A life worth living: Insights into the care of older horses revealed in study

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Seven common themes in owner decision-making around older horses have been identified by University of Liverpool researchers.
Seven common themes in owner decision-making around older horses have been identified by University of Liverpool researchers. Photo by MSVG

Researchers in Britain who explored owner decision-making around the care of older horses noted a shift toward trying to assess the value of positive experiences for their animals in assessing quality of life.

“In the field of animal welfare, a shift towards trying to measure and value the positive experiences and mental states in animal welfare assessments has meant the concept of a ‘life worth living’ has increased in utility,” Rebecca Smith and her colleagues reported in the journal Animals.

Whether life is worth living was identified by the University of Liverpool researchers as one of seven common themes in owner decision-making around older horses.

“Here we add to this concept, using this theme to represent the way in which owners weigh up outcomes for themselves, as well as their horse, when constructing ideas around the meaning of the horse’s life,” they said.

“The concept of ‘life worth living’ has been described as ‘an animal life that humans judge to be worth the animal living’.”

The key, they said, is the human assessment of this life, and it is not an independent, static judgment.

“Whether a life is considered worth living shifts with the context of day-to day-life,” they said.

Image of the conceptual model using a theoretical human–horse relationship to represent themes and their interaction at a cross-section in time. The sphere size does not represent quantification as the relative importance of each theme is unique for a particular human and horse at a particular point in time. Image: Smith et al. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11051309

“In this study, owners often reported their emotional distress associated with different stages of treatment-seeking.

“Challenges were faced not only in understanding the horse, but in deciding upon acceptable outcomes, including the possibility of the loss of the horse.

“These emotions are likely to impact on the owner’s own values or priorities in decision-making for a horse.”

In their study, the researchers sought to explore horse owners’ experiences of caring for an older horse, looking at the changes and challenges they faced in order to understand how lay knowledge was constructed and the ways in which this impacted on opportunities for care.

They did so by exploring relevant content on online equestrian forums in Britain.

Image of the conceptual model representing the case example human–horse relationship and interaction of themes at a point in time. Image: Smith et al. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11051309

The online discussions provided insights into how a group with different perspectives on care negotiated their experiences.

“In some threads, consensus was clear, for example, when debating a decision around euthanasia, the human’s knowledge of the individual and right to end the horse’s life were emphasised in importance.

“In other threads, the consensus was less clear and debates arose. Forum users who posed questions often chose to respond to advice that supported their initial preferred course of action.

“In online communities, contributors can be selective about which entries they engage with and the information they choose to share with others.

“In these virtual sites, it is perhaps easier to be selective about what advice is acknowledged or acted upon. In addition, the social context in which the human and horse live is also likely to impact on their choices, as well as practical outcomes of care.”

Smith and her fellow researchers noted that demographics show an ageing equine population in Britain.

Surveys have reported that owners make accommodations for horses aged 15 or more, including changes in use and feed practices.

“Although these populations are at increased risk of chronic disease, with increasing age, there were reductions reported in the provision of routine preventive health care measures and veterinary involvement.”

The human–horse relationship is intricately linked to health, they said. The knowledge of the individual, as well as the interactions between human and horse, are known to impact on management choices and decision-making around serious disease.

Analysis of the online discussions produced seven common themes in owner decision-making:

  • The human–horse relationship: This is the conduit through which care provision is enacted. Although a continuum, the meaning and practicalities of this relationship are constantly reconstructed by the owner as the context of day-to-day life changed.
  • Horse-related responses: These are the physical and mental responses from the horse. Although playing separate roles in decision-making, these two facets were often talked about and considered in combination.
  • Integrated geography: This theme represents the way in which owners and horses interact with their surrounding environment. Physical geographical factors included weather and seasonal changes, and the built environment included the yard and its facilities, fields/grazing and stables, for example.
  • Purpose: This theme encompasses two facets — what the horse means to the owner and outcomes for the horse. The meaning of the horse to the owner relates to what an owner derives from the horse being in their life, such as a horse to ride. Outcomes for the horse were understood to be experiences the horse could access through the opportunities or activities relating to their assigned purpose. Purposes included being a ridden horse, companion or retiree, and this often changed in later life.
  • Influences on behavioural outcomes: Contributors to the forum described the provision of key components to a horse’s day-to-day life that could be modified to influence the horse’s behavioural outcomes, such as social interactions, nutrition, space, exercise, and pharmaceuticals or nutraceuticals. These were aspects of horse care that could be adjusted or substituted by the owner. Changes in an older horse often triggered owners to reconsider their provision of these components.
  • Resources: Significant factors here included available time, money, support, health care and knowledge. The meaning and weighting of these factors were constructed differently by each contributor and could fluctuate in importance depending on the context. Knowledge relating to the issue of concern, as well as interactions with equine health care providers, affected the outcomes for the horse.
  • Life worth living: This theme represented the integration of outcomes for the owner, as well as outcomes for the horse, into an understanding of whether a horse’s life was justified within the relationship. As other themes changed, a contributor’s beliefs around a life worth living were constantly revised.

For each human and horse, the context of decision-making is unique, the study team said, meaning that facets within the themes were constructed differently within each relationship and could change over time.

“A change in one theme could also prompt an owner to reconsider or reassess the meaning and importance of other themes.”

The seven themes formed part of a conceptual model developed by the authors, which they say can be used to understand the way different facets of life interplay, producing altered perspectives around care.

“This model will be useful for horse owners, as well as health care providers, as a tool to aid reflection and to establish priorities around care at a point in time.

“By visualising this social process, the model could be used to aid identification of the impact of changes on the life of an older horse, and it can be used during discussions between horse owners and other care providers to aid communication at times of decision-making.”

The model can be used in the development of practical tools to assist those involved in the care of older horses, they said.

The University of Liverpool study team comprised Smith, Gina Pinchbeck, Catherine McGowan, Joanne Ireland Elizabeth Perkins.

Smith, R.; Pinchbeck, G.; McGowan, C.; Ireland, J.; Perkins, E. Caring for the Older Horse: A Conceptual Model of Owner Decision Making. Animals 2021, 11, 1309. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11051309

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

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