Teaching Your Horse To “Like” The Vet

Ok so “like” might be a stretch, let’s try for “tolerate the vet” or “not be scared of the vet” maybe.

In personal news, I got a dog! He is a rescue and while I love him already he needs a lot of work! He was never socialized properly so he is reactive to pretty much everything. We are in the process of teaching him all about the world now, which includes preparing him for possible vet trips, crate training, muzzle training, physical exams, and anything else that might happen at a veterinarian visit. I want him to recognize the procedures as a fun game that we play at home so that they are less scary when they happen at the vet.

This got me thinking about the things that I think horse people might like to know to help their horses “like” our visits. Helping a horse habituate to certain procedures, and even learning to enjoy them because they come with treats, can really help reduce your horse’s stress, and your own, when you are in a situation where the vet needs to handle them. Vet-based fear can be a very real problem, too often horses only see us when they are sick or hurt, or we are doing something that they consider unpleasant, like vaccines. This means that they quickly learn that they don’t like that person, and they look for ways to avoid us. This can cause more stress and become dangerous when the horse needs to be evaluated or treated.

As you may have read about in my previous blogs, I have done some extra training about Fear-Based Behaviours in horses, and the sad reality is that most of them center on professionals – vets and farriers. Like most things related to training a horse, behaviour modification has layers of complexity and takes a long time to put methods into practice. I want to touch on some basic principles, as well as some specific procedures that are worth practicing.

Important disclaimer – if your horse shows fear with these procedures and in any way becomes dangerous in their attempt to avoid them, please seek help from a professional before practicing!

One important concept that I really like to think about is the “Trust Bank Account”. If you think about the trust your horse has with you like a currency you can imagine that when you first meet the balance is $0. As you experience things together and they turn out okay – good – great then you are depositing trust in that bank account! Every once in a while you make a withdrawal – You say, “it is okay to walk past the scary tarp” but then the scary tarp catches the wind and attacks you = less trust in the account. Or you ask the horse to get on a scary trailer and they do, but it is dark and rattles and the journey is stressful, another withdrawal.  As long as you have a positive balance, you’re doing well! As veterinarians, we start off with that $0 balance and often just keep making withdrawals, we end up in the negatives pretty quickly!

The next concept is Learning Theory – in a nutshell, the way that animals respond to certain stimuli is often based on past experience of the outcome. So if a behavior results in a positive outcome, the animal is more likely to repeat that behavior. If a behavior results in a bad outcome then the animal is less likely to repeat that behavior. This is divided into 4 categories:

  • Positive Reinforcement – a behavior results in the addition of something pleasant – the behavior will likely be repeated (think treats!)
  • Negative reinforcement – a behavior results in the removal of something unpleasant – the behavior will likely be repeated (pressure on the horse’s side goes away when they move sideways away from the pressure)
  • Positive Punishment – a behavior results in the addition of something unpleasant – the horse is less likely to repeat the behavior (You bite me, I hit you and it hurts)
  • Negative punishment – a behavior results in the removal of something pleasant – the horse is less likely to repeat the behavior (this one is harder to make sense of in animals, with humans it would be taking away a toy because of bad behavior or sending a child to a time-out when they want to be at the party)

We use these theories in horse training all the time without knowing it. The primary mode of training traditionally has been negative reinforcement, teaching horses to move away from pressure. This is how our bits work, how our leg aids work, and how our halters work.

A professional trainer will use all of these in combination to achieve a desired outcome. Behaviorists will try to use a positive reinforcement first and punishment as a last resort. This is because it is more pleasant to work with happy animals, but also that research shows us that rewarding the RIGHT behavior tends to work better than punishing the WRONG behavior and leaving the animal guessing at what they were supposed to do instead.

SO with those concepts in place – what specific procedures can people practice to help make veterinary appointments more pleasant? And how do you teach them the right response? There is an art to timing your treats. At first, it can just be that no matter what they do, they get a treat when this thing happens – this builds a positive association and gets them into a mindset to learn. Then you can start waiting for the right behaviour, the treat doesn’t come until you stand still for the pinch on the neck mimicking an intramuscular injection, or step forward, or pick up your leg, etc. These are all things that people can build in to their daily interactions with their horse. Every moment you are together, they are learning something!

  • Meeting the vet is a great place to start. Especially if your horse shows fear based just on the presence of a vet. Try to find ways for the vet to interact with your horse in calm, positive situations. A quick treat in the stall, or cross ties. Work on the balance of that trust bank account before you ever have to make a withdrawal.
  • Have your vet show you how to perform a physical exam. You don’t need to know all of the intricacies of the exam, just how to move your body and manipulate the horse in the same way that we do so that your horse understands the pattern. Most of us do this in a very similar and predictable way. Doing this while your horse is healthy means that you can use food treats! Check the gums – treat, place a stethoscope in the armpit – treat!, thermometer in the bum – treats!!
  • Practice the steps leading up to needles. Stand beside the horse and raise the jugular vein or pinch the skin and then reward. Pinching the neck on both sides. Some horses just know the posture of someone standing square to their neck and they get ready to react, we very rarely stand like that when we are grooming or interacting with our horses. So stand square to the neck and TREAT!
  • Pick up feet and hold them in different ways and for longer periods of time. Please please please do this, even if your horse has pads. Your vet and farrier will thank you!
  • Trailer loading. This is my plea – please practice trailer loading so that if the time comes that your horse needs to get on a trailer to go to the hospital, he will do it without hesitation and without stress. Plan this in the same way that you plan any other training session. Horses don’t start jumping 1.5 m jumps, they start on cavalettis. So learn to approach the trailer calmly. That’s a good first session. Stick their head in and let them eat some food, put one foot on the ramp. Go in and hang out for 30 seconds and then leave again. Keep building that up. Over the winter put the trailer in the arena and just work on loading and unloading, the trailer doesn’t have to go on a trip every time. Make it a fun game with lots of treats and positive, calm energy.

