What is an Equine Behaviorist?

Equine behaviorists apply a scientific lens and an analytic approach to solving behavior problems.
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By Robin Foster, PhD, CHBC, Cert. AAB, and Lauren Fraser, CHBC

What is an Equine Behaviorist?
Certified behaviorists, like Lauren Fraser here, use positive, low-stress modification techniques to solve behavior problems such as refusing to load on the trailer. | Photo: Courtesy David Taylor

Who would you call if your horse were to lunge and nip when touched, pace and paw when separated from a pasture pal, or rear when getting an injection? You might consider contacting an equine behaviorist to help resolve these and other problems. For decades, behaviorists have played an important role in the care of companion and zoo animals, but they are relative newcomers to the sphere of equine professionals.  

Horse behaviorists typically work with problems rooted in negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety, and with unwanted learned behaviors. They also help owners teach desired alternative behaviors. Common problems a behaviorist might work to improve include refusal to load on the trailer, head shyness, needle phobia, aggression, separation distress, cribbing and weaving, as well as issues such as bucking and rearing under saddle. Behaviorists also address aspects of the horse’s physical environment, social relationships, and routine, which often contribute to problem behaviors.

Importantly, behaviorists apply a scientific lens and an analytic approach to solving behavior problems. This means they observe closely, ask questions about possible underlying causes and contributing factors, change behavior using evidence-based modification methods, develop training plans that ensure long-term success, and strive to improve horses’ overall well-being. Most behaviorists recommend and use the most positive, least harmful, and lowest-stress techniques possible to achieve results. 

How are behaviorists different from trainers?

Trainers teach horses new and wanted behaviors, as well as how to calmly accept interactions with humans and respond reliably to cues in hand and under saddle. Many trainers focus on particular equestrian activities, disciplines, or sports. They currently outnumber equine behaviorists, but most do not work specifically with problem behaviors or have additional training in the science of changing unwanted behavior using low-stress methods.

How do you choose the right equine professional for you and your horse?

If you want your horse started under saddle or trained for a specific discipline, a trainer is likely your best choice. If your horse displays unwanted behavior or has serious fear or aggression problems, a behaviorist can help.

Look for a behaviorist with experience, education, certification, and a fair and kind approach. Unfortunately, the field is largely unregulated, and anyone can call themselves a behaviorist without having to demonstrate their knowledge or skill.

An academically trained behaviorist has a master’s or doctorate, with an emphasis in ethology (behavior under natural conditions), learning theory (the science of how animals learn), and related fields, or is a veterinarian trained and board-certified in behavior. Few academically trained behaviorists specialize in horses, but a growing number of behavior consultants are well-educated in the science of behavior. Certification by an organization with high standards—such as the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the Animal Behavior Society, and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants—ensures the behaviorist or behavior consultant has demonstrated a certain level of knowledge and experience.  

You have a right to know how any equine professional will work with your horse. Conduct an interview and ask questions about the person’s experience, education, and approach. How long have they been working with horses, and what kind of issues have they helped resolve? What methods will they use to resolve your horse’s behavior problems? What have they studied about horse behavior and behavior modification? Do they hold a certificate, and if so, through what organization? The education, experience, and skill sets of equine behaviorists and trainers may differ, but their roles are complementary and the best outcome will be achieved when the behaviorist works collaboratively with your trainer and veterinarian.

Editor’s note: This Across the Fence column was originally published in the April 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care.

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