Equine Learning Theory and the Horse-Veterinarian Interaction

Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis

Abstract / Description of output

Working as an equine veterinarian has been shown to carry a high risk of occupational injury with the behaviour of the horse frequently being reported as a cause of these injuries. The financial, psychological and short and/or long term health implications of these injuries are likely to be significant. The risk of injury is one of the reasons cited by undergraduate veterinary students that would prevent them from entering large animal practice and newly graduated veterinarians have been shown to be at increased risk of sustaining an occupational injury compared to more experienced colleagues.
This study addressed the hypothesis that occupational injuries may be in part due to a limited understanding of equine learning theory by qualified equine veterinarians and that incorporation of equine learning theory into the undergraduate curriculum may alter students’ perceptions of how they might deal with horses demonstrating unwanted behaviours
A questionnaire electronically distributed amongst UK equine veterinarians was designed to: 1) investigate the prevalence of injuries sustained by equine veterinarians; 2) investigate the prevalence of unwanted equine behaviours; 3) determine how equine veterinarians currently manage unwanted equine behaviours; and 4) ascertain equine veterinarian’s level of prior training and degree of knowledge of learning theory. A cohort of pre-final year undergraduate veterinary students were given a 45-minute lecture on equine learning theory, completing a questionnaire before (pre) and after (immediately [post] and several weeks [delayed post]) to investigate if receiving a single lecture alters undergraduate veterinary students’ perception of dealing with difficult horses in equine practice. Finally a pilot study was designed to evaluate whether training in a virtual laboratory would enable students to improve their practical ability to train a live horse using positive reinforcement.
Over 80% of respondents had been injured directly by a horse during work within the last five years with many requiring further medical care, time off work or suffering continued discomfort or loss of function as a result. As well as reporting that they frequently put themselves in potentially dangerous situations when working with horses, 95% of respondents reported interacting with horses they perceive to be difficult at least a few times each month. The most commonly reported unwanted behaviours they encountered were horses that were bargy/pushy, would not stand still, were needle shy or were head shy. Recently graduated veterinarians reported encountering several of these unwanted behaviours more frequently than more experienced colleagues. When asked how they manage unwanted behaviours, most vets reported a reliance on chemical and physical restraint. Despite a better understanding of equine behaviour previously being recommended in the literature as a way to reduce occupational injuries, the majority of respondents reported receiving limited or no training on the subject of equine learning theory. When asked how well they thought they understood how horses learn and how well they thought they were able to apply this knowledge, just under 80% reported moderately, well or very well. When asked if they understood various terminology related to learning theory the majority stated they understood the terms positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, habituation and classical conditioning, however, less than 50% stated they understood the terms positive punishment and negative punishment. When those that stated they did understand a term were tested by asking them if a certain term correctly described a scenario, they did not have a good understanding of the terminology relating to operant conditioning, although were more likely to choose the correct answer for scenarios related to the terms habituation and classical conditioning.
The undergraduate veterinary students’ attitudes to the behaviour scenarios altered on the post and delayed post questionnaire when compared with the pre questionnaire. They were less likely after the lecture to choose more traditional methods of restraining or controlling the horse (such as a twitch) and more likely to choose an option based on learning theory. They also reported that if they had to deal with a one of these scenarios in practice following the lecture that they felt more confident, more likely to succeed in completing the intervention and less likely to be injured.
The pilot study evaluating whether training in a virtual laboratory would enable students to improve their practical ability to train a live horse using positive reinforcement, failed to suggest that it would and so no larger study was conducted.
In summary, equine veterinarians frequently encounter horses exhibiting unwanted and often dangerous behaviours during veterinary interventions, and are frequently injured by the horses they are treating or examining. Equine veterinarians currently rely on chemical and physical restraint. Despite a better knowledge of equine behaviour being cited as a way to reduce the risk of occupational injuries to equine veterinarians many have received limited training on this subject and have poor knowledge of the terminology associated with learning theory.
More encouragingly a simple educational intervention in the form of a lecture on equine learning theory was found to positively alter the way students perceived dealing with difficult horses in practice; further research is needed to see if such an intervention also reduces the high prevalence of occupational injuries within the profession.
This study provides new information on the prevalence of unwanted behaviours equine veterinarians encounter. It also is the first to suggest that an educational intervention can help to change the attitudes and confidence of undergraduate students when working with difficult horses.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Waran, Natalie, Supervisor
  • Keen, John, Supervisor
  • Reardon, Richard, Supervisor
Publication statusSubmitted - 2017

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • horse
  • veterinarian
  • injury
  • students


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