Pandemic-related obstacles affected the wellbeing of horse owners, equine veterinarians and those running boarding stables, the findings of fresh British research show.
Issues with communication as the nation locked down to counter the threat of Covid-19 caused stress, as did the limitations to contact between horses and their owners.
Those involved in the care of horses faced a variety of challenges to their own wellbeing whilst they navigated providing care to animals during the initial lockdown, Ashley Ward and her fellow researchers noted in the journal Animals.
Equestrian stakeholders faced a dilemma in trying to balance caring for the welfare of horses with adapting to restrictions imposed to protect public health.
The study centred on 26 interviews with horse owners (some with their horses at home, some with them at boarding stables), equine veterinarians, farriers and welfare centre managers, mostly based in the Aberdeenshire region.
“Findings from the interviews indicated that the mental health and wellbeing of veterinarians and horse owners were negatively affected by pandemic-related obstacles to communication and limitations to horse-owner interactions,” the researchers reported.
However, there were also several positive outcomes in terms of wellbeing, involving activities engaged in by horse owners to overcome social isolation, such as digital training, and entering showing and dressage classes online.
“For me, it has been positive for my riding,” one horse owner said. “I have been doing Zoom lessons with my chum who teaches me, so we were doing lessons when we weren’t allowed to do anything.”
Although not a novel concept, online showing and dressage events apparently increased in popularity during the pandemic-related movement restrictions.
“I really enjoy having something to aim for … there have been a few shows online and got my husband to video and send it in,” one owner said. “That has kept us going and it gave us something to do.”
But for many, it was not only a case of being concerned for their horse’s wellbeing that led to increased anxiety among owners.
“A lack of control over their horse’s routine, reduced physical contact with the horse, and loss of interaction with peers on yards or through equine events were important factors potentially contributing to reduced horse-owner wellbeing,” they said.
“Those who maintained unrestricted access to their horses described their experience during the pandemic as largely positive. All owners at home, and those who had been able to continue seeing their horses as normal, referred to being fortunate to be in such a position.”
Those affected by the pandemic in other areas of their lives, such as being stood down from work, emphasised the importance of their horses as a source of emotional support at that time.
“With everything going up in the air, work and all that kind of stuff, I mean, I wouldn’t have coped at all if my horses weren’t at home and I couldn’t see them, it would have been … a heck of a lot worse. Yeah. It would have been awful, actually,” one horse owner said.
Owners tended to enjoy the structured routines, physical activity, engagement with nature and the outdoors, and the companionship offered by their horses as sources of contentment during the pandemic. They empathised strongly with those who had lost this, the researchers noted.
Unlike companion animals kept at home, horses are often stabled at livery yards located separately from the owners’ home, where aspects of day-to-day care may be delegated to employees.
Owing to their status as business establishments, many livery yard owners made the decision to prevent non-essential workers from accessing the yard, including horse owners.
The decision by yard owners to close was often driven by the careful balancing of responsibilities toward the horses and humans who came into contact with the yard.
“The decision to re-open required consideration of the psychological consequences that a lack of contact with their animals may have upon horse owners. Participants in this study noted, or witnessed first-hand in others, the distress which resulted from restricted access to horses.
“Reliance of owners upon their animals as a source of psychological and emotional support was highlighted by several stakeholders in the present study,” the researchers said.
“However, restricted access to their horses had some notable benefits for some owners,” the authors said. For some, the freed-up time allowed them to organise their life outside of equestrianism more effectively.
As restrictions were eased, owners valued their time interacting with their horses in ways other than riding, gaining the benefits of simple interactions with their animals.
Veterinarians faced a range of challenges, including a reliance on digital and telephone communication and the need to make difficult calls on whether it was necessary to see the animal in person.
In terms of the practicalities of telemedicine, four out of five veterinarians found that teleconsultations were more complicated and time-consuming, with a primary concern for misdiagnosis.
Even after the official lockdown began, veterinarians encountered equine premises that continued to function as they had before the pandemic.
This lack of concern for biosecurity left veterinarians feeling that their safety was often overlooked by horse owners and yard managers, the researchers said.
One veterinarian commented: “You would go to yards in the first three weeks and you’re like, ‘are you guys aware there is a pandemic?’ Everyone and their mother are up at the yard. ‘Oh great!’.”
In some cases where veterinarians saw horses, the requirements for social distancing presented a more immediate threat to safety to the vet than the virus, demonstrating the front-line nature of the veterinarian’s role.
As one equine veterinarian said of balancing human health risk whilst treating a potentially dangerous horse: “You feel like you would rather take your chance with coronavirus than get crushed or kicked.”
The interviews with veterinarians highlighted the psychological impacts of challenging clients and unrealistic workloads – symptoms of the pandemic which could be countered by promoting awareness of these potential mental health concerns being amplified during global emergency scenarios.
The study team said the findings provide unique insights into the ways that the pandemic affected a distinct group of equestrian industry stakeholders who experienced a variety of positive and negative consequences on mental health and wellbeing.
“Social isolation, changes in communication and restricted access to horses caused social, professional and psychological stress in the group of interviewed individuals,” they said.
“These impacts on wellbeing may be relevant for consideration in future emergency scenarios when developing strategies to protect mental health across the equestrian industry.”
They continued: “The closure of livery yards to horse-owning clients was shown to have provoked industry concern for the negative consequences that this can have for horse owners’ wellbeing, results which highlight the key role of the horse in many horse owners’ social and emotional support network.”
However, there were also fulfilling activities that benefited the mental health, wellbeing and resilience of those interviewed.
“Such findings add credence to the suggestion that promoting a sense of community and co-operation could be protective against stressors arising from the pandemic.”
The study team comprised Ward, Kate Stephen, Caroline Argo, Christine Watson and Philippa Morrison, all with Scotland’s Rural College in Aberdeen; Patricia Harris, with the Equine Studies Group, part of the Waltham Petcare Science Institute; Madalina Neacsu and Wendy Russell, with The Rowett Institute, part of the University of Aberdeen; and Dai Grove-White, with the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Liverpool.
Ward, A.; Stephen, K.; Argo, C.; Watson, C.; Harris, P.; Neacsu, M.; Russell, W.; Grove-White, D.; Morrison, P. The Human Aspect of Horse Care: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacted the Wellbeing of Equestrian Industry Stakeholders. Animals 2021, 11, 2163. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11082163