Survey casts light on the selection and careers of horses used in equine-assisted services

"The commonness of horses between 16 and 20 years of age supports the idea of many horses in equine-assisted services being on a second or third career."
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Unsoundness, behavior, and other health issues are the most common reasons for the retirement of horses involved in equine-assisted services, the findings of fresh research suggest.

Ellen Rankins and her fellow researchers set out to learn more about the selection, longevity and retirement of these horses, many of whom provide years of service helping people facing emotional, social, cognitive or physical challenges.

Equine-assisted services encompass therapy (psychotherapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and counselling), equine-assisted learning (in education, professional development, and organizational development) and adapted equestrian activities (therapeutic or adapted riding, adapted equestrian sports, interactive vaulting, adapted driving, and horsemanship).

The study team, writing in the journal Animals, described carrying out a pilot survey that was distributed to centers in Florida affiliated with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International.

The survey was then modified and distributed to centers across the US affiliated with several recognised bodies that provide equine-assisted services.

The study team found that selection procedures tended to include an initial screening, a pre-purchase or pre-donation exam, an acclimation period, and a trial period.

Horses remained active in programs for anywhere from less than a year to more than 20 years, with the greatest number working 7–10 years or 1–6 years.

Horses were retired for a variety of reasons. In the Florida survey, behavior was the leading cause of retirement, at 44%, followed by unsoundness at 33%. In the national survey, unsoundness was the highest-ranked response followed by behavior.

The researchers said unsoundness and behavior are intricately interconnected, as unsoundness or lameness can be detected via behavior observation.

“Without accurate diagnostic work, it is possible that horses classified as being retired because of behavior issues are being retired because of an underlying unsoundness or health issue that has manifested itself as a change in behavior. Future work should take this issue into consideration,” they said.

The study team said behavior, soundness, and health emerged as key factors in both horse selection and retirement. “Future work should focus on investigating these issues at an individual horse level.”

Horses aged 16 to 20 represented the greatest percentage of horses at centers based on the median for each age category in both surveys.

“The commonness of horses between 16 and 20 years of age supports the idea of many horses in equine-assisted services being on a second or third career. Anecdotal evidence has suggested that this is most often the case.

“This older age and associated previous experience may be a desirable characteristic as previous experience was considered when selecting horses.”

The leading source of horses was donations.

“As expected, some common themes emerged from the selection criteria,” the researchers said, “including size, age, temperament or personality, movement, soundness, and experience.”

The identification of common themes in selection criteria provide areas for future research, they said.

“Further research could assess whether these traits correlate with or predict success in equine-assisted services and help identify the most effective methods for evaluating these traits. The small list of ill-defined undesirable characteristics may also warrant further research.”

The authors said a lack of standardization in protocols, practices, and terminology is apparent in the reported data, highlighting the need for increased creation and implementation of best practices in addition to those currently recommended by professional organizations.

“Standardization of terminology and agreement on definitions is needed for future research to be productive. There is also a need for research at an individual horse level, rather than at a program level.”

The study team comprised Rankins, Kenneth McKeever and Karyn Malinowski, with the Rutgers Equine Science Center in New Jersey; and Carissa Wickens, with the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Florida.

Rankins, E.M.; Wickens, C.L.; McKeever, K.H.; Malinowski, K. A Survey of Horse Selection, Longevity, and Retirement in Equine-Assisted Services in the United States. Animals 2021, 11, 2333.

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

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