Research involving horse enthusiasts revealed widespread confusion, doubt and anxiety around horse care and training, and highlighted the need to build a much-needed bridge between theory and practice.
The research, reported in the journal Animals, highlights the current inadequacies in the dissemination of research findings, the researchers said.
“Prioritising publication in open-access journals will greatly assist with this, building that much-needed bridge between theory and practice,” University of Sydney researcher Kate Fenner and her colleagues wrote.
The study team said that, despite our better understanding of equine training and welfare that reflect several decades of study, the dissemination of the results, and thus their ability to forge change, has been limited.
“Equitation science and the use of learning theory in training is now well-represented in the literature,” they said. “However, many coaches and instructors continually fail to grasp the core concepts, thwarting progress at a grassroots level.
“Our findings indicate that this unwelcome state reflects problems with both accessing such information and interpreting and differentiating among different sources of evidence.
“In fairness, these obstacles to learning contribute to the difficulties that all groups experience.
“Our results reveal that practitioners and enthusiasts, who do not have institutional access to journals and may lack the experience required to discern the credibility of sources of information, experience particular difficulty applying equitation science and learning theory to their everyday practice.”
They said that while equitation scientists have described and extended what defines good practice, it will achieve widespread change only when stakeholders understand and incorporate its principles into everyday interactions with their horses.
Fenner and her colleagues noted that, over the last decade, equitation scientists have increasingly relied on online survey tools to gather information on horse training, management, behaviour and other equine-related subjects.
“With a detailed knowledge of their animals, horse owners and riders are ideally placed to contribute to research, but are sometimes reluctant to engage with and devote time to surveys.”
Their study involved a short online questionnaire exploring their preferred survey tools and other items designed to engage the equestrian community with the donation of data.
Respondents — there were 747 in all — were asked to assign themselves to one of four categories: academics/researchers, professionals, practitioners and enthusiasts.
They were offered the choice of three hypothetical tools and asked to provide an opinion on their perceived usefulness: A standardised tool to measure behaviour over time; a logbook tool to record training and behaviour on a regular basis; and a chart to compare an individual horse’s behaviour with that of the general horse population.
They were also asked to describe the challenges faced when gathering information on horse training, management and behaviour, the responses to which highlighted concerns among the dissemination of useful, accurate information.
Among those who identified themselves as enthusiasts, the dominant themes were concerns about a specific horse, the credibility of findings, and contradictions and confusion with reported research.
“Nearly a third of responses from the enthusiast group explicitly mentioned an issue with a specific horse, focusing on challenges to do with applying theory in practice, navigating conflicting advice and opinions, accessing ‘ethical’ trainers to support them, and combatting ‘old-school thinking’ within the wider horse community.
“Many responses from this group expressed confusion about the breadth of often-conflicting advice available and the difficulties of differentiating between these sources, leading many to feel overwhelmed and to question their own actions.”
One horse enthusiast pointed to an overwhelming amount of information of low quality (including misinformation), which made it hard to find quality information about problems encountered.
“Enthusiasts often talked about ‘ethical’ interaction with their horses and expressed doubt about their own abilities to embody the kind of ethical practice to which they aspire.”
The study revealed that equine stakeholder groups greatly valued data to benchmark their horses’ behaviour against that of the general equine population.
“They also see merit in being able to log their training and management via an app and monitor their horses’ behaviour over time.”
The findings were ultimately used to help develop E-BARQ, an app now available to horse owners that is backed by a global database of horse behaviour. It allows horse owners to see how training and management influences horse behaviour, and to see how their horse compares with others.
It is a key element in a not-for-profit project that allows the global community of horse owners to donate their observational data to researchers and gain useful benefits in return.
In conclusion, the authors said their study exposed the particular challenges horse enthusiasts and practitioners face when attempting to gather information on training, management and behaviour.
They concluded that offering the motivational items described in the study, including the E-BARQ app, and choosing open-access publications where possible for the dissemination of results, should help bridge the knowledge gap.
The full study team comprised Fenner, Bethany Wilson and Paul McGreevy, all with the University of Sydney; Katherine Dashper, with Leeds Beckett University in England; Cristina Wilkins, with Saddletops Pty Ltd in Queensland; James Serpell, with the University of Pennsylvania; and Andrew McLean, with Equitation Science International in Victoria, Australia.
Fenner, K.; Dashper, K.; Wilkins, C.; Serpell, J.; McLean, A.; Wilson, B.; McGreevy, P. Building Bridges between Theory and Practice: How Citizen Science Can Bring Equine Researchers and Practitioners Together. Animals 2020, 10, 1644.