Equine veterinarians in Britain who responded to a survey on managing difficult horses appear to have knowledge gaps around the way horses learn, study findings suggest.
Gemma Pearson and her fellow researchers noted that, despite the considerable risk of injuries to veterinarians from horses, limited information is available about the prevalence of unwanted equine behaviours or common approaches to managing them.
The study team from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh set out to document the challenges equine veterinarians face when working with difficult horses and define their approaches to managing them, including their understanding of the processes through which horses learn.
A link to an online questionnaire was distributed among equine veterinarians in the United Kingdom. In all, the 26-question survey was completed by 220 vets, although 28 were excluded as they reported they were based outside Britain. A further 27 were excluded as they reported routinely treating 20 or fewer horses each month.
This left 168 respondents included in the final analyses, 73% of whom reported spending 100% of their time working with horses, and 79% of whom saw more than 50 horses each month.
The study team, writing in the journal Equine Veterinary Education, found that 95% of the veterinarians reported working with difficult horses on at least a monthly basis, resulting in 81% of them sustaining at least one injury in the last five years.
In total, 579 injuries were reported in the previous five years, with one further respondent reporting more than 30 injuries in the time period.
Of these injuries, 88 required a visit to hospital, 61 required a visit to their general practitioner, 92 required days off work, and 215 resulted in continued discomfort or loss of function.
The most popular methods of dealing with unwanted behaviours were physical and chemical restraint.
The most common unwanted behaviours were horses that were bargy/pushy, would not stand still, were needle shy, or head shy — all of which were encountered significantly less frequently with increasing years working in equine practice.
Other unwanted behaviours included headbutting/striking with head (reported by 5% of respondents), crushing people against walls (4% of respondents), refusing to lift feet (2%), resenting palpation/handling of feet/limbs (1%) and refusing endoscopy (1%).
A cumulative frequency of 92% of respondents reported that they put themselves in a potentially dangerous situation when working with horses on at least a monthly basis.
The most popular method of restraint was chemical sedation, with 99% of respondents considering it either very or fairly useful. Other restraint methods mentioned included twitching, the use of stocks or a crush, confinement in a stable or horse trailer, and blindfolding.
The researchers found that 46% of those surveyed had never received any tuition on the processes through which horses learn.
Despite 79% believing they had at least a moderate understanding of equine learning theory and its application, they performed poorly when tested, with only 10% able to get at least five out of six questions correct.
When tested, of the 84% who said they understood the term positive reinforcement, only 19% were able to correctly identify the scenario as incorrect. Of the 80% who said they understood the term negative reinforcement, only a third were correct.
The respondents showed a poor understanding of learning theory terminology — a finding which has also been reported in larger studies of horse trainers based in Australia and Canada. This suggested a possible gap of knowledge across the equine industry, the researchers said.
“It is possible that equine veterinarians understand the processes through which horses learn without understanding the terminology. Although, when asked how highly they rated various methods of dealing with unwanted behaviours, the respondents rated methods based on learning theory very poorly.”
Whilst this may simply represent a lack of understanding of the terminology, the preference for physical restraint was emphasised in the section where the vets were able to comment, while there were no descriptions of techniques based on learning theory.
“This suggests there is a genuine lack of understanding,” the study team said. “It is possible that increased training of equine veterinarians in the field of equine learning theory may reduce the high prevalence of occupational injuries caused by a horse’s behaviour.
“Indeed, a 45-minute lecture on learning theory, and its application in the veterinary environment, was found to increase undergraduate students’ perceived confidence when confronted with a difficult horse.”
Even more encouragingly, several students reported being able to successfully apply this new knowledge to difficult horses they encountered whilst on rotations, with many reporting (in 2017 research) that they felt safer and less likely to become injured.
Incorporation of education of learning theory into the undergraduate curriculum and as postgraduate training is indicated, the study team said.
Discussing their findings, the researchers said the two most commonly encountered unwanted behaviours — being bargy/pushy and refusing to stand still — were indicative of poor stimulus control.
Aversions to specific stimuli — injections, handling of their head and clippers — were the next most common unwanted behaviours.
They said an identified association between increasing veterinary experience and decreasing adverse behaviours may suggest that veterinarians have a direct influence on the horse’s behaviour.
“It is also consistent with other work demonstrating that veterinarians sustained fewer injuries per year with increasing experience.”
They continued: “Currently, equine veterinarians rely on chemical and physical restraint to allow them to complete their work when dealing with difficult horses; given the high prevalence of injuries, it is possible that these methods are not the most effective.
“As flight animals, horses prefer to withdraw from a situation they find aversive. If restraint prevents retreat, however, they are more likely to act aggressively instead with these behaviours being shaped into more dangerous responses surprisingly quickly.”
The researchers said education of equine veterinarians, particularly with regard to the management of difficult horses, may help to reduce these dangerous scenarios.
“Considering this, it is therefore disappointing that respondents reported having received limited training on the processes through which horses learn.”
Difficult horses – prevalence, approaches to management of and understanding of how they develop by equine veterinarians
G. Pearson, R. Reardon, J. Keen, N. Waran
Equine Veterinary Education, 29 July 2020, https://doi.org/10.1111/eve.13354