The importance of teaching first-year veterinary students about horse behaviour has been highlighted in a New Zealand study.
Massey University researchers enlisted 127 students in their first semester of studying either veterinary science, veterinary technology, or undergraduate equine science. The research was conducted before the students had undertaken any lessons in equine behaviour.
Gabriella Gronqvist and her colleagues designed an experiment in which each of the students watched the same six 10-second video clips which showed different horse behaviours.
Following each clip, the students scored the observed horse behaviour using 15 pre-selected fixed terms. They were asked to pick the terms they felt best described the behaviour in each video, rating their selections on a scale of 1-5.
Descriptions of the videos, and the terms from which the students could choose, are outlined in the tables below.
The results were collated and related back to each students’ self-described experience with horses.
Overall, a wide variation of terms were selected by students to describe the horse’s behaviour shown in each video. In some instances, the percentage of students selecting a term was clustered with the students’ level of experience with horses.
“Whilst most students selected similar terms to describe the horse’s behaviour in each video, apparently contradictory terms were also selected for some videos,” Gronqvist and her colleagues reported in the peer-reviewed open-access journal Animals.
However, of most concern was the apparent confusion of the expressive behaviour exhibited in the clip of a horse alone in an outdoor yard. Some students mistakenly believed the horse was curious, playful, happy, or at ease. It was, in fact, showing signs of anxiety.
“Misinterpretation and failing to recognise behaviours such as anxiety may be an animal welfare concern,” the researchers said.
“A horse in isolation is unable to carry out interactive behaviours with other horses and experiences constraints on its environment (unable to escape), which results in negative affective states such as loneliness, anxiety, fearfulness, and panic.
“Such negative affective states ultimately result in a negative welfare status for the horse.
“The importance of veterinary and equine science students learning to identify negative affective states and situations that may be predictive of dangerous or aggressive behaviour, and the potential for welfare compromise, should not be underestimated.”
Humans, they said, had a large influence over the welfare status of horses, and their knowledge, skills, training, and familiarity with the animal can compromise or enhance the horses’ welfare status.
“People working with horses need to be able to anticipate and identify problems, as well as ensuring good welfare is maintained.”
The authors said integrating animal welfare science in the veterinary and equine science curriculum would ensure students can use a more holistic approach to assessing horse behaviour and welfare states.
“An inability of veterinary and equine students to assess horse behaviour could create breakdowns in human-horse communication and subsequently pose a safety risk for the students.”
The study team noted that the most common injuries during practical horse handling at an Australian Veterinary School were inflicted by horses stepping on ankles or feet and by bites or hind-limb kicks.
“Results from the Australian study suggest an inability of the students to swiftly and accurately assess the affective state of the horse and respond accordingly.”
Another study reported that inattention and inexperience were cited by students as the cause of 30% and 39% of horse-related accidents, respectively. Moreover, 30% of students believed that the accident occurred due to the horse being distressed or fearful.
“An improved ability of veterinary students and professionals to recognise dangerous and threatening, as well as subtle, behavioural cues from the horse, including changes in its arousal and affective state, could help to prevent some of these accidents,” the authors said.
Across all videos, there were terms selected that appeared to be contradictory to the terms selected by most students and the behaviour expressed in the video, which were often selected by students with less experience.
“These results suggest that it may be useful to identify ‘at risk’ students with less experience of horses who may benefit from additional learning activities before practical handling sessions.
“These findings require further exploration to better understand how much and what type of experience with horses is useful (for example, ridden versus husbandry skills) to potential veterinary and undergraduate equine science students.”
The study team comprised Gronqvist, Chris Rogers, Erica Gee and Charlotte Bolwell, all from Massey University; and Audrey Martinez, from École Nationale Vétérinaire de Toulouse – a veterinary school in Toulouse, France.
Veterinary and Equine Science Students’ Interpretation of Horse Behaviour
Gabriella Gronqvist, Chris Rogers, Erica Gee, Audrey Martinez and Charlotte Bolwell.
Animals 2017, 7(8), 63; doi:10.3390/ani7080063