Dengie Supports CUVS Memorial Lecture with Gemma Pearson

In February, Dengie supported the Cambridge University Veterinary Society Keith Entwistle Memorial Lecture, which was this year given by Gemma Pearson on the topic of Equine Behavioural Medicine. Gemma is based at the University of Edinburgh and is also Director of Equine Behaviour for The Horse Trust. She is the only RCVS recognised specialist in Veterinary Behavioural Medicine (Equine), so she has a wealth of expertise on this topic. Claire Akers and I were grateful for the opportunity to attend, and it proved to be a fascinating evening. As nutritionists, we’re often asked by horse owners for help with feeding horses who can be stressy, spooky or nervous, but in many cases it’s not the feed causing the problem! So it’s really important that we keep up to date with the latest research in other areas of the industry to enable us to continue to give the best advice we can as well as knowing where to signpost owners to for further help and information.

horse rearing

In the lecture, Gemma explained the principles of how horses learn, as well as covering different training methods, such as classical conditioning and the use of clicker training. She also showed several videos of the various training methods being successfully applied in different situations, ranging from a horse who wouldn’t pick her feet up to another who was headshaking in response to certain noises.

Gemma Pearson Talk

The topics discussed were extremely relevant for the veterinary students who attended. Research carried out in 2021 by Gemma and her colleagues at the University of Edinburgh found that 81% of equine vets surveyed had sustained at least one injury in the previous five years caused by a horse they were treating. Furthermore, ‘difficult’ horses were seen at least monthly by 95% of respondents, which gives an indication of just how frequently equine vets experience more challenging patients. Gemma highlighted how it is often forgotten that horses are flight animals, and ‘difficult behaviour’ is in most cases just a normal behavioural response to stress, so a good understanding of how they behave and learn is key to try and reduce the risk of injury.

From our point of view as nutritionists, although we don’t have to get anywhere near as ‘hands on’ as vets when we are out seeing clients’ horses, we do frequently encounter horses who are very nervous about new people or situations, so it was useful to get some additional tips that we can implement when supporting owners in encouraging their horses onto the weighbridge or when introducing a weigh tape to a particularly spooky horse.

Equine nutritional consultation

Gemma finished the lecture by sharing some stories of the training methods being used in other animals. Did you know that London Zoo have successfully used clicker training in 75 different species? The most surprising of these was the tiny fish who have been clicker trained to swim into measuring jugs so that the keepers can easily move them between tanks without the use of nets!

If you would like support from a clinical animal behaviourist like Gemma, the register can be found here (veterinary referral is required).