Bad behavior or a physical problem? Rearing in a Dutch Warmblood mare

Abstract: Behavior problems in horses are often thought to be due to the horse’s bad attitude, which commonly results in them being punished. However, when these cases are carefully worked up, there may be an underlying physical problem, and pain may play an important role. A 5-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare was presented for rearing and flipping over backward. The mare had been repeatedly examined by an equine veterinarian and a nonveterinarian equine dentist who found no abnormalities. Several different bits were tried, and side reins were used to keep her head down. The mare was whipped every time she reared. None of these measures helped. On presentation to our equine teaching hospital, no abnormalities were detected on routine physical examination. The behavior was observed when the mare was lunged; as soon as a small amount of tension was put on the lunge rein, the mare shook her head horizontally for approximately 1-2 seconds, reared, and flipped over onto her back. Neurological examination revealed that the mare was slow to resume a normal stance when her hind legs were placed in an abnormal position. Dental examination and endoscopy of the upper airways proved unremarkable. Radiography of the atlanto-occipital joint area revealed fractures of the first and second cervical vertebrae and fracture fragments, which are both suggestive for the presence of cervical instability and the possible presence of spinal cord compression. These suggestions were further supported by identification of delayed postural reflexes during neurological examination. The mare was deemed unfit for dressage and was successfully kept for breeding. Horses are frequently punished for “bad behavior.” These behaviors are frequently due to underlying physical problems and not a “nasty” horse. This case highlights the importance of careful history taking and a thorough veterinary examination with the use of further diagnostics (if necessary) when dealing with equine behavior problems.