Equine Behavior Addressed at BEVA Congress

Drs. Gemma Pearson and Sarah Freeman presented on how embracing learning theory and changing hearts and minds can improve equine health and welfare at BEVA Congress.
Drs. Gemma Pearson and Sarah Freeman presenting on equine behavior at BEVA Congress.
Drs. Gemma Pearson and Sarah Freeman presented on equine behavior, health and wellness at BEVA Congress last week. | @JasSansi

The value of behavioral science was in the spotlight at BEVA Congress last week. Gemma Pearson and Sarah Freeman shared their considerable knowledge and experience in two complementary plenary lectures, on how embracing learning theory and changing hearts and minds can improve equine health and welfare, as well as human safety.

Equine Behavior: the Good, the Bad and the Downright Dangerous

The John Hickman Memorial Lecture on the first day of Congress saw Dr. Gemma Pearson, who is Director of Equine Behavior for the Horse Trust, present ‘Equine Behavior, the good, the bad and the downright dangerous’. She discussed how learning theory can be applied to make horse–veterinarian interactions safer and less stressful for all stakeholders and explored the new discipline of equine behavioral medicine.

Gemma explained that working as an equine vet is a highly dangerous profession with 80% of vets in one survey having sustained an injury as a direct consequence of the horse’s behavior in the previous five years. To minimize the risk of injury, vets employed various means of physical and chemical restraint, and yet the injury rate remained high.

“We need to remember that the dangerous behavioral responses horses employ to avoid veterinary care are perfectly normal responses for this species to an acute stressor,” said Gemma. “So perhaps, rather than trying to physically prevent them, we instead need to train horses to stand calmly during veterinary care. Modifying a horse’s behavior relies on an understanding of the processes through which they learn, known as learning theory.”

Gemma went on to explain how an understanding of equine behavior can be used to quickly achieve compliance from patients. She outlined the process of operant conditioning, explaining that making associations between a stimulus and a response increases controllability for the horse. 

“Operant conditioning allows the horse to learn how its behavior can alter the environment,” she said. “It is divided into reinforcement training – increasing the likelihood a behavior will be repeated in the future; and punishment – decreasing the likelihood a behavior will be repeated in the future. However, punishment should be avoided when handling horses, because as well as being poorly efficacious in the long-term, use of punishment is increasingly recognised by owners as unprofessional.”

Gemma concluded her presentation with an exploration of the new discipline of equine behavioral medicine. 

“Vets have traditionally focused on the physical health of horses,” she said. “But there is an increasing body of research focused on their emotional health. Moreover, pain from physical disease will have a negative impact on how a horse feels, and at the same time, how a horse feels will impact their perception of pain. Approaching more complex cases from a biopsychosocial approach that includes biological psychological and social perspectives provides a more holistic perspective.”

Changing Hearts and Minds

In the second plenary lecture, which marked the second Peter Rossdale Memorial lecture, Sarah Freeman, Professor of Veterinary Surgery, School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham, discussed the challenge of ‘Changing hearts and minds.’ 

Sarah spoke about the main issues in equine health and welfare, and how the key challenge is to improve understanding and compliance by horse owners/carers. She outlined a three-step approach. 

“The first step is ensuring that we provide accurate evidence-based information to horse owner as the foundation of decision-making,” she said, and outlined how evidence syntheses can be accessed to help with this. 

“The second step is to explore any factors that may affect an owner’s decision making,” explained Sarah. “These can form a significant barrier to an owner implementing treatment or changing their approach to managing and preventing disease. Non-judgmental listening and shared decision-making are key to adapting evidence-based medicine into an individual plan that an owner is willing and able to adopt for their horse.” 

The third step Sarah discussed was around sharing information with horse owners. She highlighted that helping owners to recognize problems, think about and make plans in advance is key to tackling issues such as obesity, biosecurity and delayed euthanasia. She spoke about how veterinary practices and organizations can effectively share information to help horse owners prepare for and prevent problems in the future.  

“The art of veterinary science is to deliver the information and evidence of the science without judging an individual’s circumstances or decisions,” said Sarah. We need to give them space to question and consider and reach a shared final decision which holds the horse’s health and welfare as the central focus.

 “Changing hearts and minds requires an approach which is based on effective sharing of current and best evidence, listening to the owner’s experiences and concerns, and then working together to make a shared decision.”

Gemma Pearson and Sarah Freeman’s plenary lectures were held at BEVA Congress (September 13-16, 2023, at the ICC Birmingham). Congress delegates who missed them can access the recordings here: https://crowdcomms.com/beva2023/modules/166742/html.

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