How Animal Behaviorists Help Horses

Written By: Casie Bazay

Growing up in the countryside of the once small town of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, Karen Holman developed a deep fondness for animals, especially since her parents and grandparents were animal lovers too. As a child, Holman, along with her two sisters, participated in 4-H where they learned a great deal about horses, and early on, she enjoyed observing animals and how they communicated with one another and humans. Holman went on to become an educator, teaching subjects related to science and health, but she eventually decided to start a side business where she would be able to follow her passion of helping animals in need.

After Holman adopted a Labrador Retriever with a biting problem 12 years ago, many people recommended the dog be euthanized and she start over with another dog. Holman and her family, however, were committed to helping their new pet while also providing a safe environment for everyone in their home.

Holman sought the help of her veterinarian, Dr. Charles McWilliams, as well as Dr. Carlo Siracusa at the University of Pennsylvania Ryan Veterinary Hospital Behavior Clinic and, in time, learned how to change her dog’s aggressive behavior. Because of that experience, Holman was inspired to attend graduate school and become an animal behavior consultant. She has now been consulting professionally since 2015 at her business, Three Oaks Animal Behavior Counseling, based in her hometown of Broken Arrow.

Working with dogs, cats and horses, Holman often observes the animals in their environment before providing positive treatment interventions aimed at improving the bond between owner and pet. With horses, Holman is often asked to help with stereotypical behaviors, such as aggression, abnormal eating habits, fears and phobias, as well as undesirable stall behaviors.

“Managing a horse’s environment is a large piece of the puzzle,” Holman said. “Many of the problems I see in this area are horses that are confined to the stall too many hours in a day and not allowed to forage for food. The lack of appropriate forage time, environmental enrichment and stimulation can lead to stereotypic behaviors or repetitive actions. Horses typically forage 60% of their day for their food, and ensuring this time can prevent many problems we experience in equines.”

Holman went on to explain that what she does as an animal behavior consultant differs from what horse trainers typically do. She doesn’t train individuals to ride their horse or train horses for riding though she may give owners suggestions regarding positive approaches when working with or riding their horses. Holman’s main focus is teaching people how to modify inappropriate behaviors in their pets and replace them with more appropriate behaviors.

Holman explained she also works with horses who have problems with the horse trailer, ear-trimming or difficulty with medical procedures but noted that the longer an inappropriate behavior is allowed to continue, the more difficult it might be to modify.

“You cannot punish behaviors out of them,” Holman stated, going on to relay a story with her childhood horse, Twister, in which a farrier injured the horse’s nose with a twitch, leading to the necessity of veterinary care. “Twister did not learn anything from that experience except extreme fear. He was fearful from that event for many years. I never forgot the look in his eyes. I felt as if he depended on me to protect him, and I failed him. That was a pivotal moment in my path to study the science behind animal behavior.”

Depending on the species she is working with as well as the individual animal’s needs, Holman uses different tactics. Two factors she must always keep in mind when working with horses, specifically, are their size and the fact that they are prey animals and not predators, like dogs and cats.

 “[Horses] are very likely to escape from a fearful situation,” said Holman. “This can lead to unsafe situations for riders and to unsuspecting humans!”

Holman went on to explain that there are some similarities in working with animals, no matter the species, and that behavior is often modified by using three main techniques:

  • counter conditioning, in which the goal is to change an animal’s emotional response, feelings, or attitude toward a stimulus;
  • operant learning, where behavior is changed as a function of its consequences (through positive reinforcement or punishment);
  • desensitization, a behavior modification technique often used in treating phobias, in which panic or another undesirable emotional response to a given stimulus is reduced or extinguished with repeated exposure to that stimulus.

Holman stressed that understanding what is normal behavior for each type of animal is extremely important in her work.

“Horses have specific natural needs,” said Holman. “I think people forget that horses are social animals, and many love to have human companionship.”

Holman said that communicating and “reading” animals is another important part of the work she does as an animal behavior consultant. She pays attention to body posturing and works to find “triggers” to certain negative behaviors.

“There truly is a science to animal behavior,” she said. “I have to take my emotions out of treatment plans. I also must develop a treatment plan that the owners are able to execute.”

Holman explained that she has to find the root of the problem first and then be realistic about expectations for changing any behaviors.

“I am always gentle, soft spoken, providing ample positive reinforcement (praise and high value treats), avoiding eye contact,” she said. “I respect the animals I work with and try to get to know them and let them get to know me.”

That being said, Holman also refuses to put herself in danger with any animal. In some cases, she can’t physically touch or even make eye contact with an animal she’s working with, and she has to respect that.

However, Holman stated that the best part of her job is helping people and their animals.

“I love practicing a science-based field that is effective, and I’m surrounded by animals and people that love animals,” she said.

Holman’s advice to anyone who may be struggling with a specific behavior issue in their horse is to respect their animal and learn to observe and understand the meaning behind the horse’s posturing or body language. She stressed that time and patience are always needed when working to change a negative behavior.

“Let them be a horse,” she said. “Don’t force them to be something that they are not designed for. Make sure the training techniques you are using are not harmful physically and emotionally to your horse.”

To learn more about what Holman does or to schedule a consultation for your own pet, visit her website: https://animalbehaviorok.com.

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