Ramey: Can horses have mental illness? – Horse racing news

OK, here is the full question –

“A couple of friends and I were talking about all the horses we’ve trained and ridden over the years and comparing their characteristics and personality traits etc. We were wondering if horses could develop mental illness similar to that of humans. For example, one of my horses many years ago acted like he was having a nervous breakdown. And my only friend described her mare as ‘acting autistic.’ since birth and they had never been abused, and had normal sires and dams.Do horses suffer from mental illness?Have there been any studies?Or do you think any behavioral issues result from training?

I guess we would have to define the terms first. In other words, what does the term “mental illness” mean? Searching for it, I found this definition, in the online medical dictionary: “Any of a variety of conditions characterized by impairment of an individual’s normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by social, psychological, biochemical , genetic or otherwise, such as infection or head trauma.

As such, that seems like a pretty broad definition to me. But the key phrase seems to be “the impairment of an individual’s capacity Ordinary …. works…” As such, in order to determine if a horse had a mental illness, you need to know what is normal for that individual. And here’s the rub.

One would presumably equate mental illness in a horse with abnormal behavior. And, the topic of horse behavior is one that has received a lot of study. There are a lot of things that go into horse behavior, but it largely boils down to two things: how horses normally behave and how they were bred. So, for example, in the wild, horses are prey, so they normally react quickly and without thinking when faced with things that seem threatening; while we can understand that a traffic cone or a flapping tree branch is not going to eat us, for a horse it is something strange and something to be afraid of. You never know when that tree branch is being pushed around by a pack of wolves, I guess. And while it’s kind of strange for a person to blindly run away if, say, they saw a piece of paper blowing down the street, that’s what horses are like.

The way horses are raised definitely affects behavior. So, for example, weaned foals have been shown to spend significantly more time engaging in behaviors considered undesirable, such as licking or chewing the stall/shed wall, kicking the stall wall /hangar, paw and kick and/or rearing. And, of course, they can react quite aggressively to an unpleasant stimulus, remembering, for example, that something was unpleasant for them (like a horse trailer). While some people may not be able to understand why the horse wouldn’t want to climb into the trailer, and may think it’s irrational, personally I have no idea why a horse would consider climbing into a box dark and mobile.

Certain illnesses definitely lead to behavioral changes, as the definition of mental illness suggests. Illnesses like encephalitis or rabies can cause depression or aggression. I remember a horse I treated that had a brain abscess – it looked normal, then started running blindly and became very aggressive. (He must, as it turns out, have been asleep.) So, I guess from that perspective, one could say – at least on some level – that the horse was mentally ill.

From a physiological perspective, the horse brain somewhat resembles the human brain, both in form and function. for example, many of the same chemical neurotransmitters work in both horses and humans. So there is no reason for horses could not have a mental illness.

But I think the biggest problem with answering your questions is that there’s no objective way to tell if a horse might have a mental illness. There are no cognitive tests that could help differentiate a horse with a behavioral problem from a horse that is certifiable. Even some of the questions that are commonly asked of people wouldn’t help much if you were examining a horse.

OWNER: “Doc, I’m afraid my horse is depressed. »

PSYCHOLOGIST, TO CLIENT: “Hmmm. Let’s see. Let me ask him a few questions.

PSYCHOLOGIST, ON HORSE: “Do you want to eat all the time? Are you afraid, but you don’t know why? Do you have trouble concentrating?

From my perspective, if the horse answered “yes” to any of these questions, that would mean it was a… well, a horse.

So ultimately I think it’s possible, but I think it would be really hard to say. Some of your friends probably act crazy once in a while, but you accept them as they are or move on. I think that’s probably a good idea for most horses too!

Dr. David Ramey is a strong advocate for the application of science to medicine and, as such, equine welfare. Thus, he has frequently criticized practices that lack good science, such as the various therapies collectively known as “alternative” medicine, unnecessary nutritional supplementation, or conventional therapies that lack scientific backing.

This original article originally appeared on Dr. Ramey’s website, doctorramey.com and is reproduced here with his permission.

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