A daily scratch of your horse is a habit worth developing – study

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The researchers wanted to link the scratching of a horse once a day for a minimum of three to five minutes to existing routine behaviour.
Photo by Philippe Oursel

Simple but positive habit-forming changes to daily equine care routines can have benefits for both animals and their caregivers, according to researchers.

Researchers Jo White and Ruth Sims set out in their study to explore the potential for simple interventions to develop pro-animal welfare habitual behaviours (PAWHBs) in people to improve the lives of animals.

“Human behavioural research indicates that opportunities exist to deliver lasting change through developing positive habitual behaviours,” the pair wrote in the journal Animals.

The researchers noted that the routine nature of many equine care and management practices are conducive to habit formation and maintenance.

The authors, in their proof-of-concept paper, sought to evaluate a theory-based intervention of developing and maintaining a pro-animal welfare habit in people caring for equines.

The researchers wanted to link the scratching of a horse once a day for a minimum of three to five minutes to existing routine behaviour.

The plan to link the behaviour to the existing care routine was intended to reinforce the association between the cue and the action to increase its automatic nature.

Each of the nine study participants identified within their daily routine a contextual cue to which they linked the scratching behaviour – for example, after picking out hooves.

The plan instituted by the researchers also included a reminder – for example, a visual cue at the stable or field – to provide an additional memory aid.

Each participant was asked to complete a daily self-monitoring diary for the 30 days of the study, in which they had to indicate if they performed the scratching behaviour and provide any comments, observations or reflections.

“Its purpose,” they said, “was to motivate, positively reinforce and reward the performance of the behaviour through the participants’ reflection on the outcomes,” they said. This might, for example, include the animals’ reactions to the interaction.

The caregiver then engaged in semi-structured interviews to determine the effects of the scratching intervention.

The study findings suggested that the scratching intervention had a positive impact on human behaviour and habit formation.

“It comes as naturally as making a cup of tea in the morning,” one participant observed.

Some said they had always regularly scratched their horses while, for others, it was a new habit. Participants who developed the scratching behaviour during the study used language indicating a change from a conscious performance of the behaviour to an automatic one.

They also referred to the value or mutual benefit of having a routine, for both the person and the equine. Some participants reflected on the emotional impact of the routine, which made them feel calmer.

“I quite like routine,” said one caregiver. “It was nice to establish a routine and that made me feel calmer in myself that there was a pattern of behaviour being established. It was part of establishing a better routine of working with the donkeys.”

They also talked of the animal feedback, with some animals triggering the scratching behaviour. Participants also made reference to mutual benefits for both the equine and human.

“The trigger now is that they all demand it. You really have to stop poo picking, have a little scratch. So I don’t even have to initiate it now, it’s just whoever I am next to wants a cuddle, wants a scratch.”

The perceived animal feedback appeared to link to the participants’ reflections on how they felt emotionally and the importance they placed on bonding with the animal.

“It is quite emotional,” said one, “because the bond is obviously there and the fact that he is talking to me letting me know how he wants it and also letting me know when I got it wrong, it is like a full-on conversation in the sense that you’ve got that kind of bond with an animal.”

“I loved doing it,” said another, “because I like being with him, touching him, grooming him and some days his reaction was more marked than others and when you could see that he obviously had an itchy place and his lips were twitching and it was quite good fun to see it.”

Some of those who developed the scratching behaviour during the study indicated their intention to continue performing it. Others said that they were not performing the behaviour as frequently, but mentioned doing it automatically when in the same context as used in the study.

One commented: “Since the end of the 30 days I have done it less regularly but I am still routinely doing it, and less consciously but particularly with the donkey I worked with, when he first comes to the fence I spontaneously reach for the back of the ear which was the spot we established. So I think it has become an unconscious thing now.”

Some appeared to consider that the benefits of performing the behaviour provided an incentive to continue doing it.

The researchers said the findings suggested that the scratching intervention had an impact on the participants and their behaviour, with indications of positive change.

They said their work helps to address the scarcity of evidence regarding the application of habit theory to equine welfare interventions and emphasised linking a desired new behaviour to an existing routine behaviour when developing such positive interventions.

“The research also highlights the role of mutual benefit for human and equine, and emotion in providing feedback and potential reward, supporting the link to the cue-routine-reward principle of habit theory.”

They continued: “Habit formation and change have untapped potential to positively and sustainably impact compromised welfare resulting from the absence of routine care-taking behaviours.”

The study, they said, found evidence of high levels of ingrained behaviours in the participants.

The findings are in line with current research indicating that behaviour becomes easier to perform and less cognitively demanding the more times it is repeated.

“The study results highlighted the importance of the ‘habit loop’ cue–routine–reward relationship in maintaining or forming a habitual behaviour, with emphasis placed upon the role of animal feedback in cueing the pro-animal welfare habitual behaviours and providing an emotional reward to the participants for performing it.

“While there is growing evidence in other sectors, there is a need to undertake further research to test and develop behaviour change interventions with habit at their centre in order to deliver positive change in the health and wellbeing of animals.”

White is with Human Behaviour Change for Animals, a community interest company in Barnham Broom, Norfolk, England; and Sims is with the School of Psychology, part of the College of Health, Psychology, and Social Care at the University of Derby, in Derbyshire.

White, J.; Sims, R. Improving Equine Welfare through Human Habit Formation. Animals 2021, 11, 2156. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11082156

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

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