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Fear-Free Husbandry and Veterinary Care in the Horse World

The net benefit of minimizing equine fear is a much-needed reduction of occupational hazards in the equestrian professions.

Journal Reference: Carroll, S. L., Sykes, B. W., & Mills, P. C. (2022). Moving toward fear-free husbandry and veterinary care for horses. Animals, 12(21), 2907.

Publication Date:2022


Carroll, Sykes, and Mills provided a comprehensive review of the current status of the fear-free husbandry movement in the equine world. While they have anchored their paper on veterinarian safety, they provide a wealth of details about the many areas where caregivers and veterinarians can reduce equine stress and the strategies that are likely to be successful. This paper extends the advances made in the keeping of zoo and companion animals to the horse world. While not directly discussing the ethics of improving welfare conditions, the authors cite very real risks to humans as the reason to adopt these practices.


“Traditionally, physical restraint, punishment, and \ or threat of an aversive, have been the most common strategies used to achieve compliance from the horse.”

(Carroll et al, 2022)

Carroll et al. cite statistics showing that most equine veterinarians wind up in the hospital, sooner or later, as a result of engaging with large highly stressed animals. Far too many vets approach their equine clients with a “get the job done” mindset that pays little heed to the animal’s emotional state. Large animals trying to avoid, escape, or worse, defend themselves are extremely dangerous. The injury rate for their occupation is higher than almost all other civilian professions. Improving safety must be prioritized for veterinary medicine for equines to remain a viable profession. It is noteworthy that two of the authors of this paper are veterinarians.

The ethics of animal husbandry are different in this modern world. The nature of Human-Animal Interaction itself is changing as horses are less seen as meat, mere transportation, or livestock, and more often seen as a partner in sports, a leisure hobby, or a companion animal. The strong traditional ways of handling horses are giving way to a modern understanding of equine ethology and applied behavior science. The advent of methods to measure degrees of stress means that we have the capability, if not the will, to look at animal stress honestly and strive to diminish it.

Several interesting aspects of the human-horse association create special challenges. I list them here for their heuristic value, and some of these are responses to claims in this paper.

  • It is not uncommon for horses who have repeated negative experiences with veterinarians to associate all veterinarians with danger. The mere presence of a vet may elicit a stress response. My animals seem to smell them coming.
  • Equestrians typically respond to added physical danger by increasing their usage of personal protective gear, such as helmets. They are less likely to attend to the reduction of animal stress. Riding it out, rather than asking why the horse needs to do it, is normal.
  • There is something about the nature of horse people interacting that stifles honest introspection and collaboration for the welfare of the horse. Owners, trainers, and veterinarians are especially loath to admit they could improve.
  • Many training techniques focus on producing a stoically tolerant animal. Stoicism can be a thorough case of learned helplessness, or it can be a temporary buffer over a higher threshold waiting to explode. Neither of these are beneficial to the welfare of the animals.
  • The broadest significant risk for accident stems from physical restraint of the animal. Restraint comes at the expense of control by the equine and almost always provokes resistance under stressful conditions. 

The solution to this problem is remarkably simple. The humans need only carefully to minimize the likelihood of the animal to appraise the interaction as aversive. The authors claim the benefits of safety, productivity, and handleability as well as an overall increase in the quality of the interaction for both parties. Restraint becomes unnecessary. Voluntary participation and cooperation of the animal is the gold standard by which success can be measured.

UQ VETS offers a 3.5-year scholarship that combines clinical work, training, and research. The program also provides on-site supervision by registered veterinary specialists and highly qualified clinical researchers. Link

The Authors

  • Sharon Carroll received her MS from the University of Queensland after she had a well-established business as an animal behavior consultant. She is driven by an intent to better understand the animals we care for.
  • Ben Sykes and Paul Mills are faculty at the veterinary school of the University of Queensland. Dr. Sykes is a specialist in gastrointestinal diseases of the horse and Dr. Mills specializes in veterinary pharmacology.

Keywords: fear, stress, veterinary behaviors, cooperation, trust

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