Good knowledge and experience are key drivers of horse welfare, research has shown, appearing to trump demographic factors relating to the owner.
The findings of the study, reported in the journal Animals, indicate that educational strategies to improve the horse owner’s appreciation of the welfare implications of their behaviour may be important in safeguarding recreational horse welfare.
“Owner knowledge and experience rather than demographics were associated with an appreciation of parasite control, hoof care, and dental care,” Lauren Hemsworth and her colleagues reported.
“The primary cause of welfare concerns in recreational horses is believed to be mismanagement by the horse owner, due to ignorance rather than intentional abuse,” the study team wrote.
“As such, it is unsurprising that knowledge and experience-based background factors rather than demographic-based background factors were associated with horse owner beliefs concerning the appropriate performance of horse husbandry and management behaviour.
“Importantly,” they observed, “background factors related to knowledge and experience are generally under human control and are therefore able to be modified by the horse owner, while demographic-based background factors lack human control and are consequently difficult, if not impossible, for the horse owner to modify.
“For example, horse owners are largely able to choose whether they become a member of a horse club or society but are unable to change their gender or age.
“This finding is important as it demonstrates the potential to improve horse owner beliefs towards behaviour by encouraging the registration of horse ownership, horse club and society membership, and riding instruction in horse owners.”
Hemsworth and her fellow researchers, Ellen Jongman and Grahame Coleman, all with the Animal Welfare Science Centre, part of the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Melbourne, said the welfare of recreational horses is an important issue worldwide.
They set out in their study to examine the relationships between horse owner attributes, specifically background factors and attitudes towards horse husbandry and management behaviour.
This study was part of a large-scale investigation into the welfare of recreational horses in Victoria, Australia, that recruited 200 horse owners. The 40-minute telephone survey involved 123 questions which delved into their demographics, attitudes, human-horse interactions, and collected information on their horses. A total of 57 owners agreed to on-site inspections for this paper and allowed their horses to be examined.
Hemsworth, the primary researcher, studied up to two horses per owner. About 30% of horses were found to have some form of disease, injury or illness.
None of the observed horse welfare concerns warranted reporting to the relevant welfare authority – that is, all horses had a body condition score above two and were receiving treatment for any disease, injury or illness.
The study team identified relationships between horse owner background factors and horse owner attitudes towards horse husbandry and management.
“Generally, belief variables correlated significantly with background factors that were primarily related to knowledge and experience.
“Beliefs concerning three key husbandry practices (parasite control, hoof care, and dental care) all appear to be predicted to some degree by background factors associated with knowledge and experience.
“Therefore, a practical recommendation may be the implementation of education and training programs aimed at improving horse owner knowledge and experience regarding effective horse husbandry and management to promote horse welfare.
“Furthermore, given the current findings, an educational strategy aimed at improving the horse owner’s appreciation of the welfare implications of their behaviour (i.e., targeting their behavioural and control beliefs) may be a component in this strategy.”
They continued: “Experimental work is required to demonstrate the sequential nature of the human-horse relationship and provide evidence of causal relationships, before potential education and training programs to improve the welfare of horses can be developed and evaluated.”
Hemsworth, L.M.; Jongman, E.C.; Coleman, G.J. The Human–Horse Relationship: Identifying the Antecedents of Horse Owner Attitudes towards Horse Husbandry and Management Behaviour. Animals 2021, 11, 278. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11020278