Few members of Britain’s equestrian community had emergency plans in place as the country began to ramp up its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers report.
A survey revealed that only 9% of participants indicated that they had considered what might happen to their animals should they themselves become ill or otherwise unable to care for them.
“The lack of preparation is concerning given the potential severity of the situation,” Jo Hockenhull and her colleagues wrote in the journal Animals.
“Unlike many other areas of the globe, the UK rarely faces natural disasters of this magnitude and the absence of emergency planning may reflect this.
“That said, the last civil crisis in the UK, the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 2001, is well within living memory.”
Measures that owners could have taken included stocking up on feed and writing out care instructions should they no longer be able to visit their horse.
The study by Hockenhull, Catherine Bell, Jo White and Suzanne Rogers focused on the response of equine owners during a short but well-defined period of time in late March, during the early days of the pandemic in Britain when the government was bringing in mandatory measures to control the spread of the virus.
“At this point, people were unaware of the longer-term changes that controlling the virus would necessitate,” the study team said.
The online survey was answered by 452 eligible respondents during the 35-hour window in which it was available.
It was launched five days after the first UK lockdown began on March 23, 2020.
Equine owners reported changes to their equine-related routines and activities during this time to minimise risks associated with Covid-19.
Those who considered themselves at high risk of contracting Covid-19 — under a quarter of respondents — were more likely to change their equine-related behaviour and stop riding earlier than those who considered themselves at lesser risk.
It was found that the changes respondents made differed between March 16, when measures were announced to restrict virus spread, and March 18, when schools were closed, with an early emphasis on improving yard biosecurity and stopping riding, as well as reducing the time spent at the yard.
After schools closed, respondents tended to place more emphasis on risk reduction by changing the activities they did with their horse, including riding, with common examples including avoiding “high risk” activities such as riding on busy roads, jumping, riding young or nervous horses.
Respondents also mentioned starting to wear hats and/or body protectors while they were handling or working with their horse from the ground when they had not previously.
Respondents had a mixed response when asked to rate the likelihood that they would change their equine-related behaviour due to their perception of risk of accident or injury as the pandemic progressed. Roughly one in five said they were not at all likely to change, while at the other end of the spectrum, one in four said they were very likely to change.
The authors noted that a significant proportion of the sample continued to ride during the period in question.
They said it was a challenging time for British equestrians who had to balance maintaining their equine’s routine and daily care alongside the increasing biosecurity measures.
“The findings highlight several areas that would significantly benefit from in-depth investigation in future research,” they said.
“Equestrian behaviour and mindset around risk-taking and risk perception have already been researched in relation to equestrian activities and sport, but have received little attention in the context of wider health challenges.
“Understanding the uptake of emergency planning and preparation in the UK equestrian community also warrants consideration. Using this information effectively to promote forward planning is likely to be of great benefit in equestrian responses to future health or climate-related crises.”
The study team noted that the value of animals in providing emotional support during troubling times, including during the pandemic, has been well recognised in other research.
“Perhaps of equal value is the comfort they provide by giving people who look after them a sense of purpose and routine, things that are lacking in a lockdown environment but are important for mental wellbeing.
“This study did not specifically focus on the mental health implications of the pandemic, but the findings demonstrate the disruption it caused to daily equestrian life and established routine.
“Many respondents were no longer able to visit their horses spontaneously, if at all, and this is likely to have had considerable implications for their mental health.
“Not only were these respondents denied social and physical support from people outside their household, but they also lost the psychological benefits of spending time with their equine as well as potentially having the additional concern about their ability to provide adequate care for their animal during this time.
“That said, for equestrians who were still able to spend time with their horses during this period, the benefits extended beyond the emotional support provided by the horse itself, to increasing physical activity and giving them the opportunity to get outside in contact with nature, both of which also provide mental health benefits.”
A minority of respondents reported that due to lockdown and being furloughed from work, they were able to spend more time with their horse.
“The emotional support provided by equines is likely underestimated in comparison to other companion animal species,” they said.
“However, a 2020 survey of UK residents found that 95% of those with horses, ponies and farm animals believed their animals helped them cope emotionally during the pandemic, and 96% reported that their animals kept them fit and active.
“In comparison, 91% of respondents with dogs believed their dogs helped them to cope, and 89% of those with cats.”
Hockenhull, White and Rogers are with Human Behaviour Change for Animals; Bell is with the Equine Behaviour and Welfare Association in Surrey.
Hockenhull, J.; Bell, C.; White, J.; Rogers, S. Response of UK Horse, Pony and Donkey Owners to the Early Stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Animals 2021, 11, 1215. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11051215