Home » What Is Equine Cooperative Care?

What Is Equine Cooperative Care?

Using cooperative care for routine medical care: I am using touching the full tube of de-wormer as the start button. This is back when I wasn’t quite a believer. You can see I’m still holding that lead rope like I’m sure he will run away. He said yes and calmly took his medicine like a pro. It absolutely shocked me.

In Equine Positive reinforcement training, cooperative care basically refers to teaching horses behaviours that make it possible for the human to administer force free care, things like needles, dewormer, fly spray, dental work etc. This is accomplished in a completely different way from traditional training. The R+ trainer gives the horse a choice to accept or not. There is no force involved. I am not saying that a positive reinforcement trainer would never use force, there are always un-expected emergencies where we just don’t have time to train behaviours before the horse needs necessary care. But the overall goal is to prepare our horses so that in a situation where they require care they are calm, safe, know what to expect, and have some level of control over what happens to them.  

Cooperative Care Start Buttons

With any cooperative care behaviour it is important that our horse has a start button installed. It’s a behaviour that we train our horse to do that indicates that he is ready for the next repetition. The start button gives the animal a little bit of control, and greatly helps to reduce anxiety around a procedure. Imagine you are at the dentist, and you don’t have the power to ask the dentist to stop if the pain is too much. That situation would be incredibly stressful. Having the ability to communicate when you need a break greatly reduces that stress. There are a million options for start buttons, they are really individual to the human and the horse.

One example is after the horse touches the object of administration you start treatment. Fox touching the tube of de-wormer is an example of this. Another example is teaching your horse to keep contact with an object, a cone for example. The treatment starts when the horse makes contact with the object, it stops when the horse breaks contact. The important part is that both the horse and the human understand when the horse is ready for the next rep. This start button helps give the horse a little bit of control over what is happening, and gives them an opportunity to take an extra minute if they need it. 

A photo sequence depicting the use of a start button to touch a feral horse

Below is a photo sequence where I’m using a start button. Major’s Promise Yukon Large Animal Rescue drove 5 hrs on icy roads to bring Sassy (Formerly LW) to me at my remote location. Major’s Promise is an amazing rescue that really does their absolute best to help animals. They had owned Sassy for almost a year, and could only just touch her on the nose when she was free, or all over in a chute. She would not allow anyone to touch past the end of her nose in any way, unless she was locked up and couldn’t physically run away. She would walk up to people, but stay just out of reach. If they really tried to touch her she would bolt away.

Here’s how I was able to touch her outside of the chute a few days after she arrived. First I taught her that she needed to put her nose in my hand to get a treat. This was in her comfort zone, as she was allowing nose touches before. Then I began putting my hand up so that as she reached for the treat it would touch her. The reaching for the treat was her start button. I couldn’t make her nose in my hand the start button, because somewhere in the past she had learned that if she took food really fast and ran away, she could avoid the hand touching her and still get the treat. I know! SO smart! This process worked really well with her. Pretty quickly she was using the start button to get scratches, and eventually she didn’t need it anymore.

How often do you think a horse would say yes to de-wormer?

I know in traditional training the idea of a start button, and choice sounds crazy. I’m sure you are imagining how often a horse would say no to de-wormer… probably 100% of the time right? Well, surprisingly when a horse has a strong positive reinforcement history with something, they will rarely say no even if it becomes briefly unpleasant.

Reinforcement history is a BIG deal.

If you are still skeptical, here is some food for thought. Did you know that horses will often run into their stalls in the case of a barn fire? Even if the horse has been removed from the barn he will likely run back to his stall, even if it’s on fire. (Michelle Staples) This goes for paddocks and fields as well if there is a wildfire. Why does this happen? Well the stall, paddock, or field is a safe place in the horse’s mind. He has a strong reinforcement history of relaxed living in these places. This is where he eats his food, this is where his friends live, and where he feels the most safe. I will dive deeper into reinforcement history in a later post.

Positively reinforcing the horse performing the behaviours of standing calmly and taking a syringe into his mouth will eventually make these behaviours feel safe and normal for the horse. So when we decide to medicate the horse orally, he won’t be alarmed by the feel, smell, and surprise of it. He is comfortable with the whole procedure, and even though the medication may taste bad he knows good things happen around it. I was very surprised at how well this works when I first tried it. It ensures that even nasty routine medical care doesn’t have to be a chore for us, and traumatizing for our horses.            

It’s ok for the horse to anticipate what is happening… in fact it’s better.

This comes to the next concept. It’s very important that the horse knows what is happening, and what behaviours he should do around the object/situation. This is the exact opposite of how I used to do routine care with horses. For example in the past if I was going to de-worm my horse I would hide the wormer until I was ready to administer it, and then I would quickly put it into my horse’s mouth, hopefully before he caught on to what I was doing. Often he was de-wormed before he even realized what was happening. This works for some horses, but some horses catch on quicker and notice the wormer before it gets to them, and then they will fight it. Fighting can range from lifting the head a little, to rearing, striking, kicking, bolting… you get the idea.

Routine care can easily become a behavioural nightmare.

The more stressed out the horse becomes over the procedure, the worse, and more dangerous their behaviour will become. So with cooperative care we show the horse what we want to do. We give them the power to let us know when they are ready, and we heavily reinforce calm behaviour around the situation. This works so well for other species that zoo’s are able to draw blood from lion’s tails, or do dental work on hippos, just using positive reinforcement. I mean if it works for lions and hippos, why not horses too?

The photo of Fox with his foot in a bucket is an excellent example of how nice it is to have behaviours prepared so that your horse is calm, and cooperative when you need to help them. Somehow (I haven’t seen it before or since) Fox had developed smooth ice on the bottoms of all four feet. He couldn’t walk without slipping and sliding. He was like Bambi on ice. I saw him fall in the field, and almost fall again while I was leading him to the house where I could get hot water. I couldn’t pick the ice out with the hoof pick. It was froze solid. The hot water in the bucket was able to melt it off his feet. He stood perfectly for the whole procedure. If he had moved weird or tried to pull his foot out he could have fallen again. Glad he knew what to do.

An example of cooperative care in an emergency. I was sure glad that Fox knew how to stand calmly with his foot in a bucket when we had this situation.

What cooperative care behaviours should we teach?

So now, what cooperative care behaviours should we teach? There are a huge number of behaviours that can be taught in order to prepare our horses for situations where they require care. It really comes down to evaluating what is useful for you and your horse, and trying to imagine what would be useful in a future emergency. With any luck emergency care won’t ever be needed, but it’s always nice to be prepared. Here’s a list in no particular order of some of the behaviours that I consider important to teach. 

  1. Oral medication behaviours where the horse allows medication to be administered into their mouth. 
  2. Dental/Mouth checking behaviours where the horse opens their mouth on cue. 
  3. Picking up feet for the farrier.
  4. Holding feet up, and then standing calmly to have hoof boots applied. 
  5. Allowing the human to place the horse’s feet, into buckets etc. and standing in that position.  
  6. Standing calmly for needles. 
  7. Self-Haltering. 
  8. Standing calmly for Fly spray, and other spray bottles. 
  9. Standing for grooming
  10. Trailer loading
  11. The list is endless!

I imagine that everyone’s list will look a little different depending on their individual horse, and his individual medical needs. But I hope this helps as a start getting you thinking about what would be useful for your horse!

Have A Lovely Day!



Michelle Staples, Why Do They Do That? Fire Safety In Barns, accessed 26, July 2021, www.firesafetyinbarns.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Me

Share via
Copy link