Equine behaviour – how can we nurse our patients better? - Veterinary Practice
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Equine behaviour – how can we nurse our patients better?

How can knowledge of equine behaviour, animal welfare principles and environmental enrichment be used to help treat and nurse equine patients more effectively?

Veterinarians working in equine veterinary practice carry a high risk of occupational injury (Pearson, 2019). We can, therefore, assume that by association, registered veterinary nurses (RVNs) working in equine practice also carry a high risk of occupational injury. The patient’s behaviour is commonly cited as a reason for this high risk. It is therefore important that equine vets and RVNs have a good knowledge of equine behaviour so they can handle equine patients safely and effectively.

This article will look at how knowledge of equine behaviour can be used to help treat and nurse equine patients more effectively.

The role of the RVN in patient behaviour and training

Historically, the training methods used for horses are based on centuries of tradition. But many of the theories these methods are based on, such as leadership and dominance, have now been disproved (Pearson, 2019). (It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss these methods of equine training and learning in detail; however, the reader is directed to Pearson (2019) as a useful resource for information on effective equine training methods.)

As RVNs encounter equines in the clinic and out on visits, they have first-hand exposure to a range of challenging equine behaviours. This puts them in the unique position to identify problems, provide initial behaviour “first aid” advice and, if appropriate, work with the case vet to instigate a referral to a behaviourist (Nellist, 2019).

[Nurses] have first-hand exposure to a range of challenging equine behaviours. This puts them in the unique position to identify problems, provide initial behaviour “first aid” advice

RVNs can help by initially demonstrating low-stress handling techniques and then by supporting the client to apply these techniques to everyday situations. The RVN may also question the owner about the normal routine and management of the horse and provide advice regarding meeting the patient’s behavioural needs.

Advice could be based on the five domains of animal welfare, which are (Nellist, 2019):

  • Nutrition: is the equine receiving the correct diet for them as an individual? Does the equine have access to clean drinking water?
  • Environment: is the equine living in the most suitable environment?
  • Disease and injury: are there effective preventative measures in place, and are injuries and disease being rapidly diagnosed and treated?
  • Behaviour: can the equine interact with their world in a way that prevents them from becoming frustrated?
  • Mental state: this is informed by the outcomes of the first four domains and identifies all likely feelings and emotional experiences, both positive and negative

There are similarities between the five domains of animal welfare and the five needs of animal welfare associated with The Animal Welfare Act 2006. The main difference is that the five domains explore the mental state of an animal in more detail and acknowledge it for every physical aspect that is affected.  

Managing dangerous behaviour

Equine patients tend to display dangerous behaviour when they are frightened. Fear arousal triggers escape and avoidance behaviours that can become habitual over time (Nellist, 2019).

When a procedure must be carried out immediately for the health and welfare of a patient, the following points should be adhered to (Nellist, 2019):

  • Maintain the lowest possible arousal level for the patient (Pearson, 2019). Make sure the patient is approached in a calm and relaxed manner. Move slowly and carefully around the patient
  • Smiling can have a positive effect. Horses have been found to respond more positively to a person who was last seen smiling compared with a person who was last seen frowning (Proops et al.,2018)
  • Stop or pause an approach or procedure before or when the equine displays early attempts to move away. Only continue the approach or procedure when the equine relaxes or responds positively. This facilitates systematic desensitisation, which is the gradual waning of fear responses through a carefully graded reintroduction of fear-predicting stimuli
  • Use a reward such as food (if appropriate) in the form of a handheld lick or low-sugar treats. This enables positive reinforcement to occur as the patient gains something desirable and rewarding as a consequence of the preceding behaviour. Wither scratching can also be used as a reward if food is not appropriate

Meeting behavioural needs

Meeting the needs of equine patients in a behaviourally minded way can help decrease frustrations, improve mood and decrease reactivity (Nellist, 2019).

There are different ways that RVNs can help to achieve this. One way would be actively addressing the needs of the equine patient when in the clinic: for example, providing environmental enrichment for a patient on box rest. Another approach is to provide advice to clients about the daily routine of the horse. This can be done either out in the yard during a visit or through client education evenings run by the practice (Nellist, 2019).

