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Diagnosing Behavior Problems in Horses

By Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Research Associate, Psychiatry Department, Center for Neurobiology & Behavior, University of Pennsylvania

Some “health” problems faced by horses are associated with behavior problems or unmet expectations about the animal’s behavior. Your veterinarian will take a behavioral history before making any diagnosis. A behavioral history includes the following: 1) sex, breed, and age of horse, 2) age at onset of the problem, 3) duration of the problem, 4) description of the actual behavior, 5) the frequency of the behavior (hourly, daily, weekly, monthly), 6) the duration of an average episode (seconds, minutes, hours), 7) the range of duration of episodes, 8) any change in the pattern, frequency, intensity, or duration of episodes, 9) any corrective measures tried and the response, 10) any activities that stopped the behavior, 11) a typical 24-hour schedule for the horse and owner, as well as any day-to-day variability, 12) the horse’s breeding (to see if there are any signs of similar problems in the dam or sire), and 13) anything else that the owner thinks is relevant.

Defining the Problem

In order to properly diagnose a behavior problem, both you and your veterinarian must use the same definitions for the same behaviors. You both must also accurately recognize and describe the behaviors that are of concern. Video of the horse can ensure that such communication occurs. Your understanding and compliance are critical if horses with behavior disorders are to improve. Only when you recognize the behaviors leading to the problematic ones, can you avoid or prevent the provocative situation. Therefore, by viewing a recording of the problematic behavior, your veterinarian will be able to work with you to achieve more desirable responses and help treat the condition.

The following is a brief glossary of terms that are commonly used when discussing behavior.

An abnormal behavior is one that is dysfunctional and unusual.

Aggression in horses may occur as a threat or as an attack. There are various kinds of aggressive behavior in horses, such as fear aggression and inter-male aggression.

Anxiety is the anticipation of future danger accompanied by signs of tension (vigilance, increased motor activity, and tense muscles). The focus of anxiety can be internal or external.

A horse in conflict has tendencies to perform more than one behavior at once. For example, a horse may want to approach a person to take a treat such as an apple, but be reluctant to get too close because it is nervous. The motivation for the conflict, except for extreme instances associated with survival functions (for example, eating), is often hard to identify in animals.

Displacement activity is the resolution of a conflict by performing a seemingly unrelated behavior. When a horse is in conflict between breeding and aggression or between aggression and fear, it will often perform an apparently irrelevant activity. Examples of these activities include grooming, feeding, scratching, and sleeping.

Dominance refers to competition over a limited resource (for example, access to a feed bucket or water trough). A higher-ranking animal can displace a lower-ranking one from the resource. Rank or hierarchy is usually defined by an ability to control the resource. A dominant animal is not the one engaged in the most fighting. Most high-ranking animals can be identified by the submissive behavior exhibited toward them by others in their group.

Fear is a feeling of apprehension associated with the presence of an object, individual, or social situation and is part of normal behavior. Deciding whether the fear is abnormal depends on the context. For example, fire is a useful tool, and fear of being consumed by it is a normal behavior. However, if the barn were not on fire, such a fear would be irrational. If this fear was constant or recurrent, it would probably be considered an abnormal behavior. Normal and abnormal fears usually vary in intensity. The intensity of the fear increases as the real or imagined nearness of the object that causes the fear increases.

Frustration arises when a horse is unable to perform a behavior due to physical or psychological obstacles in the environment. This term, like dominance, is overused and usually undefined, which means it often is not very helpful when diagnosing a behavior problem.

Most fearful reactions are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure. Phobias, though, are profound and quickly developed fearful reactions that do not diminish either with gradual exposure to the object or without exposure over time. A phobia involves sudden, all-or-nothing, profound, abnormal reactions resulting in panic. Phobias develop quickly, with little change between episodes. Fear may develop more gradually and, within an episode of fearful behavior, there may be more variation in intensity than would be seen in a phobic reaction. Once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it or the memory of it is sufficient to generate the reaction. Even without re-exposure phobias can remain at or exceed their former high level for years. Phobic situations are either avoided at all costs or, if unavoidable, are endured with intense anxiety or distress.

Stereotypic behaviors are repetitious, relatively unvaried behaviors that have no obvious purpose. They are usually derived from normal behavior, such as grooming, eating, or walking. These behaviors are abnormal because they interfere with the normal functioning of the animal.

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