Poor socialization can stem from a variety of circumstances

Veterinarians can help clients learn how to identify peculiar behaviors, socialize atypical animals
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May 01, 2006


Blind horses are often pushed away from food and shelter and isolated by the rest of the herd. This blind Appaloosa is being kept away from hay.
Private equine practice is largely a matter of lameness, reproductive issues, trauma care and preventive medicine. There are occasions, however, when behavior problems directly affect medical care, and veterinarians must be able to address these issues to deliver appropriate treatment.

Daily work with horses tends to make most practitioners feel as if they have a good grasp of equine behavior. We handle them, examine them, perform various procedures on them and generally get along well with horses. Abnormal equine behavior is infrequently encountered and usually is "outside" typical veterinary concern. These cases often are referred to trainers, therapists, or perhaps to a veterinary behavioral specialist. But veterinarians see some types of management problems often enough in the field to make it worthwhile to devise an identification and treatment strategy.

Orphan syndrome

Doctor H. received an emergency call to treat what initially seemed to be a routine case of choke in a 7-year-old mare. The owner loudly exclaimed that this was the last straw with this horse, and she was at the end of her rope. The mare had been given to her three years ago. The horse is extremely talented and very athletic, the owner said, but she just will not learn or try. The current medical problem, though minor, was simply the latest misstep in what seems to have been a frustrating relationship.

As Dr. H. began to pass his nasogastric tube to relieve the choke condition, he noticed that the mare acted "abnormally". She was not aggressive, not timid or fearful, but was slightly pushy and resistant, and she did not respond normally to the procedure. His normal methods of dealing with horses in such a situation did not reassure or calm this mare. She simply did not seem to care. Dr. H. could not completely decide what was different but could sense that this mare was not like most he had treated.

After the choke was cleared, Dr. H. began to talk to the owner and eventually found out that the mare does not like to be with other horses in pasture. She stands by the gate waiting to come in to the barn and once inside, stands looking at whoever is working around the barn. She is pushy when being led but can be handled easily and is tolerant of being ridden. But she shows no desire to please and no interest in learning or working and is generally "dull".

This mare fits the general description of a mature horse that was poorly socialized as an orphan foal, and that indeed was the situation that Dr. H. uncovered when he continued to question this owner, who was unaware of the significance of this point and had dismissed it as a possible cause of the training/handling problems she was experiencing. The mare had been orphaned and was raised by a caretaker who had spent too much time with it and failed to get the foal adjusted to other horses. Such horses are overly bonded to humans, according to Dr. Sue McDonnell, a PhD behaviorist at the Havemeyer Equine Behavioral Lab of the University Of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. While true orphans make up most of the horses in this situation, foals that spend too much time away from their mothers also can exhibit these behaviors.

Mares that become ill soon after delivery and are consequently separated repeatedly for treatment, surgery or rehabilitation also can end up producing foals that are poorly socialized. Though much has been written about orphan foals and specific techniques for rearing and socializing them, there is little recorded about these animals when they mature or the potential problems they can present if early socialization is done incorrectly.