There are so many other things that horse people can focus on and practice with their horse depending on the individual horse’s fears and specific needs. If you have questions about your horse please ask your vet. We are always happy to help you and your horse feel more comfortable with our visits. We feel better about our day when the horses might actually, maybe, like us!

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Returning to Fitness

That word & concept, FITNESS, has changed for me over the years as a result of my professional training and my personal journey. Now, fitness is the ability to feel good in your skin, to move in ways that you love, and the ability to recover afterwards while listening to your body. Fitness is not 1 body shape, 1 body type, or 1 athletic goal. In horse sport, our fitness and our horse’s fitness are intimately entwined with each other.

Many equine athletes have never truly had to plan a fitness program. Many of us started riding when we were very young and muscle pain was a fleeting sensation. When I was 17, I would muck 40 stalls and then ride 3 horses every day, and I never felt sore!! Likewise, the horses we rode were school horses or horses in training that were already at a certain level of fitness before we started with them. We never had to think about their muscle groups and their cardiopulmonary capabilities.

As we all start to return to our sport and our horses after a couple of months of a global pandemic, some people may for the first time be recognizing the struggle of ‘returning to fitness’. This isn’t just for the riders, but also the horses. Some of them have never had that length of time resting and will need to work hard to return to fitness.

This return to fitness takes planning, it takes thought, and above all, it takes forgiveness for our bodies and our horses’ bodies when we can’t immediately do something that used to feel so easy.

In my own journey, I stopped consistently riding when I went to university. A few years later I had the opportunity to ride a friend’s horse. I remember getting on and being so confused why my body wasn’t responding the way I expected and wondering why I felt so off balance and floppy. The next day I had a lightbulb moment, I called my friend and said “I figured it out! EVERYTHING is sore EXCEPT for my abs! I wasn’t engaging my core at all!” It turns out you need your core to ride properly…

About a year ago I was having a lot of shoulder pain from dental floats so my chiropractor and I discussed the body postures I was holding during that procedure and also the strength training I was doing to stabilize and support my shoulder – which at the time was ZERO. So, I joined a gym and had an introductory meeting with the head instructor. I told her, “I have no idea how to work out, I have never been a gym person because I was always active growing up. You could put me in the middle of the best equipped gym in the world and I would probably just get on the treadmill.” Luckily for me this gym in Guelph is a class-based format and they have been amazing, not just in helping me figure out the ways that I like to move to get fit but also in understanding my fitness journey. When you challenge new muscles it burns and it is HARD and your muscles will try to cheat when they get tired so you need to back off and really intentionally focus on correct movement. Then, the next day, you are SORE. After a few months of commitment though, an amazing thing happened – classes weren’t as hard (until I picked up heavier weights), I recovered more easily, and my shoulder stopped hurting! From these experiences I have had to step back and take a look at what we ask of our horses and how we allow for their journey to fitness.

Recently, I also pursued further education in Veterinary Spinal Manipulation Therapy at the Veterinary Chiropractic Learning Centre. There I was challenged to look at the biomechanics of the horse differently – how are they using their muscles, how are they balancing their body, how are they moving through their joints and transferring energy for movement? Anyone who has spent time with me for a VSMT appointment knows that I feel strongly that what I do in the treatment is only a small part of the approach, it is the targeted exercises in between treatments that make the most difference. We need to teach both the rider and the horse to change their routine to encourage different patterns of movement and development of correct muscle groups and balance. This approach has to be horse specific, the movement and muscle balance of endurance horses, jumpers, and reining horses are all going to be drastically different. Just like the muscling of a marathon runner, a football player, and a dancer are all going to be different.

So as I put these experiences and thoughts together and as we all return to the horses and riding that we missed so much, I have some very general advice.

  • Don’t expect either your horse or your own body to jump right back to the level of riding that you were doing before the lockdown. We aren’t all 17 anymore and that’s okay.
  • Make a plan, and be ready to be flexible if it isn’t going perfectly.
  • Take this opportunity to build the correct muscle and movements from the beginning.
  • Forgive yourself and your horse for being sore, for being tired, and for needing recovery time.
  • Use the soreness as a road map: if you are sore in your shoulders and arms but not your abs and gluts, how are you riding? If your horse is sore in the latts and neck but not in the gluts and hamstrings, how is he carrying himself?

You, your horse, and your goals together are individuals so I’m not going to give specific exercises here. Find a professional that you trust to help you navigate that planning stage. I will only add my opinion that everything starts from a good, engaged walk – the walk is the most under-appreciated gait.

The world hit a big reset button this year, let’s take it as an opportunity to really embrace the fitness journey that we go on with our horses.

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COVID-19 For Horse People – Applying What We Already Know.

