Why Do Accidents Happen?
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2019
G. Pearson
Equine Hospital, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

Prevalence of Unwanted Behaviours and Injuries

A study conducted by the British Equine Veterinary Association concluded that working as an equine veterinarian was the most dangerous profession in terms of occupational injury. It found equine veterinarians sustained more severe injuries than those working in the construction industry, prison service or fire service. A study of veterinarians conducted by the presenter found that equine veterinarians frequently have to work with challenging horses. In this study, 95% of 132 veterinarians reported interacting with horses they perceived as difficult on at least a monthly basis. The most common unwanted behaviours they had to deal with were horses that were pushy, would not stand still, were needle shy or head shy. Other commonly encountered unwanted behaviours included being clipper shy, kicking out with a hind foot, pulling away from the handler, refusing to load into a trailer or striking out with a front foot. In this survey, 81% of the equine veterinarians had sustained an injury in the previous five years as a result of the behaviour of the horse they were working with. When asked how they controlled or restrained horses that were difficult, they tended to favor traditional methods that were based on physical restraint.


Arousal refers to the level of alertness of the horse, with increased arousal being associated with elevated heart rates and blood pressure. The opposite of course would be relaxation. High levels of arousal are associated with hyperreactive behaviours such as bolting, kicking out and rearing. Horses that are in a highly aroused state are more likely to overreact to what would normally be innocuous stimuli, for example placing the stethoscope on the chest wall. Arousal levels can be associated with a positive emotional state such as a stallion teasing a mare. However, in the veterinary context, it is usually associated with a negative emotional state (i.e. fear). By being able to monitor the arousal levels of horses, we can predict when they are liable to react adversely.

Level of arousal





Lips pursed and tense

Lips relaxed; lower lip may even droop


Flared, tight lines around them due to prominent muscles of facial expression

Relaxed and comma-shaped


Rapidly moving, or more commonly fixed and frequently looking slightly backwards, which reveals some of the sclera

Soft and quietly moving according to the environment


Triangulation of upper eyelid due to prominent muscles of facial expression

Upper eyelid is a smooth curve where it merges with the head


Rapidly flicking around, or more frequently fixed either out to the side or slightly backwards

Quietly moving back and forth or softly out to side

Head height

Above the height of the withers; generally, the higher the head the higher the level of arousal

Approximately level with or slightly above the height of the withers; may be much lower in very relaxed horses

Neck musculature

The muscles on the underside of the neck are prominent

The muscles on the topline are prominent

Skin over neck

Tight, making it difficult to grasp in a neck twitch

Loose, making it very easy to grasp a full fistful for a neck twitch

Jugular vein

Flat and difficult to raise

Easily distends when raised


Musculature is prominent and hard to palpate

Musculature is soft and relaxed


Prominent across body

Not prominent


Stiff with prominent musculature

Musculature appears soft, with no tension evident

Hind limbs

Musculature prominent; may be slightly flexed or hind quarter lowered in a crouched position

Musculature soft, with one hind limb resting


Clamped down to body, or occasionally raised

Resting loosely against body and easily raised


Five Key “Take-Home” Points

1.  Working as an equine veterinarian carries a high risk of occupational injury, and the behaviour of the horse is a frequent cause of these injuries.

2.  Horses are frequently described as being unpredictable; however, they are actually fairly easy to predict with some training.

3.  Horses with high levels of arousal are likely to be hyperreactive and are more dangerous to work with.

4.  The arousal level of a horse should always be monitored when working with it, as described in the table above.

5.  When the horse is in a state of high arousal, behaviour modification techniques can be used to relax the horse rapidly, and these will be discussed in the accompanying lectures.


Working as an equine veterinarian is a potentially dangerous occupation. Equine veterinarians frequently encounter horses exhibiting unwanted and potentially dangerous behaviours. While horses are frequently described as being unpredictable animals, this is not true. With a limited amount of training, equine veterinarians can learn how to predict a horse’s behaviour more accurately and learn how to take steps that make the scenario safer and less stressful for all involved.


1.  Pearson G. Practical application of equine learning theory, part 1. In Practice. 2015;37(5):251–254.

2.  Pearson G. Practical application of equine learning theory, part 2. In Practice. 2015;37(6):286–292.

3.  McGreevy P, McLean A. Equitation Science. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell; 2010.


Speaker Information
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G. Pearson
Equine Hospital
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, UK

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