A new program to teach horse handling methods based on learning theory to equine vets will make treatments safer.

Horses aren’t always the easiest of patients.

They kick; they bite; they bolt. They rear; they stomp their feet; they raise their heads so high you need a ladder. They pull back, break halters, and go running off kicking at everything in their path. And perhaps worst of all, they won’t stand still.

Obviously, not all equine patients are like this. But recent studies indicate that about 80% of veterinarians have suffered injury from a ‘difficult horse,’ and 37% of those veterinarians had lasting pain or disability from the injury.

With statistics like that, it’s no wonder many veterinarians choose to opt out of the equine field – and that there’s a real possibility of having too few equine veterinarians if the injury risks don’t change, according to Gemma Pearson, BVMS, Cert. AVP (EM), MScR, MRCVS, Horse Trust funded PhD student at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, in Scotland.

“Internationally, there is an awareness that there is a shortage of good quality large animal vets,” Pearson said.

That’s why she and her fellow researchers have been working on a new program to teach horse handling methods to veterinary students, based on equine learning theory. The project, carried out following a request by the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA), “aims to help reduce the number of good vets that are put off entering the profession or who leave it early,” Pearson said. “The fact that BEVA has invested in this project suggests that it is a significant issue.”

As part of her Masters thesis with the University of Edingurgh, Pearson and her fellow researchers recently tested the effects of a single lecture on practical learning theory tips for equine veterinarians on pre-final-year students. Pearson delivered a 45-minute classroom lesson on how horses learn and showed videos demonstrating how to apply that learning theory with equine patients. For example, she showed that simple negative reinforcement can work to get a resistant horse to lead into stocks. By lightly tapping the horse with a whip and then stopping the tapping as soon as she takes a step forward, the horse learns to move into the stock, Pearson said. Another of the approaches she explained was overshadowing—capturing the horse’s attention by having them perform a previously learned task (like stepping back on command), thereby drawing the attention away from the veterinary act (like a needle touching the skin). These techniques are always undertaken at a level where the horse can remain calm, she added.

Before and after the lecture, the students viewed videos of “difficult” horse patients and responded to questions about how to manage those patients, Pearson said. After the lecture, the students were more likely to suggest learning theory-based handling solutions. They also revealed that they had greater confidence in their ability to manage equine patients in general.

“This study suggests that a single lecture intervention has the potential to positively alter students’ perception of dealing with difficult horses in equine practice and may potentially influence the way they deal with difficult horses, thus creating a safer working environment,” the researchers stated.

Although some people—veterinarians and owners alike—might assume that it would take up too much time to actually train a horse during a vet call, effective use of learning theory actually ends up being faster (as well as safer) than traditional restraint methods, according to Pearson.

“For 95% of horses, spending from 30 seconds up to, say, two minutes training the horse is still quicker than fighting to restrain him, which may end up taking five to 10 minutes, to achieve the same thing,” she said. “For the really fearful horses, you do have to put much more time in, but you save time in the long run, while improving welfare and keeping everyone safe.”

That doesn’t mean owners need to leave all the work to their vets, though. Owners still have a duty to train their horses basic skills, like standing still and being touched, to help ensure the safety of the veterinary, according to study co-author Natalie Waran, PhD, a Fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science and Professor of One Welfare at Eastern Institute of Technology, in Napier, New Zealand.

“Owners should do all they can to prepare their horses for all they need to cope with in life, including vet checks and so on,” Waran said. “This is what a responsible owner should do.”

Read 6 Ethical Ways to De-spook your Horse by Dr Andrew McLean

Most importantly, owners should be sure their horses have acquired two main skills, Pearson added. “They should firstly learn to stand still unless cued otherwise, and secondly, to respond to basic cues from the lead rope to step forward or backwards, etc.,” she said. “This will be a safe horse for vets to deal with.”

Still, it’s “often difficult to train for everything,” Waran added. “And sometimes vets aren’t great at handling frightened or painful horses.”

And some horses that are “perfect” for their owners could actually be very difficult with veterinarians, Pearson added. “These horses were not born like this,” she said. “They have developed these aversions due to previous negative encounters with vets.”

When veterinarians arrive onsite with a ‘toolbox’ full of effective and ethical training skills, though, this can be win-win for everyone, the researchers agreed.

“Vets can apply low-stress techniques and learning theory to prevent problems from developing to start with,” Pearson said. “And when they come across horses that have already developed such problems, it’s the veterinarians who probably have to be the ones to resolve those problems, if the behaviour is context-specific to the presence of a veterinarian.”

“If veterinarians want to keep themselves safe and their clients confident and satisfied, they too need to up-skill using new techniques such as the application of learning theory,” added Waran.

The single 45-minute practical learning theory lecture was sufficient to give many veterinary students confidence and an understanding about how to safely work with horses—even if the practical skills might have to be further developed later depending on the person’s previous experience with horses, according to Pearson.

“I have received emails from students post-graduation to thank me for teaching them these techniques, as they have used them successfully on horses that were known to be dangerous or to have previously injured people,” she said. “As new graduates, it has given them the opportunity to impress both the owner and their new boss.”

The article titled: Incorporation of Equine Learning Theory into the Undergraduate Curriculum, by Gemma Pearson, Melanie Connor, John Keen, Richard Reardon, Natalie Waran is published in PubMed and the abstract can be read here.