The first step in dealing with any rapidly evolving situation like this is to take a deep breath and think logically. Let’s all do that. Breath IN. Breath OUT. Our world has rapidly changed in the last 5 days. It happened a little earlier for Asia and then Europe. I do not intend for this post to replace the recommendations made by the World Health Organization or Public Health. I am not a human doctor, an epidemiologist, or a virologist. I am a veterinarian. Herd health, disease outbreak management, and biosecurity – we are trained for this. One thing that I am more than willing to acknowledge is that this is all so much easier with animals! I do not envy my human doctor counterparts right now.

As someone who has worked in an equine hospital that suddenly didn’t have enough stalls for the number of horses that needed isolation, I am terrified at the idea of hospitals over-capacity. Quarantine or isolation units are carefully designed and laid out to reduce disease transmission and still allow for efficient work flow. The minute you have to step outside that to make pseudo-isolation it becomes immensely harder, more time-consuming, and ultimately less effective. This is why we must flatten the curve!

I am going to make a comparison between Covid-19 and Strangles but I need to outline the important differences:

  • CoVid19 is an unknown, novel VIRUS that nobody has been exposed to before and we don’t have predictable data for.
  • Strangles is a known, endemic BACTERIA that has been well studied and is quite predictable.

The similarities:

  • They are both highly contagious respiratory pathogens that can be transmitted through fomites (objects that carry the pathogen from one person to another).

However, horse people, if you have ever dealt with a strangles outbreak (or an influenza outbreak, or even a ringworm outbreak) then you know the basics of how to deal with this! If the entire horse population had strangles, what would you do? I’m guessing you’d be wrapping your horse up tight in a protective bubble.

If we think of countries as barns and the whole world as our horse community. We have one heck of an outbreak going on. Someone got the disease and then was allowed to go to a big show (think, The Royal!) and now it is spreading and it is hard to know who might be infected. So, what do we do with our horses? We take a deep breath and then we lock it down. Let’s look at the AAEP Strangles guidelines and reapply them to the current situation.

ANYTHING that touches an infected or suspect infected horse of any age or carries secretions or excretions … may have the potential to transfer pathogens to other horses.

  • Everything you touch may have the virus or may get the virus from you. Barn owners dealing with an outbreak quickly figure out the least amount of touching possible because they have to clean everything that gets touched. STOP TOUCHING EVERYTHING! For example – consider using your tap payment on credit cards instead of entering your pin on the touch pads.

Create 3 color‐coded groups, even if limited space dictates that horses must remain in the same paddock only separated by 2 layers of electric fence to avoid nose to nose contact.

  • The red group should include horses that have shown 1 or more clinical signs consistent with strangles.
    • These are our obviously infected people. This group is the easiest – they are in isolation in a hospital receiving care or isolated at home until doctors are sure they are no longer shedding virus and can re-enter the general population.
  • Horses in the amber group are those that have had direct or indirect contact with an infected horse in the red group and may be incubating the infection.
    • This is quite a bit trickier as the infection spreads across our globe. Who has been exposed? How can you be sure? This is where the uncertainty and panic comes in. Take another deep breath. Right now, these are the people returning from outside of Canada and being asked to respect a 14-day self-isolation and monitor for signs of disease.
    • Take your temperature daily. Listen to your body. Stay away from other people.
    • In our situation this is also anyone who shows signs of illness. People shedding the virus aren’t discharging huge amounts of obvious snot because this isn’t really like strangles at all. If you have signs of illness, you are in the amber group whether you’ve travelled or not. Stop touching things, stop visiting people.
  • The remaining horses, in the green group, are those which have had no known direct or indirect contact with affected animals.
    • Time to keep it that way. Reduce contact with RED and AMBER groups.
    • Think about your horse farms, the horses that get turned out together ONLY get turned out together. They do not alter their routines. They do NOT leave the farm until the risk of transmission has passed.
    • Stay within your family group. Don’t move around outside of that and endanger people that have compromised immune systems. Don’t mix social groups, it may be inconvenient but it isn’t worth risking lives.
    • We deal with disappointed people, cancelled shows, cancelled lessons, cancelled plans. It is unfortunate but it is better than letting the infection spiral out of control. This is the same situation, short term discomfort for long term benefits.
  • The rectal temperature of all horses in the green and amber groups should be measured twice daily and any febrile horse should be moved to the red group.
    • Constant monitoring, checking in, making daily decisions about which group each person should be in. A lot of this is self-monitoring so make good decisions! We aren’t horses and we don’t all have a strict barn manager making the calls on which group we belong to.

We have to be our own “barn managers” in this scenario. Keep up objective monitoring and open, honest dialogue with your family and community. Continue to re-evaluate what the level of risk is and see areas where you can reduce it. I often joke that horse people are the worst at being on stall rest themselves, we don’t like to sit still. But please, please, let’s help our communities understand how to limit the spread of infectious disease, because most of us have grown up with it and know it better than most.

For more information visit: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019 or https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/coronavirus-disease-covid-19.html Reference: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jvim.15043

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A weekend on call – The first rule of on call is WE DON’T TALK ABOUT ON-CALL

People are often asking me about our On-Call emergency service and what that is like as a vet. What does it look like when you are on call? Do you have to stay at the clinic? Do you have help from an assistant? How long are you on call for?

