New scale helps assess the halter-handling abilities of horses in minutes

The full BUT test takes a maximum of 10 minutes to complete. Photo: Menchetti et al. 10.3390/ani11082303
The full BUT test takes a maximum of 10 minutes to complete. Images: Menchetti et al.

Researchers in Italy have developed what they describe as a reliable and valid behavioural test to assess whether a horse is halter-trained.

Laura Menchetti and her fellow researchers, writing in the journal Animals, said transportation is a stressful event for all animal species.

Among equines, horses with a low level of tameness are at higher risk for transport-related disease and injury. Transport can cause anxiety-related behaviours, aggression, exhaustion, injury, respiratory and gastrointestinal disease, dehydration, fever, and immunosuppression.

For this reason, in Europe, regulations for the protection of animals during transport (Regulation EC 1/2005) are stricter for unbroken (untamed) horses than for broken (tamed) horses.

Unbroken animals must not be transported on journeys over eight hours, tied during transport, or transported in individual bays, but must instead travel in groups of four or less.

An unbroken horse is defined under the regulation as a horse that “cannot be tied or led by a halter without causing avoidable excitement, pain or suffering”.

However, this definition is not accompanied by verification procedures; therefore, in practice, there is still no test to identify whether a horse is broken or unbroken, the study team said.

“Thus, even when violations are identified during on-road inspections, nobody can be fined because official veterinarians do not have a test to identify whether a horse is broken or not.”

The researchers, with the University of Bologna and the University of Milan, noted that the European Parliament has expressed serious concerns about horse welfare during transportation and admits that there is still a high level of regulatory noncompliance, mainly related to unbroken horses.

“It is, therefore, essential to provide official veterinarians with a tool that allows them to categorise horses and, consequently, direct transporters towards the correct transport procedures.”

The study team set out to develop and validate a behavioural test to identify whether a horse is halter-trained or not. The developed test is based on the hypothesis that horses show different behavioural and physiological responses to being approached, haltered, and led, depending on prior level of tameness

The research centered on 103 Italian Heavy Draft horses on nine farms in Italy, reared for purposes ranging from breeding to meat production, family enjoyment, and showing.

The Broken/Unbroken Test (BUT) consisted of two phases — the Approaching and Haltering Test (AHT) and the Handling Test.

In all cases, the tests were performed by a veterinarian with more than 20 years’ experience who was unfamiliar with the background of the horses and their owner-assessed level of handling.

The BUT is a modified version of the tolerance test proposed by Manuela Wulf and her fellow researchers in a 2013 study.

Briefly, the tester enters the test area and walks towards the horse slowly with the halter in her hand, approaching and then trying to halter the horse. The maximum time allowed to achieve this is 5 minutes. If it is not possible to halter the horse within this time, the test ends.

If it is possible to halter the horse within the time, the tester starts the second phase, trying to lead the horse three steps forward (about 2m) and three steps backwards.

When leading, the handler keeps the horse relatively close to her right-hand side. The tester uses negative reinforcement, applying light pressure on the lead rope and releasing the pressure as soon as the horse shows the desired behaviour (taking a step). The maximum time allowed for this phase is 5 minutes.

The procedure is stopped at the first sign of pain or if the horse shows a high level of distress or signs of aggression.

All tests were videoed for later analysis, and physiological and additional behavioural data were also collected. Each horses’ status (either broken or unbroken) was later fully assessed by the expert who administered the BUT based on her experience and knowledge. Her opinion became the “gold standard” for later analyses.

For the BUT, the horses are scored from 0 to 2 in each phase, based on the table below, with those scoring 2 or more assessed as being halter-trained, while those scoring less than 2 were assessed as unbroken.

The scoring system for classification of horses’ behaviour during the Approaching and Haltering Test (AHT) and Handling Test (HT), and calculation of the Broken/Unbroken Test (BUT) score.

Four trained observers, blinded to each horse’s history, were then asked to assess the horses in each video, applying the BUT test. One was an experienced veterinarian, the other three were veterinary or animal science students.

The researchers reported that there was excellent inter-observer, intra-observer, and test-retest reliability in the results.

“There was almost perfect agreement between BUT-based and expert classification of horses,” the authors reported.

“Our results confirmed our hypothesis that horses with different levels of prior handling would react differently to being approached, haltered, and handled.

“This simple test could fill a legislative gap as, although Regulation EC 1/2005 includes different rules for the transport of broken and unbroken horses, no tool for the classification of horses has previously been available.

The BUT scale delivers a score from 0 to 4.
The BUT scale delivers a score from 0 to 4.

“If the BUT was included in future transportation regulations worldwide, it would ensure that the correct transport procedures were followed for these animals and would help officials to verify regulatory compliance.

“Regular application of the BUT before a journey to a subgroup (randomly selected) of the horses in departure could therefore safeguard the horses’ welfare.”

The researchers said their study followed the rigorous validation process that is required to confirm the reliability and validity of behavioural rating scales.

They acknowledged that the BUT test would take a bit of time during the preparation phase of transport.

“However, this little time investment may be crucial to safeguard the welfare of the travelling horses as well as the horse handlers, who often get injured during loading and unloading procedures. Horses and human health and welfare are indeed interconnected, and the application of BUT may therefore enhance both.”

The study team said the evidence suggests that the current definition of unbroken, as written in Regulation EC 1/2005, is not fit for purpose.

“Ultimately, widespread adoption of the BUT could safeguard the welfare of millions of horses during transport and also minimise horse-related injuries to humans.

“However, further studies are needed to confirm our findings and to optimise transport strategies for unbroken horses and evaluate the effects of handling, loading, and travelling training on the horses’ emotional state and the incidence of transport-related problems.”

The study team comprised Menchetti and Barbara Padalino, with the University of Bologna; and Emanuela Dalla Costa and Michela Minero, with the University of Milan.

Menchetti, L.; Dalla Costa, E.; Minero, M.; Padalino, B. Development and Validation of a Test for the Classification of Horses as Broken or Unbroken. Animals 2021, 11, 2303.

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

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