Recognizing and managing equine emotional states for a more harmonious vet appointment

When horses feel understood, they are more at ease with handling. This model will help you understand the emotional needs of your horses during his next vet appointment.

Natural horsemanship is a global movement that is revolutionizing the equine industry. Many excellent clinicians have contributed to this noble cause. Pat and Linda Parelli have pioneered the long overdue awareness that horses perform more efficiently when a willing partnership is developed from “love, language, and leadership in equal doses”, rather than from dominance and forced submission. Learning how horses communicate through body language, and understanding their point of view, enhances the human-animal bond as well as the veterinary treatment experience.

The Parellis recognized that horses have very distinct personality traits that cause them to react differently to stimuli. Motivating each individual involves understanding the primary needs of each personality. Personalities vary due to innate or genetic characteristics, learned behaviors, environmental stimuli, and spirit levels. In conjunction with psychologist Patrick Handley, PhD, the Parellis developed Horsenality™ and Humanality™, a personality assessment for horses and their riders, and their emotional states.1,2,3,4


The primary need of an animal at any given moment can vary, depending on whether they are a prey or predator species, and in a confident/rational (left brain) state or an insecure/emotional (right brain) one. Extroversion and introversion of either state will add another layer to the personality (see sidebar on page xx). Low, medium, or high spirit levels will exacerbate particular personality traits, acting as a “volume control”. The equine species is generally considered a prey species, but even within that grouping, there can be differing levels of confidence, as well as emotional and security-related responses.

These emotional states are dynamic and can change in an instant, depending on environmental stimuli. I have extrapolated this model to include other species as well, and termed it AnEmotionality.5,6 Those who are familiar with Traditional Chinese Medicine will see similarities between this model and the Five Elements Theory of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wind.

The tendency to be an introvert or extrovert, as well as right- or left-brained, affects learning and attention span. Although a horse may possess one or two primary traits, different situations and environments can allow other traits to show up. It is not surprising that the veterinary environment can bring out previously unseen behaviors. Addressing the primary needs of each personality will help manage the emotions and result in a more productive outcome.

Understanding your horse’s personality

RBE horses (Safety): These horses are not motivated by treats until they can be encouraged to access left-brain thinking. Decreasing pressure by incorporating approach-and-retreat (with lots of retreat), and little to no eye contact, is beneficial. A high-energy extroverted horse will need to move his feet so as not to feel trapped. Allowing this to occur within limits by directing where the horse is moving allows him to release stress while also respecting your leadership.

Repetition and patterns work well with unconfident right-brain horses. Falling into a routine of movement can be comforting. If anxiety is high, interrupting the pattern by redirecting movement can also be beneficial. For some anxious horses, it may be helpful to approach the evaluation in stages.

RBI horses (Comfort): They appear calm and quiet, but can explode unpredictably. In life, they can be the silent sufferers who hate conflict, become catatonic, hide, and allow their stress cortisol levels to wreak havoc. These horses appreciate slow, gentle veterinary exams with lots of approach-and-retreat, even with eye contact.

Postponing the hands-on portion of the exam can allow time for the horse to relax. Use this time to ask your vet any questions you may have. Since he’s being ignored during the discussion, your horse may become curious and offer the vet his eye. This is his permission for your vet to proceed with the exam.

LBE horses (Play): Such horses are playful, energetic and naughty! Think of the mouthy and pushy horse who won’t leave you alone. These are the “in your pocket” animals. They are outgoing, very treat-motivated, love to run, and have a difficult time staying still. If they are unable to move their feet, they will move their mouths. These horses are very easily trained, since it is easy to motivate them. They tend to get bored easily and will need you to be more interesting than their surroundings.

LBI horses (Incentive): Horses that are stubborn, argumentative, and refuse to budge fall into this category. They can also be bullies. These horses often refuse to come when called, unless treats are involved, and may also turn their butts to you in disrespect. They have a tendency to get angry when things don’t go their way. Or they may refuse to move forward under saddle. These animals can usually be motivated with treat rewards. Try to make your idea become their idea, and avoid the argument.

In summary

Veterinary exams can be stressful. Horses don’t understand that our intentions for preventative health and maintenance are for their own well-being. Understanding your horse’s state of mind, identifying what motivates him, and attending to his primary needs results in a more positive experience for him and the practitioner.