What I can tell you about are my experiences. There is no standard for on-call, every clinic is different. I have been lucky enough to always be a part of a group practice so I have never had to be on-call 24/7/365. People do, and I think they must be super-human. I have always worked in practices where the on-call is shared so you are often on 1 night during the week and then 1 or 2 weekends per month. On call generally starts at 5pm when everyone else leaves work, and continues until 8am the next morning when everyone else comes back. Over the weekend this means 5pm on Friday until 8 am Monday. It is one of those rare work situations when you are excited for Monday morning at 8am, that is when help arrives!!

The emergency caseload of each individual clinic varies. When vet clinics are posting job advertisements for veterinarians they will often state the emergency caseload so that prospective vets can get an idea of how crazy the on call might be. That being said, there are often certain vets that seem to be “emergency magnets” ($#%! magnets) and others that never seem to get called. There are also different times that seem to have more emergencies – heat waves, cold snaps, full moons, Friday the 13th, any time you try to plan a dinner… stuff like that. Ask an Alberta vet if they want to be on-call during a chinook… the answer is NO. Equine veterinarians on-call are a superstitious bunch (if you didn’t already get that from my list of high risk times). One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to know is that we do NOT like to talk about on-call while we are on-call, we don’t want to say if it has been busy or not. We don’t want to talk about potential plans. And please never EVER say the word “QUIET”. I didn’t even like typing it. The “Q” word. Say that in a room of veterinarians and technicians and you are likely to get shouted right out of the room. Not “Has it been quiet?”, not “I hope it is quiet”, and definitely not “It sure is quiet right now”! BAD juju!

I will take you through 3 scenarios of an on-call weekend. In all cases I’m allowed to go home whenever emergencies aren’t happening. So I try to go home after work Friday and stay near home/in the call zone for the weekend. I don’t make any big plans because it’s no fun to cancel on your friends all the time. I have never had an assistant on-call over the weekend with me. At the hospital facility we had an intern that was at the hospital all weekend, taking care of the horses that are already in hospital, and then if emergency surgery needs to happen a whole team comes in for the surgery.

Scenario 1- A high- emergency caseload hospital practice in Alberta.

Friday at 5pm the phones are turned over. I would often work on paper work for a couple of hours at the clinic so that I was already there during the time when everyone turns horses in, feeds, and rides after work, that is when emergencies get noticed. As I’m working on paperwork I get a call – one of the wonderful assistants that works at the clinic is also the emergency call operator, “Hey Hun, sorry, there is a colic coming in”. So I call the owner, get the details and ETA. A few hours later the horse is set up in a stall, IV fluids running, comfortable, and ready for his monitored sleep over with the intern. I leave and arrive home around 9pm, scavenge some food, turn my ringer up, and go to bed. My alarm goes off at 7am – I get up, shower, eat breakfast, and get dressed before 8am. Experience has taught me that it is best to be fully ready for the day by 8am on Saturday. I get to hang out on my couch until about 10am when I get another call – swollen eyes down south of the city. My wonderful husband helps me make tea and snacks for whatever else the day may bring. From the swollen eyes I travel to a lame horse, then up to the clinic to check the colic, grabbing lunch on the way. The colic is doing well, yay! Spend some time at the clinic helping with bandage changes and catching up on medical records. I start to drive home for dinner… and a phone call comes through, another horse being referred for colic. It arrives at the hospital, we work it up, the horse is moderately painful but responds to treatment. However, he still isn’t quite right, I don’t feel like I can go home. Luckily I don’t get any other calls and I am able to stay at the hospital to repeatedly check on him, and there is a Tim Hortons nearby. There is a couch in the reception area where I can sleep (with the clinic cat who LOVES when we have to sleep there). Around 4am I can hear him pawing in his stall and it rouses me out of my half sleep; he is painful again and this time it is worse. Rectal exam makes me suspicious of a volvulus or a twist in his large intestine. Call the owner, call the surgeon, call the anesthesia technician, wake everyone up – it is go time. We get the horse on the surgical table, correct the displacement and twist. As we are waking him up I get another call for a horse that has an esophageal choke about 45 minutes away. It is now Sunday morning, here we go again. The day follows with me bouncing between calls, coming back to check on this guy after his surgery, and eventually making it home around 6pm and collapsing onto the couch. The on-call gods are kind for the rest of the evening and leave me alone. Arrive at the clinic Monday morning at 7am to check patients and be ready to update the rest of the hospital staff (yay help has arrived!!)

Scenario 2 – A typical MPES weekend in Campbellville

Head home from work Friday evening, just after dinner there is a call for a colicky horse. I go to see the horse on farm, treat, home by 9pm. No calls overnight (yay!). Wake up early, the horse still isn’t quite right so I go back to the farm to recheck him. Based on progress exam he would be better off on IV fluids at the hospital so I contact the Ontario Veterinary College, give the veterinarian there the details of the case and he is soon on his way. Afterwards I make it home, clean my kitchen, and then another call for a very lame horse comes through. On my way to the lame horse I get a call about a colicky horse in the same area. Colic trumps lameness, so I call the first client, make sure that the horse is okay to stand quietly in his stall while I go to see the colic first (“yep, of course”, I love horse people). Examine and treat the colic and then head to the lameness. Treat the lameness (abscess, yay!). Back home, do some laundry, make dinner, get to stay home for the evening. Sunday there is one call for a laceration in the afternoon, otherwise I get to putter around my house.

