Physical vs. Psychological Issues in Horses

How does a veterinary behaviorist know for sure something is or is not a psychological problem?
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physical vs. psychological issues in horses
Is that horse just kicking at a fly, is he kicking at you, or is he uncomfortable in the abdomen? Any suggestion of physical discomfort should be further evaluated and addressed by the appropriate veterinary specialists. | Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse
Q. A little over two years ago, we acquired a lovely Irish Draught mare, Colleen, from neighbors who were retiring and selling their place. This mare had been their family pleasure horse for many years. After their kids outgrew her, Colleen became a trusted loaner horse shared and passed among families here in our little valley. The plan was that she would come to our farm at first, and she would be loaned out as needed. Our veterinarian joined in the plan, agreeing to donate her services. Colleen had a couple of major physical deficiencies, but her heart made up for it. She could and would do just about anything for anyone.

Over the first winter, Colleen got no work at all. In early spring we started with light trail work and longeing. From the first time we worked with her, Colleen behaved completely out of character from the mare we had known for so long. She was cranky and uncooperative—anything we asked her to do was an effort, and periodically she would throw her head, wring her tail, and snort.

We couldn’t see anything wrong with the tack or anything obviously out of order. We had the vet go over Colleen very thoroughly and watch us try to work her. The vet agreed that Colleen’s behavior and attitude were quite different but couldn’t explain it. She advised us to continue working patiently with Colleen and to keep her advised.

We started a more organized training program with her, but one thing led to another, and Colleen just got less and less workable. We tried many new and old methods, but the more we did, the worse she got. She started to look like she just hated people—pinning her ears and going to the back of the stall. Even at feeding time, she looked unhappy. We became concerned that she might hurt someone and decided she was not fit to be loaned out

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Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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