Meeting the needs of equine patients in a behaviourally minded way can help decrease frustrations, improve mood and decrease reactivity

Environmental enrichment

Environmental enrichment incorporates species-appropriate stimulation in the following areas (Nellist, 2019):

  • Social
  • Cognitive
  • Physical
  • Sensory
  • Food

Where appropriate, an extra note has been added in relation to donkeys as these equids often have different needs to horses and ponies.

Social enrichment

Social enrichments facilitate contact between equine patients. However, this is not always safe or appropriate in an equine veterinary practice (Nellist, 2019).

You can provide social enrichment in a veterinary practice as follows:

  • Providing large stuffed toys for weak, recumbent or orphan foals to use for comfort
  • Standing a life-sized model horse outside a horse’s stable to give the impression of company
  • Hanging a horse-safe mirror in the stable so the patient can see “another horse”

Although equine contact is preferable, the RVN can provide company and TLC by spending time with the patient and grooming them when it is not possible. If the patient is not infectious, the owner should be encouraged to visit and spend time with them as well.


It is important to remember that donkeys are different to horses. Donkeys form strong bonds for life and should always be admitted into an equine hospital with their bonded companion/s. The companion/s should always be kept within sight; failure to do this can lead to stress, anorexia and hyperlipaemia, which is a potentially fatal complication.

Cognitive enrichment

Cognitive enrichment involves problem-solving experiences, such as extracting food from devices.

Simple food balls and licks are suitable for use in a veterinary setting (Nellist, 2019). However, when using food balls, it is important to consider infection control if the food ball is owned by the practice and is used on more than one patient. Treats and licks used should also be carefully selected. Low-sugar treats and licks are best as equine patients on box rest rarely require extra energy, which can contribute to weight gain and obesity.

An easy way to provide environmental enrichment is to purchase miniature hay nets with small holes that are intended for use with feed or hay blocks. These can be filled with succulents, such as parsnips, swedes, apples and carrots, as a tasty and interesting treat (Figure 1).

FIGURE (1) Environmental enrichment can be provided to equine patients via miniature hay nets. Note the small holes intended for use with feed or hay blocks


Donkeys like to browse for different foodstuffs, so it is a good idea to take them out and allow them to forage in a hedgerow if appropriate. Donkeys also like to eat tree branches, so it is good practice to supply branches from non-poisonous trees to keep them entertained during recovery. Information relating to safe trees and shrubs to feed to donkeys can be found on The Donkey Sanctuary website.

Physical enrichment

Physical enrichment includes allowing companions to groom each other; however, this is not always appropriate in a veterinary setting. Instead, the RVN or owner could provide physical enrichment by grooming the patient. Scratch stations have been used with success in cattle housing and might be worth considering in a yard situation (Nellist, 2019).

Physical enrichment includes allowing companions to groom each other; however, this is not always appropriate in a veterinary setting

Sensory enrichment

Sensory enrichment can fulfil the exploratory needs of the equine patient. This can be provided in the form of a “puzzle box”, wherein a harmless item can be placed in a box or container for the patient to investigate (Nellist, 2019). This can be used to break up the day when an equine patient is on box rest.


Food is an easy enrichment to apply as equine patients naturally spend 16 to 18 hours per day foraging under normal circumstances (Nellist, 2019).

For equine patients on box rest, it is important that the forage ration lasts to prevent boredom and frustration. Forage rations can be split into several portions throughout the day. Hay nets can be doubled up to make the holes extra small, as this will increase consumption time and help to reduce boredom.


Donkeys do not have the same dietary requirements as horses, and overfeeding can lead to obesity and colic.

Donkeys on box rest require a diet of good-quality barley straw and will eat the equivalent of 1.3 to 1.8 percent of their body weight in dry matter each day. This equates to a 180kg donkey being fed 2.5 to 3.5kg of good-quality barley straw over 24 hours. It is a good idea to ask the owner to bring in straw from home if it is not usually stocked at the practice.

Donkeys do not usually need hard feed; however, donkey-specific feedstuffs should be used when required. These are generally low in sugar and high in fibre. More information on donkey-specific foodstuffs can be found on The Donkey Sanctuary website.


Attitudes towards equine behaviour and training are changing for the benefit of equine welfare. Equine vets and RVNs should always consider equine welfare and behaviour when working in practice. This will contribute to a reduction in occupational injuries to veterinary staff and serve to increase client confidence and trust, which will, in turn, contribute to a positive change in the welfare of equine patients in veterinary practice.

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