Scenario 3 – A unicorn weekend!

Friday I head home from work, make dinner, watch some TV, stare at my phone, maybe watch a movie. Saturday morning, wake up, do some things around the house. I wait until after the regular morning stable chores are probably done and then I feel like I can maybe go for a walk or out to the store. Maybe even meet a friend for coffee. I check my phone a few times, make sure the ringer is on… ask my husband to text it to make sure it is working… still no calls.  Wake up Sunday, putter around the house some more or maybe get brave and venture out. Talk to my vet colleagues and describe the weekend without using the dreaded “Q” word. Then, wake up Monday and I’ve made it! A weekend without calls! Smile that all the horses are healthy and happy 🙂 On-call is a roll of the dice. You never know which scenario you are going to get and you always keep a change of clothes and some chocolate in the truck, just in case! As I finish writing this I am realizing that I am now on call for the next 5 days because I am covering someone else’s shift in addition to my own and my regular weekend. I hope I haven’t jinxed it!

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What is Equitation Science and Why Should We Care?

Equitation Science is the study of horse behaviour and welfare in an objective, science-based manner. Research spans topics from riding and competing to “the other 23 hours”.

I attended my first International Society of Equitation Sciences conference this past month and I loved it! It was such an amazing group of people, all working toward the common goal of giving our horses the best lives possible and proving what is truly ‘best’ through scientific research. The people in attendance were primarily academics and researchers, as well as trainers, riders, and a couple of veterinarians like me. They are from all over the world, with the majority of the research coming out of Europe and Australia. The society was formed in 2005 when a group of like-minded researchers gathered in Australia to begin to address the lack of research into the science of horseback riding. This has since expanded to include the entirety of horses lives as they interact with humans.

Some will argue that interacting with horses, whether it is on their back or from the ground, is more of an art form than a science. While I agree that there is art in the ability to communicate and work with a horse in a harmonious manner, I have to say that there is also a place for science to help improve our management and training methods.

As a veterinarian, I wanted to attend this conference from the viewpoint that we as vets are asked our opinion on husbandry or even training decisions fairly frequently. We also handle horses every day and if anyone can benefit from further knowledge of their behaviour, it is equine veterinarians. There is also a large body of research into horse welfare, and what qualifies as cruel treatment. The Ontario government has changed the way that it handles cruelty investigations and we are currently in a transition period, we are supposed to have a more concrete system in place this fall… what will be the role of veterinarians? We don’t know yet.

Let me take you through some of the highlights (for me) of the conference!

The pre-conference workshop with the amazing Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue team was an important view into how we handle horses in emergency situations, how we interact with a team of first responders, and how we keep everyone safe. These are skills that you hope you never have to use, such as a horse down in a trailer that has crashed or helping horses out of a barn fire. In this early part of my career, I have already been involved in both of those situations. That is worthy of an entire blog on its own.

A large focus of the conference was teaching these scientists different techniques to help communicate their findings to horse people. If we can’t effectively pass the science from the laboratory to the stable then it isn’t benefiting the horses.    

The Change Cycle – human learning science. Before we can change, we need to become aware that there is a problem.

Looking at the correlation between rider weight and horse behaviour. Research has shown that increases in weight can lead to increased stress measurements in horses (heart rate, lactate, and respiratory rate), as well as a decrease in stride length. This study looked at sudden increases in weight using weight vests, increasing rider weight within a rider: horse ratio of 15-23%. Within this range of weight ratios, there was no significant response to increased rider weight.

Horse and rider safety in-game encounters. Did you know that you can go on an African safari on horseback?!?! I didn’t! These researchers looked at the stress levels of the horses used, specifically as they approached wild game. They found that the horses were generally alert but did not show extreme flight responses. They found significant differences in stress behaviours between the breeds used, thoroughbreds showing more stress than the local ‘Bush Pony’ breed. They also found that horses showed the most stress when approaching giraffes as opposed to other game species- who knew?

There was a large focus on equipment use in riding. We listened to presentations about the micklem bridle vs conventional bridles, effects on sub-noseband tissues with different noseband tensions, noseband design and rein tension, spur use in the UK, whip use in competition. This is the research that is changing FEI rules and will affect all of our other competition rules!

One presentation discussed the common pitfalls associated with measuring the equine stress response. What does an increased heart rate mean and how can we appropriately measure it? Do our measuring techniques themselves cause stress, like blood or saliva sampling? Are our tools giving us accurate results, particularly heart rate variability measures in horses with physiological arrhythmias? These are really important questions that will help us accurately interpret research findings.

This one was fun – looking at the impact of a companion horse during stressful situations. Researchers looked at horses’ approach to novel objects and their reaction to an unusual event (suddenly opening an umbrella) both alone and with a companion. In the test with novel objects, the companion helped to decrease reactivity. In the test with sudden stimuli, the companion improved recovery time. In a nutshell – horses do better in scary situations if they have a buddy. This makes my heart happy.

