by Buck Brannaman
“Being a horse vet is a very dangerous job,” Buck Brannaman said, a truth the famed horse trainer confirmed with a show of hands of veterinarians who had sustained career-related injuries—and those were just the ones without chronic shoulder or arm injuries. But helping horse-owning clients understand horses’ herd behavior and mentality, and encouraging them to handle their animals accordingly, can improve this picture, better equipping horse, owner, and to vet handle any problem that might arise.
Brannaman addressed a standing-room-only audience as the keynote speaker at the 2013 American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention, held Dec. 7-11 in Nashville, Tenn., where he sought to motivate and inspire the several-thousand veterinarians in attendance.
He began by emphasizing that horse owners tend to select their veterinarians by how well they get along with the horses, but they often seem to forget that even in the best of circumstances, a horse that is unprepared for the unexpected can be difficult for anyone to work with, no matter how professional or skilled the individual might be. He stressed, “Horse owners must prepare their horses for the unthinkable.” It is not enough for a horse to cooperate when everything is going right; he must also be cooperative enough to facilitate a thorough veterinary exam and to accept procedures that may induce some degree of discomfort or restraint.
Brannaman offered horse behavior insights based on his own experience:
“As much as we like to anthropomorphize, horses process things in one way—
they do it the way things work in a herd. In other words, they behave the way they see
other horses behave.” Brannaman said that if a horse could vocalize his thoughts,
the animal might consider aloud, “Do I move his feet, or do I move mine?”
Watching the horses’ feet and movement are keys to understanding their behavior.
For example, he noted that we’ve all seen horses milling around in a herd, something he says horses use to test which horse will be the first to move. A dominant horse might push another to move first either by body postures or by more aggressive and ferocious attacks. When the less dominant horse escapes, he feels relief and the dominant horse quits putting on the pressure. Once the herd hierarchy has been sorted out, the dominant horse may only need to lean towards other horses to achieve the desired response. This concept can be a powerful tool for people to use in horse training.
“Preparation,” Brannaman insists, “starts with halter breaking.” The handler should begin this process by establishing a “bubble” around himself that the horse will respect when he’s asked to move forward.
Echoing the sentiments of his mentor, Ray Hunt, he said, “You need to go through the feet to get to the head.” He kept referring to “moving the horse with a feel,” using gentle pressure to keep the horses’ feet within an imaginary rectangle. , which contains lots of “exit doors.” So, when a horse has to cope with anything, such as a veterinarian, farrier, crowd, or flapping scary things, the human “operating all four quarters of the horse” must shut all these exit doors. “The horse must go forward and be soft, and the hindquarters and forequarters must be able to move right or left with the horse in a good frame of mind,” he added. “When all the pressure is gone,” he says, “the horse finds a peaceful place.”
Another important issue Buck described is the tendency for horse owners to pressure veterinarians to find something physically “wrong” with a horse when, in fact, the problem they are experiencing is typically a behavioral problem. Brannaman said he is brutally honest in his clinics, admitting , “I don’t make people cry, but I’ll help ‘em to,” While that sparked a laugh, he recognizes that the truth is sometimes hard to swallow, and it’s important for horse owners to open their minds to another perspective on their horses’ undesirable behavior.
Also important to understanding the roots to a behavior issue, Brannaman’s quipped, “You need to know what happened before what happened happened.”
Summing it up, Brannaman said owners need to train their horses to yield softly to their humans and not to yield out of fear. Establishing this foundation of a working relationship means the horse is prepared to be more receptive and responsive to care and direction during to any crisis, veterinary or otherwise.