Challenges in using horses to teach veterinary students come under scrutiny

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How should veterinary schools address the challenges of using horses for practical teaching purposes within their programmes?

The question has been addressed by researchers at New Zealand’s Massey University in a review published this month in the open-access journal Animals.

Horses, the authors said, were generally considered to be unpredictable, fearful and flight-wired − traits linked to accidents involving people.

“It has been proposed that the risk of injuries may be higher amongst people with low levels of knowledge of horse behaviour, as they may not be able to anticipate unwanted, but natural, equine behaviours,” noted Gabriella Gronqvist, Chris Rogers, Erica Gee, Charlotte Bolwell and Stuart Gordon.

“As up to half of all equine-related injuries take place during activities other than riding, it is likely that veterinary and animal science students may be a high risk group.”

They continued: “Students enrolled in veterinary degrees often come from an urban background with little previous experience in handling horses and other large animals.

“Many veterinary degree programmes place importance on the teaching of appropriate equine handling skills, yet within the literature it is commonly reported that time allocated for practical classes often suffers due to time constraint pressure from other elements of the curriculum.”

The effect of this pressure on animal handling teaching time was reflected in the self-reported low level of animal handling competency, particularly equine, in students with limited prior experience with horses, the review team said.

“This is a concern as a naive student is potentially at higher risk of injury to themselves when interacting with horses.”

Additionally, a naive student with limited understanding of horse behaviour may, through inconsistent or improper handling, increase the anxiety and compromise the welfare of the animals.

They noted there was a lack of scientific literature investigating the welfare of horses in university teaching facilities, appropriate handling procedures, and student safety.

The five authors explored the challenges of using horses to teach veterinary students and the potential consequences for students and equine welfare. They focused on the importance of students being able to interpret equine behaviour and the potential consequences of poor handling skills on both equine and student welfare.

The challenge for veterinary programmes, they wrote, was to help students develop appropriate handling skills by identifying the optimal model to teach students to assess horse behaviour and its application to animal handling.

“Teaching stockmanship skills has already been shown to improve attitude of cattle handlers and enhance the welfare and productivity of cattle. It is thus probable that similar benefits could be gained from improved equine handling skills.

However, they noted: “An enhanced quantification of ‘skill’ is needed, as currently there does not appear to be a consensus in the literature on what are good, acceptable or poor equine handling skills.

“In most veterinary schools teaching horses provide the ideal mechanism to develop horse handling skills. However, consistent exposure to naive or poor handling provides an opportunity for compromised welfare of the teaching horses.”

Gronqvist and her colleagues proposed a conceptual model to optimise equine welfare, and subsequently student safety, during practical equine handling classes. It provided the first step towards identifying the variables that contributed to compromised welfare and the mechanisms to mitigate these.

Across veterinary schools in Australasia, it appeared that basic equine and other animal handling skills were mostly taught within the first year of the degree programme, with some universities reinforcing these skills throughout the programme.

The objectives of practical equine handling classes varied between universities, but many aimed to teach students basic handling skills such as how to approach and restrain a horse with a halter and/or anti-rearing bit, lift fore and hind legs, groom the horse, apply and remove rugs and apply physical restraints, such as a nose twitch.

The practical equine handling classes were often delivered or taught within the first two years of a veterinary degree but the total duration of time allocated varied widely between universities, with reports ranging from two hours to month-long full-time placements.

“Good animal handling skills have been defined as general knowledge of the animal’s needs, practical experience in the care of the animal and the ability to quickly identify changes in behaviour, health or performance and to address those appropriately. Based on this definition, it can be assumed that good equine handling skills require a considerable amount of time to master and are not taught in merely a few hours.”

The review team said that providing learning opportunities in animal handling can be difficult and the time allocated has been reported to suffer due to pressure from other elements of the curriculum and due to financial constraints.

To combat this, several universities provided the opportunity for students to spend a few weeks, in the first two years of their degree, gaining practical equine experience extramurally.

“Nevertheless, it is questionable whether, in some cases, only a few hours of practical teaching before partaking in extramural work experience is sufficient to prepare students to handle horses in a safe and effective manner.”

Supervision and experience gained extramurally was likely to be inconsistent between placements, and whether the students learnt adequate safe and ethical horse handling skills remained unknown.

“It is hence possible that competency between students may vary significantly, and be lacking, even after extramural work experience has been completed.

The authors presented their broad conceptual model to provide the first step towards identifying the variables that contributed to compromised welfare and the mechanisms to mitigate these, with data input required across classes in different teaching environments to advance it further.

However, despite the current lack of metrics, there were several practical steps that could be implemented within the practical teaching environment until such data can be collected and the model has been verified and tested, they said.

These included:

  • Ensuring students were aware of equine behaviour and the horse’s ecological niche before the start of practical sessions. This information should directly translate to a greater predictability of human-horse interactions. A basic catalogue of equine arousal levels was also needed to ensure a simple, practical and easy-to-use method to teach students predictable, responsive interactions with horses. This should, they said, reduce the risk of injury to themselves while improving horse welfare.
  • Exposing students to learning theory early in the curriculum before horse handling. This should provide awareness that each human-horse interaction had a modifying effect (good or bad). Punishment and unclear or inconsistent signals may heighten the horse’s arousal and negative affective state and lead to confusion, conflict or fear behaviors which may become a safety issue. Teaching would instead emphasize the ability to use positive reinforcement techniques to shape and increase desired behaviours and reduce the chance of negative (fear-related) associations forming.
  • Consider the inherent characteristics of individual horses, such as age, temperament and previous learning history.
  • Prevent additional anxiety caused by social isolation by allowing other horses within view.

Gronqvist G, Rogers C, Gee E, Bolwell C, Gordon S. The Challenges of Using Horses for Practical Teaching Purposes in Veterinary Programmes. Animals. 2016; 6(11):69.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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