Getting to know horses a critical element in training vets, say researchers

Vet students need to understand what horses are conveying, say researchers.

Teaching veterinary students basic equine behavioural concepts and observational skills before getting up close with horses is a necessity, according to New Zealand researchers.

Veterinarians are 9.2 times more likely to suffer from a severe occupational accident compared to their colleagues in the medical profession, Lauréline Guinnefollau and her colleagues noted in a report published in the open-access journal Animals.

Horses are one of the most dangerous animals veterinarians have to work with.

For many vet students, their first exposure to horses occurs during practical classes.

Researchers from Massey University set out to evaluate the knowledge students have of equine behaviour and their equine handling competency when entering the university’s programme.

For the study, 124 first-year students and 90 fourth-year students were recruited, each of whom undertook a paper-based questionnaire.

Students were asked to provide background information, including their exposure to animals growing up, and their experience with horses.

General equine handling skills were self-rated by students using a 5-point scale.

Using the same scale, they were also asked to assess their ability to perform basic horse-handling tasks required in the first year of the veterinary degree, such as putting on a head collar, leading, grooming, putting on a rug, or lifting the feet.

The last section of the questionnaire focused on students’ understanding of equine behaviour and learning theory. Participants were shown a picture of a horse and asked to circle the one of 12 terms that best described the horse’s behaviour.

Following this, there were several questions aimed at determining whether students were familiar with the concepts of equine learning theory, including positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment.

Finally, four practical situations were described and students were asked if these were examples of positive/negative reinforcement or punishment.

First-year vet students were mostly females from an urban environment. Most grew up with a pet in their household and described themselves as confident or very confident around small animals.

Less than half had large animals or horses on their family property when growing up.

Their confidence around large animals and horses was lower, with only 50% of 1st-year and 45% of 4th-year students rating it good, or above.

While most students had contact with horses and at least one horse-riding experience before entering the vet programme, only 26% considered themselves experienced with horses.

Among the first-year students, half correctly interpreted the horse’s behaviour. The majority were found to have a poor understanding of equine learning mechanisms and poor self-rated equine handling skills. A history of pet ownership and the presence of horses on their family property were significantly associated with a correct understanding of equine behaviour, the researchers found.

Fourth-year students – whose backgrounds were similar to those described by first-year students – were three times more likely to accurately interpret the horse’s behaviour and rated their handling skills higher than first-year students.

Discussing their findings, the researchers said students enter the programme with various levels of knowledge of, confidence of, and experience with, different animal species.

The level of horse-riding ranged from beginners to professionals, and the level of equine experience from no experience to very experienced.

Significant experience may be needed to provide veterinary students with high confidence with large animals and horses, including accurate interpretation of horse behaviour and good handling skills.

“By highlighting the importance of prior equine experience, veterinary schools could encourage students to engage early in equine-related activities. This may increase their confidence and knowledge of equine behaviour from the start of the programme and thereby mitigate the risk of injury.

“First-year students’ knowledge of equine behaviour has to be highlighted,” they said, “as many veterinary schools do not include a criterion based on handling skills for selection for entry to the programme.”

The researchers noted that, towards the end of their degree, veterinary students showed a significantly greater competency of self-assessed equine handling.

“This result was expected, as the questions were based on techniques that students are taught during their first year of the Massey University undergraduate veterinary programme. Therefore, this may be the result of experience gained in the programme.

“Although large animal handling practical classes can sometimes suffer from economical and/or resources pressures, these results suggest the crucial importance of these classes in the veterinary undergraduate degrees.”

However, the researchers noted that students in both years did not differ in confidence around horses.

“This is consistent with a previous study, and may be due both to the unpredictability of horses and to insufficient (in quality and/or duration) external equine placements.

“Underlying this result could also be overconfidence among first-year students, whereas fourth-year students who have a greater understanding of the programme’s expectations in regards to their capability could have underestimated their confidence.”

The presence of horses on their family property was linked with more accurate interpretation of equine behaviour. “This,” they said, “was expected, as most of these students were also involved in the care and management of the horses on their family property.

“Similarly, there was a positive association of pet ownership with an accurate interpretation of horse behaviour.”

Perhaps early exposure to common companion animal species allowed students to be more attentive to horses’ subtle body and posture changes, they suggested.

The results, they said, highlight the critical importance of practical training in the veterinary programme.

“In order to keep students safe during equine practicals, these results highlight the necessity of teaching basic equine behavioural concepts and observational skills beforehand,” the study team concluded.

The full study team comprised Guinnefollau, Erica Gee, Charlotte Bolwell, Elizabeth Norman and Chris Rogers.

Benefits of Animal Exposure on Veterinary Students’ Understanding of Equine Behaviour and Self-Assessed Equine Handling Skills
Lauréline Guinnefollau, Erica K. Gee, Charlotte F. Bolwell, Elizabeth J. Norman and Chris W. Rogers.
Animals 2019, 9(9), 620;

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


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