Finally, one area that I found to be extremely significant was the discussion about the National Farm Animal Care Council of Canada. I am proud of the work and science that our country has put into creating Codes of Practice for the care and handling of farm animals. Do you know about these Codes of Practice? Have you read them? The codes provide minimum standards and recommendations for the welfare of animals.  These codes are due for update and revision in 3 years and the science being produced right now will impact the new codes. If you haven’t, you should have a look at the code: https://www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice/equine

There is so much more that I could talk about; the importance of learning theory in training across all species, the different devices being used to monitor heart rate at rest and during exercise, the perspective of Gypsy people on their horses’ welfare, different slow feeder designs, and more!

Please have a look at the website for the International Society for Equitation Sciences: https://equitationscience.com/

And if you don’t already, follow these science-based publications on social media:

Equitation Science International, Horses and People Magazine, Justine Harrison – Equine Behaviorist

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Vaccine Season – Why Am I So Scary?

Vaccine season is finally winding down as we come into the summer months. The spring months when we do our preventative health care is a busy time for us in equine medicine. It is the one time of year that we see almost all of the horses in our practice. Many of our core vaccines are seasonal here in Canada so we try to vaccinate in the spring prior to exposure to mosquitos, wildlife, and other horses.
One thought that always comes to the forefront for me during this season is, why am I so scary? Many of these horses only see me for vaccines and then have a whole year to forget about it. Somehow, as soon as I walk into the barn some will be on high alert (do I smell?), or others will be fooled up until the point that I stand beside them and face them. That’s generally when the evasive behaviours start. Trust me, I get it, I actually hate needles when they are going into me, I’m a big baby about it too. However, there is such a big difference between the horses that become panic-struck and the horses that flinch a little bit and then forgive me, I have to wonder what actually makes this difference, I act the same every time. I still don’t have an answer to this question.
I have been interested in horse behavior for a long time. I have wondered how behavior issues could become a larger focus in veterinary medicine. The difficulty is that there is a big grey area between training and behavioural therapy. When do you need a vet and when do you need a trainer? Some professionals have been able to find their space in Equine Behaviour and one day I would like to go and figure out how they draw those lines. Dr. Sue McDonnell at the University of Pennsylvania runs an equine behavior clinic at their veterinary college. Laura Fraser and Justine Harrison are equine behaviourists that I follow on social media because they practice research-based techniques. They have all found their place in the world of horse behavior.
Wildlife conservation experts have been using reward-based methods for a long time to train animals to accept and even volunteer for veterinary procedures. If we can train an elephant to offer a leg for a blood draw, surely we can teach horses to stand still for them as well.
What I am excited about is that our industry is finally drawing awareness to low-stress handling methods and training your horse to meet the vet. Standing well for veterinary procedures is generally trainable just like anything else. They had to be trained to accept a halter, accept a saddle, accept a rider, and they can be trained to accept the vet.

The other day I opened Facebook to find our national group, the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), had posted an article titled “How to Decrease Your Horse’s Stress with the Veterinarian”! We are ready to start talking about fear-based behaviour and what we can do to reduce them.
So what can we do? If you have a fearful horse then start reading articles like the one above to learn research-based methods to reduce stress and train your horse to accept veterinary care. Talk to your vet! We work with dangerous animals all day, most of us are more than happy to work with you and your horse to reduce fear and aggression because that is safer for everyone. Your veterinarian can work with you by generating positive interactions with your horse. If they are in the barn for a different horse they can take a moment to feed your horse a treat or pet his neck without injecting him. We can give you an idea of what is a trigger for your horse so you can work to train her. Whether it is the neck pinch prior to a needle, the raising of a vein, or the smell of latex gloves – the more you work on getting your horse used to these things and rewarding calm behaviour when they are introduced, the easier each vet appointment will be for them.

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Sometimes You Need All Of The Letters In The Alphabet

When making treatment or surgical plans in medicine you always have to have a contingency plan, or two, or five. I say medicine because I do not think this is exclusive to veterinarians, I am confident that human doctors experience this as well. You can have a Plan A Gold Standard, “this is what the textbooks say should work” plan but you had better have a Plan B, Plan C, and maybe a Plan D for good measure. There are few areas where this is more necessary than with dental extractions. I’m not sure if human oral surgeons experience this to the same degree that equine veterinarians do. Sometimes in equine dental planning, you need the whole alphabet of plans.

Why is that? Let us look at all of the different factors:

Horses have (mostly) hypsodont teeth that slowly erupt over their lifetime. This means that each different stage of their lives they have different amounts of tooth hiding under the gum line, into the jaw bone or sinus cavities.

I won’t get into the development of horse teeth from embryo to adult – that would take too long. You’ll just have to believe me that the teeth are made up of different materials all folded together. Sometimes during development, there can be pockets in the teeth that didn’t fill in properly – making a section of the tooth that is weaker than the rest, one that might not show up until that portion of the tooth erupts sometime during adulthood and is then at risk of fracture.

In order to keep these teeth healthy they have live pulp horns that travel the length of the tooth, from just below the grinding surface down to the roots. These pulp horns can be a highway for bacteria that would love to set up an infection in the root of the tooth.

Depending on the horse’s age that root could be anywhere from just below the gum surface (very old) to just under the skin of the jaw (very young lower jaw) or deep in the sinus cavities (very young upper jaw).

