Horse-centric protocols: What’s in fear free?

Sistine jolly ball target

Sistine targeting her ball while I simulate a jugular stick.

In the dog world, cooperative care is a concept that is really catching on. There’s an entire “fear free” movement, and a certification for trainers, vets, vet techs and motivated owners. The horse world, though, lags behind the dog world in terms of an awareness of the science of learning and fully understanding the components of animal-friendly practices. Because most of the focus of the fear free movement is on small animals, it’s very satisfying to develop fear free protocols for horses.

My mare, Sistine, a mustang rescued from a kill pen,  is the perfect horse for this work,

Sistine Fear free

Sistine Seraphim

because of her previous bad handling. Because she is afraid of all traditional handling, she is helping me to develop new ways to approach husbandry and vet care. I don’t know for sure what happened in her earlier life: if she was ever fully tame, if she was tamed well but mistreated later or a little of both. I do know she ended up starving and about to ship for slaughter, so it’s safe to assume there was little to no attention given to her emotional states during training. What that means for us today is that I have a very large mare (easily 1350 lbs) who is afraid of: halters, ropes, basic handling, people and objects. We desperately needed to build a relationship, but I needed to approach it creatively.

For most horse husbandry and vet protocols, the base behavior is “stand still and don’t move.” It sounds easy enough until you are staring down the lead rope at a thousand pound animal who is nervous and doesn’t have the coping skills to self-soothe and stand still at the same time. Fights are born, the chain is tightened over the nose and the horse learns that the vet predicts stress.

The other problem is that “stand still and don’t move” is passive. When your only job is to do nothing, it’s really natural to worry about what everyone else is doing. It enhances fear. It’s far easier to be involved in an active behavior so that your mind has a directed focus separate from the procedure being performed. Make sense?
In order to give Sistine an active focus WHILE standing still, I taught her to touch a jolly ball with her lips for grain. At first she just needed to learn to touch the ball at all, because she was nervous of any objects humans held in their hands. Once she learned to touch the ball with confidence, I taught her to touch the ball continuously, with duration. Once she understood both of those concepts, I went through a few sessions to teach her to do the same behaviors with a ball hanging on a post rather than in my hands. And once she could remain targeted on her ball with duration on the post, I introduced the idea that I would touch HER while she was touching the ball. Below is some short video of our process:

In the above video, you can see Sistine learning to target her ball on a post. You can see by all her extra head movements, and the fact that I need to put my hand on the ball to help cue her, that she has some anxiety about touching the ball in a new context. As the videos progress, you can see these extra movements resolve.

In the above video, you can see me introducing Sistine to the idea that I am going to initiate touch while she targets her ball. The first two repetitions are nice, but you can observe that she hesitates to put her nose back on the ball on the third repetition, and when she does and I touch her, she turns her neck away. I leave my hand out, which is a mistake, I should have taken it away and just clicked her for returning to the ball. Because this repetition was too hard for her and elicited signals of stress and body irritation (lean away, head shake, tail flip), I go back to re-establishing duration at the ball.

The next video is after a few more sessions. You will easily see Sistine is more relaxed, more eager to get to the ball and all the stress behaviors – looking away, waiting awhile to walk back to the ball, tail swishes – have all disappeared. I am able to touch her while she maintains contact with her target. In addition, it’s windy and I have two other trainers observing, normally something that causes Sistine concern. Watch below:

It’s easy to see that by giving Sistine an active focus, she is able to stay quite calm when she would otherwise be afraid. Over time I will be able to listen to her heart, take her temperature, rehearse vaccinations and needle sticks. There’s a process to introducing each novel procedure, but the familiarity of the ball will serve to anchor Sistine in place and provide a sense of safety.

Teaching a nose target/ball target is a fairly simple procedure, even for newer trainers. Considering that a study out of the U.K. found that being a horse veterinarian is more dangerous than even being a firefighter, it would seem logical that we would be looking for new ways to train horses to relax and be less fearful during procedures. With a nose target, the moment Sistine removes her lips from the target, I stop whatever I am doing – brushing, sliding down her neck for a jugular stick, brushing her mane. When she puts her nose back on the ball target, I click and reinforce. In this way, she can say “no” to anything that makes her uncomfortable by just taking her nose off the ball. Rather than run off, kick, or struggle, she can just back up half an inch. And, because I take her at her word, she can relax and go quickly back to her nose target behavior. It keeps emotional spikes low and relaxation high. That is the place where safety lies.
As we move toward the next century, our consciousness about what comprises humane care for animals will continue to evolve. I suspect that in the near future, cooperative care and the fear free movement will move into the mainstream, rather than just the sidelines. Medical care for any species holds the potential to be stressful, painful and scary. With horse’s size compared to ours, restraint isn’t always the smartest or safest choice. Teaching them how to partner in their own care, so they can be as fear free as possible, is the ethical choice for horse and human lives. I am grateful for and to Sistine for being an integral part of helping develop these protocols for everyone.

4 thoughts on “Horse-centric protocols: What’s in fear free?

    • Good question. For her the ball is a better choice because she can see it and touch it and play with it. The tactile piece aids relaxation for her and visual of the ball gives her a more concrete focus than a mat would.

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