When an owner is experiencing a behavioural problem with their horse it can be a frustrating and dangerous time for the owners, the handlers and the professionals involved with the patient. Studies indicate a high rate of injury for people who work with horses on the ground as well as when ridden. Eighty-one percent of vets have been reported to sustain at least one injury in five years, and 95 percent of vets report working with a horse whose behaviour was difficult to handle every month. Further, in a recent survey, 91 percent of owners reported some level of ridden behavioural problem in the week preceding the survey (Pearson et al., 2020; Hockenhull and Creighton, 2012). These rates are incredibly high and, sadly, so is the wastage rate of young horses, where behaviour is considered the leading cause for euthanasia. The most common behaviours that are reported as a problem for owners, either ridden or when handled, are often related to a horse’s natural behaviours that they express when they are in pain or are fearful, frustrated, conflicted or experiencing chronic stress. These behaviours are a safety concern for people and can cause a welfare concern for the horse.
What does an equine behaviourist do?
A suitably accredited behaviourist can be an important member of the vet-led team when a behavioural problem is presented to the veterinary surgeon. When all possible sources of physical cause have been investigated, a referral to a behaviourist can support the vet-led team to further investigate the motivation of the behaviour.
The behaviourist’s knowledge of equine ethology combined with learning theory contributes to understanding why a behaviour might still be expressed, even after initial retraining has occurred
The behaviourist’s role is to get a full understanding of the horse’s presenting behaviour. To achieve this, they need a full behavioural history alongside the clinical history, which allows them to begin pulling together all the differentials that might have initiated the problematic behaviour and to understand what is maintaining it. By understanding what is motivating and maintaining the behaviour, a plan can be implemented to reduce the horse’s motivation to exhibit the behaviour and prevent it being further reinforced, providing the opportunity for an ethical treatment programme and long-term improvement in behaviour. The behaviourist’s knowledge of equine ethology combined with learning theory contributes to understanding why a behaviour might still be expressed, even after initial retraining has occurred. Learning occurs with every interaction and experience a horse has with people.
The role of evolution
A horse is not being deliberately difficult, lazy or awkward, but may still be anxious or scared of a previous stimulus associated with specific situations. A horse’s ability to quickly associate events that cause them pain or fear can be a contributing factor to veterinary surgeons’ injury rates. It is an unfortunate situation that commonly when a vet is meeting a horse for the first time, it is to give an injection or to investigate a painful injury or condition. This combination of a new experience, such as blue gloves or the novel smell of the vet’s kit, can quickly be associated with the sting of an injection or fear of the novel experience. When a horse is anxious their body is primed to quickly learn any predictors of fear or pain, which can lead to an escalation of evasive or defensive behaviour when they next see one of these predictors. This can occur even before the examination has begun.
A horse’s ability to quickly associate events that cause them pain or fear can be a contributing factor to veterinary surgeons’ injury rates. It is an unfortunate situation that commonly when a vet is meeting a horse for the first time, it is to give an injection or to investigate a painful injury or condition
This behaviour makes perfect sense in terms of horse evolution: it keeps the horse safe, but not necessarily the person trying to handle them. When fear becomes engrained, it can significantly affect whether a horse can receive veterinary attention, and routine procedures might be avoided by the owner due to the stress of the event or the extra cost of time and sedation. A behaviourist can support an owner through a comprehensive plan to reduce the horse’s fear, which will help to reduce the undesirable behaviour when the vet next visits. Where emergency treatment is required, a plan can be formed between professionals to allow it to occur with the least amount of stress to both the animal and the handlers.
Finding a suitably accredited behaviourist can feel challenging, navigating the endless stream of acronyms, as well as the different methods advertised and the various training bodies. As it is currently an unregulated industry, anybody can call themselves a “horse behaviourist”. A reputable equine behaviourist should endeavour to be a member of an organisation that has high standards for both qualification and experience for its members, with a thorough complaints procedure and a clear and ethical code of conduct.
The regulatory body for behaviourists is the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC). The ABTC sets and maintains the standards of knowledge and practical skills that are needed to achieve recognised levels of accreditation. A behaviourist accredited to this standard will request veterinary referral to see the patient to ensure good, consistent communication and links to the veterinary practice in support of the vet-led team.
The development of a good relationship between the veterinary team and the behaviourist can allow opportunities for support earlier in the development of the behaviour. Earlier intervention can limit further escalation of the behaviour, and improve safety for handlers and the welfare of the horse.