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Equine behavioural first aid

02 December 2019
15 mins read
Volume 10 · Issue 10


It is common for equines to become difficult to handle during procedures, veterinary or otherwise, as a direct result of handling during the procedure and as a consequence of poor mood state derived from inappropriate housing; these lead to pessimistic behavioural responses, which will include proactive defensive behaviour. Since poor equine behaviour is a common cause of injury to veterinary personnel, and not all equine owners and handlers have sufficient levels of competence to cope with dangerous equine behaviour, both the veterinary practice and the client are likely to benefit from veterinary personnel trained and competent in behavioural first aid. Behavioural first aid can prevent problematic behaviour from escalating, protect human safety and improve equine welfare.

Veterinary nurses are an essential frontline service and are able to build client trust in the ‘horse friendly’ equine veterinary practice. This article provides a guide to behavioural first aid for the equine veterinary nurse (EVN) to preserve safety through prevention of further harm; it examines the need for low-stress handling of equines for veterinary procedures; and explains how these can be achieved through careful application of learning theory and the provision of the equine's behavioural needs through environmental enrichment, both at home and in the hospital.

Behavioural first aid advice is for the prevention of further harms. It should protect the welfare and safety of both the equine and its human connections. Having a good working knowledge of natural equine behaviour and learning abilities derived from a peer-reviewed evidence base, and the ability to watch and read the equine and listen to the equine's owner or other carer, are important pre-requisites to providing effective first aid advice and referrals on to a suitable behaviour practitioner. There are many incidences in which well-intentioned but ultimately harmful advice from an esteemed source not only negatively impacts equine welfare, but also puts people in danger. This often involves badly informed attempts to ‘dominate’ frightened horses through punishment-based techniques dressed up as ‘equine language’. These efforts may either shut down the equine's behaviour creating depressive states, or cause escalation of the species' natural escape and avoidance behaviours: barging, bolting, leaping, kicking and use of other aggressive behaviours. The aim of behavioural first aid should be to reduce the risk of the equine coming to harm and causing harm, avoiding triggers for unwanted behaviour, increasing the consistency and predictability of the equine's environment and human-initiated interventions, making sure the equine's basic behavioural needs are met, and being able to refer on to a suitable behaviour specialist, either veterinary or non-veterinary.

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