout. Sometimes it was more than 16 hours. Once we determined she just was not going to urinate regardless, I began to take her out on her lead rope and walk her twice daily. She will just go while out on her lead rope. I do not want to cause damage to her urinary tract, kidneys, or bladder, but I also do not plan to have a 1,400-pound dog to walk. How do I uncondition this behavior?      --Lynda, via e-mail

A: In my experience, horses that appear reluctant to urinate, and that are normally well-hydrated and don't have a physical problem or disease, will eventually urinate before incurring harm. So if a horse has been trained to urinate in particular location or to avoid urinating at particular times or places, the horse should urinate before it does harm as long as it has been taking in normal amounts of water. Similarly for horses that have a natural aversion to urinating on a hard surface, in a trailer, or whatever, they will urinate eventually. So if this were my filly, I would feed her a mash or soak her hay in fresh clean water so that I am sure she is ingesting plenty of water, then I would just wait.

Since in the case of your filly you tried for as long as 16 hours and she did not yet urinate, you might take some additional steps to encourage urination. To be very sure she is well-hydrated before putting her in the stall, you could allow her to graze on lush, wet grass for a few hours or overnight. It might also help to change the type of bedding, say, from shavings to straw.

It sounds like it has become her routine to urinate as soon as she is taken outside. The urge to urinate is likely enhanced by this arousal and exercise of moving around, together with a change in environment. So you might be able to take advantage of this tendency to get her to urinate in the stall. If after a few hours in her stall she has not yet urinated, you could take her out of the stall for a walk around inside the barn and into another stall. If that works, then next time just go back to her stall. She should eventually give up the aversion to urinating in her stall.

Urination also seems somewhat socially facilitated in some horses, so if you have a horse that reliably urinates whenever placed into a stall, you could try to incorporate that event into your retraining regimen. For example, you could take that horse out of the stall and into a freshly bedded stall within sight and sound of your filly at the same time that you return your filly to her stall after a walk inside the barn. If this is a learned aversion, the filly should eventually give up the "holding" in her stall.

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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