Cooperative care protocol using protected contact and positive reinforcement training to facilitate intramuscular injections in horses (simulated)

06 Jul 2022

By Holly Vickery

This study was shortlisted for the 2021 thesis of the year award and was submitted as partial requirement for a BSc (Hons) Equine behavioural science at Writtle University college 2021 by Samantha Osborn. Samantha is now studying for a Masters degree in Equine Performance Science whilst continuing to work part time for JPMorgan, and is hoping to link her dissertation work with improving how performance horses are trained.

Take home message: The results of this study provide early evidence that horses can be trained through the principles of cooperative care (positive reinforcement and voluntary cooperation) to accept a simulated intramuscular injection. Using this methodology appears to reduce horse stress levels whilst experiencing this routine management procedure and could therefore reduce risks to veterinarians and others involved in the handling of horses for these procedures. Training of horses using such methods has the potential to improve their welfare as well as human-animal relationships.

Although the riding of horses is well recognised to come with risks to personal safety, it seems that handling related risks are often underestimated. Human safety is often compromised by conventional methods of administering standard health care that horses find aversive, and this is particularly true when it comes to vaccinations. A British Equestrian Veterinary Association (BEVA) survey found that across a thirty-year career veterinarians could expect to sustain seven to eight work-related injuries that limited their ability to practice (BEVA, 2014). In 38% of cases recorded, the most severe injuries related to horses handled by the owner or client. Many animal species have been successfully trained to accept such procedures by using positive reinforcement training, and this is now commonplace in a wide variety of settings including zoos and laboratories.

Cooperative care is the name given to a method that aims to train individual animals to become active, willing participants in certain experiences. It introduces the concept of agency – that is giving the animal an option to say ‘no’, which is known to improve welfare in a wide variety of species and scenarios. The use of cooperative care is commonplace in zoos and is now increasing in popularity across the veterinary sectors, however it is a relatively new field and evidence for its use is limited in the Equestrian field. This dissertation study aimed to determine whether there were significant differences between physiological and behavioural parameters between a standard vaccination procedure and a protected contact positive reinforcement cooperative care vaccination procedure (simulated), and to devise a standard protocol for a cooperative care vaccination procedure.

The study was conducted at Lordships stud, Writtle and used mixed age, breed and sex horses for data collection. Seven horses were in the conventional vaccination group that experience the standard veterinary protocol, six had the conventional procedure but with a simulated injection, and eight were in the cooperative care protocol group with simulated injection.  For the cooperative care group, training sessions were carried out for two weeks, three times per week, for one session of approximately 5-10 minutes) per day. These sessions required the horse to learn to reach over a barrier to touch their nose to a target whilst the researcher simulated an intramuscular injection. To ensure the principles of cooperative care, any deviation from the target was used as a signal to stop the procedure (which did not start again until the horse chose to re-engage by coming to the training zone and paying attention to the researcher), and positive food reinforcement was used.

Seven out of eight horses successfully completed the cooperative care training, with one horse unable to complete due to severe food aggression resulting from a restricted diet for health purposes. Once training was complete an intramuscular injection was simulated to determine the differences between the trained and untrained horses, during this simulation physiological (heart rate, heart rate variability and eye temperature) and behavioural data were monitored. No significant difference was found when looking at heart rate and eye temperature. There were significant differences between the groups when it came to heart rate variability and behavioural responses. This data suggests that the horses trained through cooperative care principles had reduced stress levels and appeared to find the procedure less aversive, however this could have been impacted by improved human animal relationships building during the training period. The study concluded that ‘this cooperative care protocol could be used within the equine industry to improve horse welfare and reduce injury in vets during aversive health care procedures depending on collaboration with vets to enhance, refine and promote the procedure.’

Holly Vickery is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Animal Sciences, University of Reading. Her thesis is focused on the behaviour, welfare, and productivity of dairy goat kids during the milk feeding stage and weaning transition.