Updated: Jun 28, 2022
Horse owners are all too aware of how a physical injury can temporarily sideline - or even permanently lame - their horse. This knowledge leads most owners to do their best to minimize physical injury:
raising foals with maximum turnout opportunities
properly conditioning their horse for the demands of their ridden work
ensuring adequate rest and recovery periods between training
ensuring their horse's living spaces are free of hazards
using well-fitting tack and protective equipment
and so on
However, the knowledge of how to minimize the chances a horse develops a behavioural injury (or what is recommended to rehabilitate a horse after one occurs) is not as common in the horse world Behavioural injuries occur as a result of exposure to a stressful or traumatic event that the animal cannot cope with or process. Such exposure results in lasting psychological damage to the animal, long after the event has occurred. Just as with physical injuries, behavioural injuries can temporarily - or even permanently - sideline horses. Given proper care and retraining, most behavioural injuries can be successfully addressed.
But just as with physical injuries, horses who suffer a behavioural injury may still have a 'scar' after behaviour modification work is done. This means that while behaviours displayed as a result of the behavioural injury can be decreased in frequency and/or intensity, the memory of the event can never be fully erased. For example, a horse who has a very unpleasant experience trailer loading will become anxious or fearful when in the presence of trailers. When the horse is retaught to load in a way that addresses the horse's fear, creating new, positive emotional states for the horse about the process, the escape behaviours that occur because of the horse's anxiety or fear will be eliminated because the fear itself has been eliminated. But the memory of the bad experience itself - the 'scar' - can never be erased. The experience changes the horse's brain, permanently. Such scars are the reason why behavioural injuries can reoccur - even despite good behaviour modification work being done - if conditions are similar again in the future.
If behavioural injuries are not addressed they can begin to cause problems in other areas of the horse's life, unrelated to the exact experience that caused the initial injury. To use our trailer loading horse example from above, the horse may begin to become anxious long before even being brought near a trailer: when exposed to anything associated with being loaded, such as protective boots, the sounds of a trailer being hooked up, a specific halter etc. Horses who have behavioural injuries can also experience increased short-term stress and compromised welfare if behaviours associated with their injury are poorly handled or managed. For example when attempts are made to load the fearful horse, the horse may be subjected to handling or training techniques that increase anxiety and fear or cause pain. In some rare instances, behavioural injuries can even result in long-lasting psychological damage that leaves the horse in a perpetual state of heightened arousal or renders them unsafe to handle or ride. Misguided attempts to address or manage such serious injuries can result in chronic stress, conditions such as learned helplessness, or exposure to dubious training techniques that have no proven merits (such as laying a horse down).
How to Minimize the Development of Behavioural Injuries in Horses
Behavioural injuries can happen at any time of a horse's life: during routine handling, training with the owner or trainer, or even when horses are being treated by veterinary professionals. In Alicea Howell and Monique Feyrecilde's textbook, 'Cooperative Veterinary Care', such injuries are referred to as iatrogenic behavioural injuries (IBI): behavioural injuries that may occur during veterinary exams and/or care of animals.
Horse owners and trainers can greatly reduce the development of behavioural injuries in their horses by using low-stress training techniques when teaching new behaviours or introducing horses to new experiences. Training techniques that cause horses to feel anxious or fearful or inflict pain should be avoided, and the emotional state of the horse should always be considered as training progresses.
The use of handling techniques that aim to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress, such as those taught by the Fear Free® program for veterinary staff, can greatly reduce the likelihood of IBI's occurring during the course of treatment; these techniques and others can also be used by qualified animal behaviour professionals to help animals who have suffered an IBI or behavioural injury from other sources. If a horse hasn't yet been trained to calmly accept or participate in care or a medical procedure, veterinarians can also administer anti-anxiety medications as a way to reduce the development of IBI's when necessary treatments are required.
In summary, the first step to reduce the development of behavioural injuries is understanding how experiences that cause the horse to feel fear, anxiety or stress can impact horses - sometimes for life. Secondly, all training methods used with horses should be low-stress, and not cause the horse to feel fear or pain during training. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as your horse's champion do your part to educate yourself so that you can recognize signs of fear, anxiety and stress in horses, and have the courage to step in if anyone is handling your horse in a way that may cause a behavioural injury. If your horse has suffered a behavioural injury, a qualified animal behaviour professional is the best person to help. If you'd like to learn more about understanding how behavioural injuries can occur and what is recommended to resolve them, this new, online presentation provides a thorough introduction to these topics. #horsebehaviour #horsetraining #behaviouralinjury #cooperativeveterinarycare #fearfree