So now you have to get a tooth out – why? Is it fractured? Diseased? Infected? Did it grow in the wrong place? If it has fractured, how much tooth is actually exposed that you could potentially grab with a tool? If you can’t grab it, how are you going to pull it out? If it is fractured, it is weakened, will you be able to get all of the tooth or just parts of it? If it is infected how far has the infection spread? Into the sinus? Into the surrounding bone? You don’t want to go pulling on a tooth which then disturbs an infected jaw bone and causes a jaw fracture! If the sinus is infected it will need to be flushed and you will need to make sure that food and bacteria from the mouth can’t get up into the sinus once you take that tooth out, opening up a tunnel. What does the root look like? Sometimes even with normal development the roots splay outward and the tooth is wider at the root than at the chewing surface! It’s like the childrens matching game – the star shaped peg can’t go through the square hole!

Thankfully, we have a lot of different techniques and approaches to achieve the desired outcome. Radiographs have helped immensely in surgical planning so that we know what we are getting into before we start, for the most part. However, the reality is that sometimes you don’t know exactly what the tooth is going to do until you start and you need to have those back up plans in place in case Plans A, B, or C don’t work! I know I have overwhelmed people when discussing the plan for their horse’s dental extraction but I think it is so important for everyone to understand that if Plan A works, GREAT, if it doesn’t, we have a plan for that too!

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Is This Horse In Pain?

My winter of learning was an intense one! I am so excited to announce that I am now certified to perform veterinary spinal manipulation therapy (VSMT or animal chiropractic treatments) after over 200 hours of studying, practicing, and learning from some amazing chiropractors and veterinarians. I have also spent a lot of time learning about equine dental diseases and extractions. You may think that these two different ventures don’t really go together. I would argue that it is actually all about finding different ways to provide pain relief and improve comfort for our equine companions. It is all about PAIN.

Horses are programmed by evolution to hide their pain. If they show pain or illness, then they are most likely to be the next one on the menu of the predators in the area. As their human companions we have learned to decipher some of their subtle hints. Almost every horse person will spring into action at the first sign of a roll, belly kick, and forlorn gaze at the abdomen. We speak ‘colic’ very well indeed.

But what about pain signs that aren’t as easy to interpret? The horse that is no longer interested in the second bite of their carrot? The horse that pins its ears when the saddle is put on? Do we always notice these subtle signs? And what can we interpret from them? Pain and communication is an exciting area of equine behavior research. Recently an ethogram was presented for horses to evaluate stress and pain in riding programs. An ethogram is a catalogue of specific behaviors in a species. I might just be a behavior nerd but this is REALLY EXCITING! We can’t ask a horse if it is painful but we can learn to understand their subtle body language. Dr. Sue Dyson has put together some short videos explaining the work, I highly recommend watching them.


With this research progressing we may soon be able to stop guessing at the pain level in our patients. Until then we sometimes have to use our knowledge of human medicine and apply that to horses. This isn’t a perfect system but with so much similarity in our biology and nerve pathways it seems safe to assume that the sensations that we find painful also affect our horses. For example – dental pain. Ask anyone who has suffered a tooth root abscess, a root canal, or even just had their braces tightened – dental pain is awful! It often isn’t even a sharp, specific pain, it tends to be a dull, throbbing, headache, moaning, feel sorry for yourself kind of pain. So how can horses show us this? In my experience, they don’t. They keep eating, keep working, and try their best to hide their discomfort. Sometimes there are signs: they are depressed, or the tell-tale sign for incisor pain – they happily take a bit of a carrot but refuse to go back for a second bite, the first one cost them too dearly. One of the really exciting skills that I have developed this winter is the standing procedure to extract incisors. There is a disease process called Equine Odontoclastic Tooth Resorption and Hypercementosis (EOTRH) when the horse’s body starts to attack and resorb the incisor teeth (the front teeth used for grabbing grass and treats). We don’t fully understand this disease and at this time the best treatment is taking the teeth out. They can be reactive, infected, and disgusting. The first time I did this procedure each tooth that came out was shortly followed by a big buildup of pus that was sitting at the tooth route. That’s gross, I know, the people watching had to walk away. This poor little pony had been walking around with that in his head and he didn’t tell anyone! I heard from the owners shortly after the procedure that they couldn’t believe it, they had their pony back! They had thought his quiet attitude and reduced interest in feed was simply because he was getting old. As soon as those diseased teeth were out he was a new pony! I get this response frequently after taking out diseased eyes as well, and that is why it is one of my favourite procedures and I am so happy that I took the extra time to learn the technique. I can take away significant pain and give people back their happy horses!

What about the pain that isn’t quite so intense or local? The overall body discomfort that makes us as humans move a little more slowly first thing in the morning or the day after a particularly difficult workout? Is that pain? We usually give it a different name: discomfort, aching, stiffness, creaky, feeling ‘old’. Do horses experience that kind of pain? I certainly think they do. Equine athletes, pleasure horses, retired horses, whatever their job in life, they are all individuals with their own past injuries, bad posture, hard workouts, and creaky joints. As humans and caretakers we seek relief for this kind of pain – massage therapy, chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, physiotherapy, pain medication, and the other million and one ways humans have developed to decrease pain. One of the things that I absolutely love about animal chiropractic treatments is how much the animals seem to love it. They don’t have any of the internal debate going on in their brain about whether or not they “believe in chiropractic”, they either feel better or they don’t. A lot of the time they feel better and it is so exciting to have horses that like me again! The changes in their gait, their stance, and their overall comfort can be dramatic. My practice case during the course was a lovely 27 year old pony with chronic laminitis. His laminitis is under control but his overall body pain from the way he had been carrying himself during episodes of foot pain meant that we had to keep him on low dose NSAIDs to control his discomfort. Through the months of chiropractic treatments we noticed a difference in his overall body comfort coming out of the stall each morning and we were able to take him off of pain drugs completely. That is really exciting to me!! Medications have their time and place and I will never fully stop thinking like a vet but it is really exciting to be able to approach some of these issues in a different way, or to have more to offer when the medications aren’t enough.

