'Learning Theory' to Improve Veterinarian Safety

'Learning Theory' to Improve Veterinarian Safety

In a recent study Pearson found notable improvement in horses' cooperation with veterinary examinations and treatment when learning theory was applied.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Editor's note: This article is part of TheHorse.com's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.


Equine veterinarians are all too familiar with the risks of working with their half-ton-plus patients. Frightened or injured horses, those with negative experiences, or even horses simply unfamiliar with health-care techniques and facilities, can cause serious accidents to humans, animals, and equipment.

However, if veterinarians could apply what researchers have learned about horse behavior, they could ensure better safety in both the clinic and the field, said Gemma Pearson, BVMS, MRCVS, equine veterinary intern at the Royal Dick Veterinary Equine Practice in Edinburgh, Scotland. Pearson presented on the topic during the 8th International Society for Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20, also in Edinburgh.

"It only takes a little bit more time initially, but when we use learning theory with horses we can prevent their fear responses during veterinary examinations," she said.

"Learning theory" refers to the body of research that has led to a better understanding of how horses learn, behave, and react. Two primary behavior management techniques--negative reinforcement and overshadowing--could be of particular use with "challenging" veterinary patients, Pearson said.

In a study led by Pearson at the Royal Dick Veterinary Equine Practice, Pearson found notable improvement in horses' cooperation with veterinary examinations and treatment when learning theory was applied.

"Instead of neck twitching and nose twitching, we can be teaching these horses that they can stay calm during the interventions," she said.

Negative reinforcement is a good learning tool to use for horses that are afraid of entering an examination room or stocks, for example, Pearson said. As some equine patients are unable to have food for medical reasons, positive reinforcement with food as a reward simply cannot be used.

"The goal then is to teach them to go, stop, and back up, with gentle whip tapping on the shoulder and release of pressure as soon as the horse moves forward, and then repeating this little by little," she said. "It really didn't take us much time (with horses that refused to enter the stocks), about 10 minutes in the first session, and from then on the horse was fine going into the stocks."

Horses that Pearson calls "needle-shy" can benefit from a technique called "overshadowing," she said. The concept is based on distracting horses from what they're afraid of by having them concentrate on a different task. By teaching them something simple such as walking forward and backing up at the same time that the veterinarian approaches the horse, the horse will eventually accept the needle.

"The key is finding the lowest threshold that the horse will accept to start with, and a lot of times that's just the veterinarian anywhere near the horse," Pearson said. "Little by little with overshadowing you can work up to pinching up a large bit of skin for the needle prick."

Tense horses often have very tight neck skin which makes needle pricking not only difficult but painful, Pearson added, so having a calm horse is better for everyone.

Pearson cautioned that not all horses were candidates for these techniques. For example, horses in extreme pain need immediate assistance, and those with fractures or tendon injuries should not put greater strain on their limbs through these techniques.

Through a questionnaire provided to people who work with horses in health care--veterinarians, technicians, and assistants--Pearson found that most respondents felt they were frequently dealing with "difficult" animals that could cause injury. And in fact, several of the respondents had been injured over the past year, she said. Some of them had been injured up to five times in a single year.

"A lot of vets are concerned about time constraints, thinking, 'I just have to get the job done,'" Pearson said. "But these methods really don't take much more time. We need to integrate them into vet schools and into the veterinary environment in general for improved safety."

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at a competition stable east of Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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