Cooperative Care

I read an article today about “Cooperative Care”. It made me think about how animal handling has changed in my lifetime.


Suggesting “training an animal to not only tolerate handling and husbandry procedures, but to be an active, willing participant in these experiences” would have got you scoffed out of the group of farmers drinking coffee at the local auction mart when I was a kid.

This was right at the time (1954) that the number of tractors on farms exceeded the number of horses and mules for the first time in the U.S. and probably Canada. Actually here is an interesting article on Bigger and Better Farm Machines in the 1950’s.


But I digress.

When horses didn’t behave how their owners wanted, phrases like “snub him to the post” or “tie him out in the hot sun for the day” weren’t all that uncommon. Even watching horses being loaded into trucks (there weren’t many trailers at that time) at the local auction mart was dangerous. Fear can make most animals really dangerous. For that matter fear can make most humans really dangerous. Operating from a place of fear is not beneficial to man or beast. But… we humans have been eating animals way longer than we have been working on understanding them.

The IAABC Journal explains Cooperative Care in their website:

Cooperative care involves training an animal to not only tolerate handling and husbandry procedures, but to be an active, willing participant in these experiences.

Cooperative care is quite common in zoos, where large or potentially dangerous animals cannot otherwise be safely handled without physical or chemical restraint. For example, hippos can be taught to hold their mouths open for dental treatments, lions can be taught to offer their tails for a blood draw, and gorillas can be taught to sit still for cardiac ultrasounds.

One of the most important aspects of teaching cooperative care is that the animal is allowed to “say no.” They can indicate using a non-aggressive, safe behavior that they want the procedure to stop. Teaching a duration target behavior is a vital foundation in cooperative care – not only does it help to keep the animal still, but we teach the animal through the process that if at any time they break the target position (lift their head, etc.), then the handling procedure will stop.

On a personal level when the vet said that Keeper had an eye infection and had to have a couple of different ointments applied to her eye every 4 hours and that therefore she would have to stay at the clinic or have a “pump” installed, I asked why I couldn’t just do it. He said “If you think she will let you do it”. I said “I am pretty sure she would”. He said, “Show me”.


Keeper and I have a strong bond. I raised her and she was my saddle horse for awhile. She often nickers back when I talk to her. She certainly did squeeze her eyelids as tight as she could, but she let me open them and put the ointment in. I passed the test. I got to take her home. Mind you, once I got her home I started to realize that treating this eye every 4 hours was not going to improve my sleep quality.

But it could have been a lot worse. At one time we would have thought we had to constrain her and make her let us treat her eye. That would not have been nearly as pleasant as just walking out to the barn, putting the ointment in her eye with her cooperation and going back to the house and bed.


Learning better handling techniques is of interest to almost everyone. Much has changed in the years since horses were replaced by tractors and there are lots of people learning and sharing better ways to raise, train and care for horses (and all animals for that matter). I personally am grateful to those who have taught me better ways.

And I know I still have so much to learn.

The article on Cooperative Care is on the IAABC Jounal website.


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