August 2019 - Can Your Horse Handle the Vet?
Written by by Katharine V. Mertens, DVM
Friday, 02 August 2019 01:49


Horses can be trained to cooperate with veterinary care.

by Katharine V. Mertens, DVM

Think of all the things horses learn to do for us: they pull, carry, jump, spin, slide, in a variety of gaits over all types of terrain. They are able to do these things willingly because they understand the job at hand.

In contrast, few domestic horses understand the “job” of being a veterinary patient. Veterinarians, and owners, may not realize how easy it could be to teach them.

Think of the equine learning gap this way: If I asked the amateur owners in my practice whether they could saddle their horse daily, for more than two consecutive days, without causing stress to themselves or their horses, they’d look at me like I was crazy for asking. But if I asked these clients whether they could administer an oral medication for more than two consecutive days—a deworming protocol, for example—many of them would balk. What if they had to medicate twice daily for 5 consecutive days with an oral antibiotic? There might be a more experienced handler at the barn who could get it done, but accepting routine veterinary handling isn’t something the horse world considers normal operating procedure. And if the patient is a donkey or mule—forget it.

Oral medication is just one example of an equine veterinary behavioral stumper. Need sedation every 4-6 weeks so the farrier won’t quit?  You’re not the only one. Does your horse struggle with bandage changes? Will they stand quietly for recurring body work prescribed during rehab? Or perhaps your horse is so needle-shy that the annual vaccination visit resembles a rodeo.

“That’s just how he is,” clients will say about their horse, not realizing that its learned repertoire already demonstrates a willingness to cooperate with the highly unusual, and possibly even uncomfortable—an unyielding object strapped to its back, for example, or a piece of metal stuck in its mouth, or blinders obscuring its peripheral vision.

The learning gap for veterinarians is that we feel too busy completing the task at hand to teach horses or owners how to participate in veterinary care. Even if we had the time, we leave veterinary school knowing medicine and restraint techniques, but not horsemanship. We learn the nose twitch, neck or skin-fold twitch, ear twitch if absolutely necessary; snubbing with a very short lead rope; or holding up a leg. And, of course, we learn how to use chemical restraint—sedation, or general anesthesia.

What if we had non-invasive options? Might it be possible to teach veterinarians and owners about veterinary horsemanship?

About the time I started pondering this concept, I met Jody Ambrose and Megan Phillips at a conference on donkey welfare at UC Davis. We attended the same lecture on behavior patterns of horses and donkeys, and they liked the questions I was asking. “Of course, horses and donkeys can be taught to cooperate with veterinarians,” they told me. “We’ve done it.”

Ambrose and Phillips are behavior consultants, dedicated to sharing the science of how animals learn, along with teaching the art of strengthening the human-animal bond. With Ambrose’s background as an FEI level dressage rider and coach, and Phillips’ expertise working with marine and zoo mammals, the two joined forces to create Train With Trust® 12 years ago. They have been solving behavioral puzzles ever since. (See, for example, the short film Don’t Shoot the Zebra Pony, documenting their work to gain the trust of a previously unhandled zebra hybrid:

Their technique is founded on the scientific principle of additive (positive) reinforcement, whereby animals are taught that they have something to gain by choosing to perform the behaviors we want. For a zoo animal, what’s gained can be food, attention, praise—anything added to their environment which they find pleasing. The same can be true for horses. Using these methods, a hyena in a zoo learns to present its open mouth on cue for oral examination. Or a rhinoceros learns to stand nonchalantly for an unrestrained blood draw.

Historically, the horse world has been reluctant even to acknowledge that such methods can be used with horses. Train With Trust is closing the gap, and that’s good news for all of us. As horse owners come to appreciate that it’s a possibility, veterinary horsemanship may become the rule rather than the exception. When this happens, administering medical care, and getting through rehabilitation, will be safer, easier and a lot more fun—for horses, veterinarians, and owners.