Using Learning Theory Techniques in Equine Welfare Cases

Editor's note: This article is part of's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Over the past few years interest has grown in how behavior studies, and "learning theory" improve our understanding of how to train riding horses. But now this research is also finding successfully application in the United Kingdom in welfare cases.

Native feral and semiferal breeds in certain parts of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland frequently become victims of abuse or neglect, according to Nicolas de Brauwere, MRCVS, senior welfare veterinarian at Redwings Horse Sanctuary in Hapton, Norfolk, England, which currently manages 1,265 equids plus hundreds more in foster care.

While some of the victims have no owners at all, most are bred by local populations who then abandon the animals--sometimes in herds of 50 or more. The care of these unhandled, poorly managed horses and ponies often falls into the hands of private sanctuaries, which sometimes puts both the animals and handlers at risk of injury, de Brauwere said.

"We needed a system to get us past that point of physical risk (to ourselves and the animals), and we have found that learning theory is getting us there," he said.

He presented on the use of learning and behavior theory in welfare case management during the 8th International Society for Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The "greatest tools" in gathering these animals for bringing them back to the sanctuary and for caring for them have been "patience and time," de Brauwere said. "We also had to understand the herd approach, which has opened our eyes to a lot of horse behavior."

By working with the instinctive way horses live in a herd, de Brauwere and his colleagues have been able to gather "wild," fearful groups of horses and ponies in wide, dangerous settings. "Often they're near dangerous roads, with no fences or holes in the fences, or close to large bodies of water," he said.

His staff remains "patient and quiet" and places a funnel-shaped pen where the animals would be more likely to go as a herd.

If the group of horses is resistant, it could be because of a single resistant "leader," de Brauwere said. By darting the resistant leader to sedate it, the animal's actions can be controlled, and the rest of the herd will more easily move into the pen and truck for transport.

"The (dart) needle is quite big, and it probably hurts a lot, but it's likely a less aversive stimulus than us running around after (him or) her and the scattered herd," he said.

Once the animals are at the sanctuary, de Brauwere said his team uses negative reinforcement with much "time and patience" to train the horses to accept human contact and care. These are necessary not only for their improved health but also for gathering evidence to prosecute the owners, he added.

Negative reinforcement works by adding pressure (a light touch with a padded stick, for example) and then removing that pressure as soon as the horse begins to respond in the way or the direction that the trainer wants it to. For these horses, gentleness is key, and de Brauwere's team "rewards them (by pressure release) sometimes for the most subtle of responses."

Positive reinforcement--rewarding with a food treat for example--does not work well with most of these welfare cases, de Brauwere said.

"(The horses) don't even know what an apple or a carrot is, and they won't even start eating hard feed until weeks or months after they arrive," he explained. "Negative reinforcement is the tool that effectively gives us the best chance at making meaningful contact with these horses."

Accepting the individuality of the horses is equally important, de Brauwere added. What works for one horse might not work with another, and the trainers need to recognize that each horse will express itself differently, he said.

Weak, emaciated horses are often easy to handle at the beginning because they "cannot express their fear responses," de Brauwere added. But as they heal, their handling training must begin all over again. "We sometimes joke that because our colleagues have fed and wormed these horses, we now can't get near them," he said.

The goals of such equine sanctuaries are short, medium, and long term. In the immediate short term, the horses' severe physical needs must be met. Over the medium term, their "mental welfare" must be attended to through gentle training techniques supported by learning and behavior research, he said.

"In the long term, what we'd like to be able to do is influence the welfare of horses through the handling by owners (using behavior and learning theory) in their own homes," de Brauwere said. "That way, those horses would never have to come to us."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.