Ultimately a huge part of our job as veterinarians is preventing and treating pain or discomfort. I am so excited that as a profession we are continuously seeking new ways to identify and treat this pain in our horses. The next step will be to take care of all of us old, stiff horse people that have bad backs from years of pushing wheelbarrows and tossing hay bales!





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September – The Fall New Year

Most veterinarians spend the first quarter of their lives as students. High school is followed by 4 years of a university undergraduate degree, followed for some by a masters degree, others by entering directly into veterinary college, and others by taking a short break from schooling only to discover that we aren’t done with it yet. When you spend that much time in school, September starts to feel like the real “New Year”. September is when something changes, a new challenge presents itself, and we clean out the old and get ready for the new. Horse people feel this on a similar level, the end of the summer and beginning of the fall is when we start thinking about new pursuits. A new horse to train, a new level or discipline to conquer, a new area of knowledge about horses to explore. We have to do something to keep busy during those winter nights when it is too cold to ride, right?

I was one of those students that took a break after my undergraduate degree. I finished my Bachelor of Science in Animal Biology at the University of Guelph and moved to Calgary with a friend. We had lived there for 3 months of the summer when suddenly September hit and we WERENT going back to school! Something had to change! I promptly dyed my hair and for a time this satisfied a craving for change. I soon moved back to Ontario and started a new job (the next September, 2009) as a veterinary assistant, working for McKee-Pownall Equine Services. Since then I have continued to base my life around the need to change something in the transition from summer to fall. Last year I got married in late September!

So what is changing this year? I’m going back to school(kind of)!! Summer is a very busy time for all horse people, see my previous post “Horse Season”. This means that it is the busiest time for horse-vets too. Therefore, we use the fall and winter to learn new things, what we call ‘Continuing Education’. This year I am lucky enough to be learning the science of veterinary spinal manipulation at the Veterinary Chiropractic Learning Centre. This course is spread over five modules, taking seven months to complete, followed by mentorship from experienced veterinarians, including my wonderful teammate Dr. Tovah Caldwell who also happens to be one of the course instructors. I am so excited!!! I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a nerd, I truly love school and learning! Veterinary spinal manipulation has shown a lot of promise in improving quality of life and athletic performance in horses and I can’t wait to learn more about it. As I write this I am surrounded by textbooks describing the history of chiropractics, the anatomy of animals, and neurology.

So what change is September bringing for the rest of you? A new horse to train? A step up in your discipline? One of the many courses available on Equine health, nutrition, or behaviour?

If you are interested in learning more about your horse this winter here are some great links:



I will try to keep everyone up to date on what I learn through my studies this fall, but if you don’t hear from me it is because I’m curled up with a tea and my textbooks trying to learn the science of chiropractics.

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July Is Vet Anniversary Month

July is the time of year at McKee-Pownall where we celebrate a lot of work anniversaries for our veterinarians. We typically hire new veterinarians after they complete a one-year internship following their graduation from veterinary college. Internships in North America usually begin sometime in June and end around the same time the following year.

We prefer hiring veterinarians from an internship for several reasons. Most vet students don’t receive sufficient practical experience in vet school, so working in a busy veterinary hospital gives offers a hands on and diverse case load. Also, we appreciate the wide-ranging knowledge new vets at MPES bring to us after their internship. We are always striving to be at the cutting edge of medical knowledge so the more experiences we can bring on board the better for our clients and their horses. Our vets have come from internships across North America, so we are the beneficiaries of some of the best veterinary minds across the continent. Finally, we have hired several veterinarians that have worked with us as students and we would like them to do an internship elsewhere, so they learn new things beyond the comforts of MPES. Inevitably, they come back home with a great background and skill level that allows them to jump right in and work with you and your horses.

We are very proud of how long many of our veterinarians have been with MPES. Drs. Maggie Turner and Michelle Courtemanche were the first associates we hired 12 years ago. Dr. Kathryn Surasky joined us 10 years ago, followed 2 years later by Dr. Tovah Caldwell. In 2012 Dr. Jim Welsh came on board, followed by Dr. Andrea Dube in 2015. Drs. Samantha Molson and Marisa Markey spent a lot of time with us as vet students and we were very happy when they came back home in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Dr. Ali Miletic, who also spent time with us as a Summer Student, joined our Newmarket practice in 2017 and we welcomed Dr. Kyle Goldie this past winter. Those of you in our Caledon practice area will soon meet Dr. Taylor Mahren in a couple of short weeks as soon as she finishes up at her internship.

Having a mix of veterans and newer vets ensures that while all vets deliver the same high level of medical care and personalized experience, the influx of new ideas makes everyone a better vet.

Happy Anniversary everyone!

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