Researchers explore the workload of some unsung heroes of the horse world

Some of Massey University’s horses that are used to help teach veterinary students. Photo: Supplied

Horses are used around the world for a huge range of activities, from work in quarries to racing, sport and leisure riding. Now, some of the unsung heroes of the equine world — the horses used to train veterinary students — have come in for some attention from researchers.

A study team from Massey University, where New Zealand’s only veterinary school is based, has delved into the lives of the 24 horses used to teach the nation’s vets.

Lauréline Guinnefollau and her colleagues, writing in the open-access journal Animals, noted that many equine and veterinary science degree programmes use horses in practical teaching classes. Indeed, such classes may well be the first occasion for some students to interact with a horse, they said.

For their research, the use of the horses for teaching was studied over a calendar year.

The 24 horses involved were managed in three herds, based on their suitability for specific practical teaching classes. They comprised three Thoroughbreds, 19 Standardbreds, one Stationbred (crossbred) and one Kaimanawa — the free-roaming horses that inhabit the country’s North Island volcanic plateau.

The animals were characterised as older non-reactive mares and geldings that had been used for teaching for several years after retirement from harness racing or sport.

Fundamentally, the practical classes were characterised by the length of time required, the number of students used per horse, and whether the work could be conducted in a yard, or required the use of stocks.

The authors reported that while much of the work was generally straightforward — the likes of foot trimming, lameness tests, general handling and husbandry, and clinical examinations — there was the rare need for sedation, and stocks were used for safety where appropriate.

At the trickier end of the spectrum, there were dental lessons and rectal examinations (both reproductive and medical). The rectal examinations involved only fifth-year students. Stocks were used, and the sessions were significantly shorter, with fewer students per horse than the other practical classes.

Sedation was always used in dental practical classes (33 horse sessions), but rarely for clinical classes (1 in 95 horse sessions) and medical rectal examinations (1 in 127 horse sessions)

In all, from January to December 2018, the horses were used for a total number of 2091.5 horse hours.

This included 1276.5 horse hours of teaching, 250 horse hours of general husbandry, 515 horse hours of research (two behavioural and one physiological research projects) and 50 horse hours of other uses.

The frequency of teaching activities per horse was considered relatively low, at just one or two sessions a week.

Discussing their findings, the researchers said they believed their work was the first study to quantify the use of horses for educational purposes in the teaching environment.

They noted that the teaching horses and herd composition had undergone few changes in the last 10 years, with many now in their teens and a few in their early 20s.

“Given the long-term tenure of the horses, the stability of the herds and the low frequency of use, the authors hypothesise that this population of teaching horses may experience limited physiological or behavioural stress.

“Given the nature of the teaching classes and the frequency of horse use, any behavioural stressors are likely to be limited to handling and interactions with inexperienced students.

“Students’ equine skills competency increased throughout the equine and veterinary science degree programmes. However, many students have very limited equine experience and low confidence in horse handling at enrolment, and some still show low self-assessed equine skills and confidence in their 4th year.

“Given the current low use reported for the teaching horses in this study, there could be an opportunity to increase student exposure to horses and horse handling. This could be implemented through either formal (syllabus) or informal opportunities.”

The authors proposed further research to determine specific stressors to the horses in the teaching environment.

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

Guinnefollau, L.; Gee, E.K.; Norman, E.J.; Rogers, C.W.; Bolwell, C.F. Horses Used for Educational Purposes in New Zealand: A Descriptive Analysis of Their Use for Teaching. Animals 2020, 10, 1547.

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

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