Lockdown measures imposed in Britain to curb the spread of Covid-19 affected the welfare of horses and ponies at risk of laminitis and obesity, researchers have found.
Ashley Ward and her fellow researchers, in a study just published in the journal PLOS ONE, set out to explore the impact of state-imposed Covid-19 restrictions on the welfare of these at-risk equines.
Britain went into a national lockdown on March 23 last year. Public health measures restricted social interaction, non-essential work activities and travel, which resulted in significant disruption to the daily routines of the public.
The study centred on 24 interviews conducted in the middle of 2020. Those interviewed included owners of ponies kept at home, those who kept native breed horses or ponies at livery, equine veterinarians, farriers, and equine welfare centre managers.
In total, 13 hours of interviews were conducted across a period of two months.
Four key themes emerged:
The challenges around guideline interpretation:
“For horse owners, a significant obstacle to decision-making arose from difficulties in identifying a single source of information for Covid-19 guidance that was relevant to their specific situation,” the study team said.
A farrier commented: “I think if bigger governing bodies could have given information to horse owners, that would have been helpful. There was a lack of cohesive information. I think if there had been a clear authority that said, ‘relax, here’s what you are doing’, then that would have been better. People seemed to take information from lots of different sources – like the discipline-specific bodies were giving information to some, and no overall body made collaboration difficult.”
Some of the guidance lacked detail. The guidance regarding public health measures was considered superficial by those interviewed, and was thought to lack sufficient detail to address biosecurity during aspects of veterinary procedures and general horse management.
“Ambiguous areas not detailed in guidelines included how to practice social distancing during dangerous scenarios whilst handling horses, and the exact requirement for personal protective equipment upon yard environments.”
The implications of public health measures on routine equine care:
The public health measures that interviewees most commonly discussed in the context of livery yards were social distancing, hand washing and hygiene, as well as the use of personal protective equipment.
In some cases, horses and ponies were put out on pasture. Equine veterinarians in particular expressed frustration at the practice of increasing horses’ access to grazing without measures to limit intake, particularly where animals were at risk of obesity or laminitis.
Three of the five veterinarians interviewed shared surprise at the extent of weight gain they had witnessed, expressed clearly by one vet who said: “I think one big problem we had with respect to laminitis was that because the weather was good, quite a few yards — their solution to not having liveries up was just to chuck all the horses out in the field. And some horses I have seen post lockdown, I have never seen them so fat, ever.”
There were also enforced changes in veterinary and hoof-care regimes.
“In the cases of owners with horses at livery, a loss of control over a horse’s routine was a prominent facet of conversation, although this was not always discussed negatively. Horses’ routines were subject to change only where they were housed on external premises, e.g. livery yards.
“No owners with their animals kept at home experienced alterations to their horse’s routine; conversely this group noted a greater level of control over their animals’ care.”
Outcomes of minimizing risk of physical injury:
The authors noted that industry-specific guidance discouraged horse owners from participating in activities that involved increasing the risk of injury. Some authorities advised owners to reduce the range of activities they engaged in with their horses, whilst others advised that they stop riding completely.
“Government guidelines for minimising the pressure on the National Health Service (NHS) recommended that individuals did not engage in risk sports, such as horse riding,” the authors said. “This guidance was reiterated by some, but not all, equestrian authorities which left some horse owners confused over the precise rules regarding exercising horses.
“Some interpreted equine specific guidance as a ban on riding. Others saw riding as necessary for preventing obesity and minimizing the risk of laminitis, as well as being justified within the Government’s allowance of leaving your home for a single exercise activity each day.
“The result was a divide in the community between those who continued to ride, and those who did not.”
Equine veterinarians tended to support restrictions upon riding and expected owners to alter their riding priorities during lockdown. That said, the lack of exercise for many horses raised concerns from veterinarians and welfare centre managers, in terms of obesity in particular.
One veterinarian commented: “The lack of exercise for some horses did kind of worry me – although I agreed with it – was that places were stopping people from riding or exercising their horses. I agreed with it in terms of the pandemic, and to protect the NHS, but I worried about it in terms of the obese ponies that were probably just out on grass now.”
The negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health:
The authors noted that restrictions around the ability to control horse care were seen to be detrimental to horse owner mental health.
“It should be noted that negative mental health consequences were perceived predominantly in horse owners with animals kept away from their homes.”
The study team said the policies implemented to protect public health during the pandemic had secondary impacts upon the welfare of native-breed horses and ponies at risk for obesity and laminitis.
Ensuring risk factors around obesity and laminitis are highlighted when issuing equine-related guidance could improve the welfare of susceptible horses in the future, they said.
“A collaborative, multi-industry approach to developing and issuing equine specific advice has the potential to improve continuity in the measures adopted across individual equine establishments.
“Lessons for policy-makers should include an appreciation of the interaction between the time of year and equine welfare during future lockdown events.”
It may be beneficial, they said, to consider the present findings when developing guidelines to protect public health in the equestrian industry during future public emergency scenarios.
The study team comprised Ward, Kate Stephen, Caroline McGregor Argo, Christine Watson and Philippa Morrison, all with Scotland’s Rural College; Patricia Harris, with the Equine Studies Group, part of the Waltham Petcare Science Institute; Madalina Neacsu and Wendy Russell, with the University of Aberdeen; and Dai Grove-White, with the University of Liverpool.
Ward AB, Stephen K, Argo CM, Harris PA, Watson CA, Neacsu M, et al. (2021) COVID-19 impacts equine welfare: Policy implications for laminitis and obesity. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0252340. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0252340