Dr. Sue McDonnell, a board-certified applied animal behaviorist and founding head of the Equine Behavior Program and Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, established a semi-feral pony herd at UPenn's New Bolton Center 25 years ago.
Kept on 50 acres, the ponies are not handled, and breed and socialize as they would in the wild. McDonnell says that observing the herd has helped better understand equine behavior and has allowed her to design horse-keeping practices that can be used in domestic horses. McDonnell notes that some common practices that compromise equine welfare can be attributed to people not understanding how horses act naturally; she says that there are no bad horses, just “less than ideal management,” reports Horse Health Lines.
McDonnell came to Penn Vet as a researcher, but became increasingly called upon to assist with behavioral cases. She became acutely aware that the information that was being disseminated was published by people not intimately familiar with horses and how they naturally behave. As she was repeatedly called upon to offer opinions to other vets, she recognized a void in veterinary teaching: vets didn't understand equine behavior.
To bridge this gap, she founded Penn Vet's equine behavior program. This program helps students learn what could be physically wrong with a horse that would present as a “bad” behavior. Often, horses are stabled; while this may make humans feel good about how they are kept, it is not necessarily in the horse's best interest.
Additionally, how domestic horses are fed can present problems, McDonnell said. Horses in their natural state eat continuously with their heads down; stabled horses are often fed in hay racks that force them to lift up their heads, potentially causing dental issues, colic or behavioral issues, among other problems. McDonnell is focused on educating equine owners and caretakers on what is best for the horses.
Read more at Horse Health Lines.
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