Incorporating Equine Learning Principles Into Veterinary Practice

Applying learning theory principles in equine veterinary practice can improve safety and horse welfare, as well as client satisfaction. Here’s what to know.
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Incorporating Equine Learning Principles Into Veterinary Practice
The goal of behavior modification in veterinary care is to reduce the horse’s fear and unwanted behavior, as well as improve compliance. | Photo: Courtesy Lauren Fraser
Behavioral issues during veterinary procedures are not uncommon. Horses that are frightened, injured, or unfamiliar with a procedure not only take longer to examine but also pose a safety risk to human handlers.

In recent years, researchers have identified a possible link between veterinarians’ limited understanding of learning principles and the high incidence of injury in equine practice. So, to help practitioners reduce fear and problem behaviors and promote positive veterinary care, Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, CHBC, described behavior modification techniques based on principles of equine learning at the 2017 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Nov. 17-21 in San Antonio, Texas.

The benefits of incorporating learning principles into equine practice are many: It can lower veterinary costs (e.g., less sedation, fewer visits to get the job done), promote positive care, eliminate problem behaviors, improve equine welfare, and reduce risk of human injury. And it all starts with addressing the source of procedural aversions: fear.

“Fear and anxiety are the root cause of behavior problems with veterinary care, including not standing still for examination; barging or pushing; refusing to enter the exam room, stocks, or trailer; bolting or pulling away when led; being head-shy; and biting, kicking, striking, and rearing,” said Foster. “These behaviors are often inadvertently reinforced by the release of pressure (called negative reinforcement) and will be repeated.”
For example, if an anxious horse pulls back during a blood draw and thereby delays the procedure, he’s going to continue that defensive behavior because it’s effective

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Alexandra Beckstett, a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as assistant editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse. She was the managing editor of The Horse for nearly 14 years and is now editorial director of EquiManagement and My New Horse, sister publications of The Horse.

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