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.