Horses and Veterinarians: How to Get Along

"Veterinarians work under a great handicap when handling horses--almost everything the veterinarian does to a horse is either frightening or painful," began Robert Miller, DVM. However, that doesn't mean there's no way for a veterinarian to work comfortably with a horse, he says. With a bit of patience, time, and understanding of the horse's flighty nature, veterinarians and horse owners can easily train a horse to work with them rather than against them.

Miller discussed equine psychology and its application to veterinary practice at the 2009 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention held Dec. 5-9 in Las Vegas, Nev. Beginning with his early equine experiences, Miller discussed the observations and training methods that have led him to become an authority on equine behavior, training, and imprinting.

The Equine Flight Response and How to Avoid It

"The horse's primary means of survival is instantaneous flight when frightened by an unfamiliar sensory stimulus," Miller explained. "The stimulus may be visual, olfactory (smell), tactile (touch), auditory (sound), or a combination of any of these. Flightiness is the reason horses so often injure themselves or the people who handle them, and it is the reason horses may be perceived as stupid animals. To the contrary, flightiness has evolved to help the horse survive in a natural, open environment.

"In the author's opinion, the horse is a timid creature, and this timidity and flightiness are genetically fixed traits that have been modified, but not eliminated, by generations of domestication," he said. "To work with any species, the basic behavioral mechanism of that species in the wild state must be identified and accepted. Therefore, the less a horse is frightened when working around or with it, the less innate behavioral responses will be exhibited."

Miller described the evolution of his horse handling from a traditional march-straight-up-to-the-horse style, equipment and restraints in hand, to a slower, less-intimidating one.

"Gradually I changed everything I did, and slowed down," he recalled. "I didn't carry a bunch of equipment. I looked at the ground, slumped down to make myself look smaller, and presented a more passive appearance. I'd introduce myself to my patient by going to the shoulder first and petting the leg, rubbing it, and waiting to see the head start to drop down. Then I'd rub the withers and neck, and when the neck came down, I'd start to rub the face, and soon I'd hear the sigh I used to call the letdown--when the horse decides I'm not there to eat him. I'd invest one minute, maybe two, to allay the horse's fear. My clients like my approach, but more importantly the horses like that approach."

This approach allows Miller to start off on the right foot and train horses to accept most routine veterinary procedures without fear or restraint. "It is worth the time it takes to train horses, because each will be a more cooperative patient in the future," he commented. "The goal is to create respect and submission rather than pain, which results in fear and physical resistance. It is safer and more expedient to work on the trained horse in the future. Certainly such methods present a better image of the equine practitioner than conventional restraint methods, which can look cruel, even if they are not."

Catching Horses

"If you can't catch a horse without a bucket of grain, you aren't training him, he's training you," Miller stated. "I used to try to catch horses like normal people. I'd hide a rope behind my back as if this most perceptive of animals couldn't see that. I'd say 'whoa boy,' effectively desensitizing him to the word 'whoa.' And to settle him I'd say 'good boy,' rewarding him for running away ..."

These days, Miller advocates making the horse uncomfortable while he's avoiding being caught and comfortable when he stops avoiding the catch. He showed several videos to illustrate this principle, whereby he physically darts toward the horse and drives him to move as long as he's avoiding the catch and immediately stops, looks down, and steps back when the horse looks or turns toward him. Eventually, the horse learns that he can rest by turning his attention toward the human trying to catch him, but that avoiding the human results in being chased. From there, it is a short step to moving toward the human for the catch.

These learning sessions take only a few minutes, said Miller, and only a few repetitions before the horse becomes consistently easy to catch. There is one caveat: "Horses associate their learning with where they learn it," noted Miller. "So you have to do it (catch the horse) in four, five, six places before (the desired behavior) is not specific to the place."

Imprint Training

"The horse is a precocial species in that, like many prey species, the young are fully developed at birth and can run from danger soon afterward," said Miller. "In such species, tactile conditioning, otherwise known as imprint training, can be initiated immediately after birth. Ideally, training should begin at the time of birth, and the foal, by one week of age, can be already trained to accept many procedures that are customarily delayed until later in life. For example, the 1-week-old foal should lead, stand tied, load into a trailer, stop, turn, back on command, allow any part of its body to be handled, pick up its feet on command, and be submissive to humans. A foal, desensitized in this manner, will retain its memory of these experiences, even if not handled for months after the initial training.

"I have been doing this with foals for 50 years with no failures," he added. "But you have to learn to do it right; like anything, if you don't do it correctly, don't blame the method. It's an elaborate, ritualized procedure, and I urge you to learn it well before applying it. If you make mistakes, you can create permanent problems."

He described several instances of horses and other animals that were imprinted, then not handled for months or more, but still remembered their early training and were easily handled when needed.

"If you can get your clientele to do this properly, it really makes for gentler patients," he commented. "Practicing in this manner is less hazardous, less stressful, more enjoyable, and more effective.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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