Recognizing and managing equine (and client!) emotional states for a more harmonious diagnostic and treatment experience

When horses feel understood, they are more at ease with handling. And when clients feel they are “heard”, they are more compliant to your recommendations. This model helps you understand the different emotional states of your equine patients and clients.

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 emotional states, enhances the human-animal bond as well as the veterinary diagnostics and 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 level. 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

Horsenality™/AnEmotionality™

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 below). 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. The author has extrapolated this model to include other species as well, and has termed it AnEmotionality.5,6 Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners 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 an animal 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.

Clinical examples of equine patients and clients

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.

RBE clients: These people can be anxious and exuberant fast talkers, who offer way too much information. Redirecting the conversation to the patient while matching the client’s energy helps him feel heard, without being offended. Offering a task he can handle can help him feel valued.

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. Take your time with the exam and proceed slowly and gently. Incorporate lots of approach-and-retreat, even with eye contact.

Discussing management options with the client to reduce stress in the environment can be productive; and postponing the hands-on portion of the exam while discussing your intentions can allow time for the horse to relax. Since he’s being ignored during the discussion, he may become curious and offer you his eye. This is his permission for you to proceed with the exam. Glancing and looking away while discussing history or management with the client can work wonders in helping the horse gain confidence.

It is this author’s opinion that at least 30% of the physical exam involves visual observation. A lot can be assessed about the horse’s general health, well-being, and state of mind while not handling him. This is especially true with right-brain introverts. The stress hormone, cortisol, triggers cascades of deleterious effects. A suitable analogy for comprehending this concept is to think about what happens to us when flashing lights from an advancing police car are seen in the rearview mirror, and the rush of relief we feel when we see the car pass us and continue to the intended target. For an RBI, the “release” of pressure is what teaches and/or brings confidence for survival.

RBI clients: These clients have difficulty making and keeping eye contact, are quiet and shy, and need time to process what has been said. They can seem calm, but as stress increases, they may explode. It helps if you bring your energy down and ask if they are clear on a topic before proceeding. This is especially true when presenting an estimate for services.

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.

LBE clients: They’re confident, outgoing, active, and may be controlling and dominating. They have take-charge personalities, prefer order, and like to get in and out, although they will want to tell you the latest joke before they do. Matching their energy and getting to the point will result in a winning formula. Be attentive to their need to “cut to the chase” when presenting an estimate.

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.

LBI clients: These clients are skeptical and will likely respond to your history questions by saying: “You tell me, you’re the doctor!” Arms are often folded across the chest. These people want you to “prove it”. They can also feign disinterest. It is important not to fall into the trap of talking too fast, especially over an estimate. Calm your energy, keep appropriate eye contact, and offer an incentive. It may be in the form of acknowledging their relationship with their equine partner; their intelligence in recognizing the need to seek medical attention for their horse; or the fact that they’re a great storyteller!

Emotional states in summary

Veterinary exams can be stressful. Animals don’t understand that our intentions for preventative health and maintenance are for their own well-being. And clients are not always on their best behavior either. Understanding the emotional states of our patients and clients, identifying what motivates them, and attending to their primary needs results in a more positive experience for them and the practitioner. The Parelli HorsenalityTM and HumanalityTM models extrapolate effectively to other species; the author terms this extrapolation to the emotional states of all animals AnEmotionalityTM.

Maintaining the relationship with the animal is of utmost importance. Recognizing and managing “who shows up that day”, rather than using preconceived judgments, allows for a more rewarding outcome. Offering strategies to manage clients in their different emotional states allows us to be stewards of the gift of relating. The relationship becomes a more nuanced “dance” in order to help another sentient being feel heard and understood. This is more effective than the opposite approach of sticking completely to your own direct line of thought, which can monopolize the agenda. Offering the emotional currency that each animal and client requires to feel validated and confident in your intentions decreases stress, preserves the dignity of the animal, and increases client compliance while accomplishing the necessary veterinary procedures.6

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1Parelli. Natural Horsemanship, Pagosa Springs, Colo, 81147.

2Parelli L. “The Parelli Horsenality Profile Issue”, Savvy Times 16: Aug 2007.

3McFarland C, Parelli L, Pat Parelli. “Secrets for success, introverts and extroverts: opposite education”, Horse Illustrated, March 2008.

4Parelli L, Handley P. Horsenality/ Humanality Workshop, Ocala Florida, 1/31/2014- 2/5/2014.

5Gordon Palm, Janet. AnEmotionality; Understanding Animal Emotional States Allows for Harmonious Relationships, 2015.

6Gordon Palm, Janet. “Stress Free Animal Relationships, Keys to That Kingdom”, AHVMA 2016.

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Dr. Janet Palm graduated from Kansas State University in 1981, and has practiced medicine and surgery in small animal, avian and exotic species in California, Georgia and Minnesota. She began integrating complementary therapies shortly after graduating. She lectures nationally on Low Level Laser Therapy (with RACE credits) and Enhancing the Veterinary Exam using Natural Horsemanship Principles. Dr. Palm recently relocated her integrative practice to Fruita, Colorado, and offers osteopathy, veterinary neuronal adjustment and myofascial release techniques in addition to LLLT, using the non-heat producing Class 2 Erchonia Frequency Specific Low Level Laser. She includes horses and farm animals in her ambulatory practice, Animobility Integrative Veterinary Services (Animobilityvet.com).

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