Equine veterinarians are at risk of serious injury when the 1,200-pound animals they’re treating don’t want to participate. We know, in fact, that their profession is one of the most dangerous around.

Gemma Pearson, BVMS, MRCVS, is a big proponent of safe and correct horse handling during veterinary exams. She demonstrated tactics for training horses to behave during common procedures at the 2015 International Society of Equitation Science Conference, held Aug. 6-9 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Pearson is a senior clinical training scholar in equine practice at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, in Scotland.

“Almost all the unwanted behaviors we see as vets are a consequence of inadvertent negative reinforcement,” Pearson said. “For example, if when you raise the vein of a needle-shy horse and he rears, you remove your hand. The horse is not being naughty, he’s just repeating the behavior (rearing) that removed the hand last time. If, instead, you keep your hand on their neck until they stand still and relax (and then remove it for a second), they will stand still and relax next time they are nervous.”

She said the three most important things to remember when handling horses for veterinary exams are correct application of negative reinforcement, learning to recognize signs of arousal (e.g., an elevated head position, tense muscles), and understanding how to properly shape behaviors. Then she encouraged individuals to rely on learning theory principles to complete the following procedures safel