Pioneering study explores transition of thoroughbreds into therapy horses

Image by Madison Buening

A new research project in Britain is aiming to develop a recognised global welfare standard for the selection and training of former racehorses transitioning into Equine Assisted Therapy.

The study The Selection and Education of Former Racehorses (Thoroughbreds) for Equine Assisted Therapy: Developing the Evidence Base for a Global Standard, is being led by academics at the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School in collaboration with charity Racing to Relate (R2R). It will examine the selection, training and welfare of thoroughbred horses as they transition from racetrack to therapy horse.

Thoroughbreds are recognised for their sensitivity and this project will provide a research-based approach to retraining them for therapy work. Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) careers include work with a diverse group of people, from veterans and disabled children to those struggling with mental health issues. The research, which is funded by the John Pearce Foundation, is the first of its kind to study EAT across many countries and will look at practices in the UK, USA, France and Ireland, to understand the impact of EAT on the horses.

Bristol Vet School PhD student Claire Neveux is working on the project, having worked with thoroughbreds for about 20 years. “I have always been amazed by their high reactivity and sensitivity. I’m also fascinated by the human-horse relationship.”

During her graduate studies, Neveux participated in Equine Assisted Therapy programmes as an intern. “I’m convinced that a better understanding of the thoroughbred personality traits and suitability of horses for EAT is essential for equine and human welfare.”

Claire Neveux
Claire Neveux
Dr Mathilde Valenchon Dr Mathilde Valenchon
Dr Siobhan Mullan Dr Siobhan Mullan

Little research has been carried out on the welfare of horses within EAT programmes, and especially on the impact it may have on their wellbeing. In particular, this research will analyse the educational process for all horses within the EAT sector, to gain a clearer picture of why and how horses are selected for particular roles.

The aim is to fully understand the current selection and training methods within the sector and identify specific characteristics of the thoroughbred, which are suited to a career in EAT. The study will also explore details of the life and routine of equines within EAT, examining existing perceptions and considerations of horse welfare.

Dr Mathilde Valenchon, Research Fellow at the Bristol Vet School and co-supervisor of the PhD project, has been studying equine behaviour, cognition and welfare for the past 12 years. “I have always been impressed by the thoroughbred’s sensitivity and adaptability. I am thrilled to contribute to a better knowledge of their suitability for EAT and the development of standards, as this will significantly and positively impact the horses’ welfare, as well as people’s. I am especially proud that our research includes the horse’s perspective.”

Co-supervisor Dr Siobhan Mullan, a Senior Research Fellow at Bristol Vet School, said Thoroughbred horses involved in EAT programmes were performing “a really special and valuable role in society”, yet little formal research has been done to understand how to optimise their welfare throughout their transition.

“I’m heartened by the interest around the world in using the results of our research to develop standards which will have a long-lasting impact on horse welfare.”

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