No buts about it: Test can determine if horses are broken in – or not

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The Broken/Unbroken Test (BUT) consists of two phases: In the first phase, approaching and Haltering, the tester entered the test area, walked towards the horse slowly with the halter in her hand, approached the horse, and then tried to halter it.
The Broken/Unbroken Test (BUT) consists of two phases: In the first phase, approaching and Haltering, the tester entered the test area, walked towards the horse slowly with the halter in her hand, approached the horse, and then tried to halter it. Image: Padalino, Minero et al.

A new test to determine whether a horse is broken or unbroken in order to improve safety during transportation has been developed by researchers at the University of Bologna in Italy.

The European Union has regulations regarding the unique transport needs of broken and unbroken horses. However, officials tasked with enforcing these regulations have no valid tools to determine whether a horse is broken or unbroken.

The test, known as the Broken/Unbroken Test (BUT) could help thousands of horses each year, said Dr Barbara Padalino, Associate Professor in the university’s Department of Animal Science. The research, supported by the Morris Animal Foundation, has been published in the journal Animals.

“By identifying horses as broken or unbroken, horses can be moved in ways that are best suited for them,” Padalino said.

“Our tool will help prevent injuries and stress, improving transport for the many horses that travel by road each year.”

Padalino’s team used 100 horses to develop the tool, and a veterinarian with expertise in horse behavior was used as the tester for each horse. The first portion of the BUT consisted of timing how long it took the tester to approach and place a halter on an unfamiliar horse. In the second phase of the test, the tester tried to lead the horse three steps forward and then three steps backward. The maximum allowed time for each portion of the test was five minutes. If at any time, a horse showed any signs of stress or aggression, the test was stopped. The BUT was repeated three weeks later to evaluate test-retest reliability on a subset of the original group of animals. At the BUT’s conclusion, the tester judged whether the horse was broken or unbroken.

Video footage was taken of each encounter. Thirty videos were used as training tools for an additional four observers. This group consisted of a senior veterinarian and veterinary or animal science students. The observers were trained by the senior veterinarian on how to use the BUT. Once training was complete, all videos were examined and scored to determine reliability of the BUT. A subset of 20 videos was selected and randomly scored a second time to assess intra-observer agreement.

The second phase, handling, was attempted only if it had been possible to complete the first phase within five minutes. Then, the tester tried to lead the horse three steps forwards and three steps backward.
The second phase, handling, was attempted only if it had been possible to complete the first phase within five minutes. Then, the tester tried to lead the horse three steps forwards and three steps backward. In a real setting, the tester should wear protective equipment. Image: Padalino, Minero et al.

Other physiologic and behavior parameters, such as avoidance behavior distance, heart rate and respiratory rate also were measured as part of the validation process. After statistical analysis, the team showed that the BUT was highly reliable in assessing whether a horse was broken or unbroken.

Dr Janet Patterson-Kane, Morris Animal Foundation Chief Scientific Officer, said the new testing procedure would be an invaluable tool to improve the safety for horses traveling by road in the European Union.

“And internationally, the behavioral needs of broken versus unbroken horses are just as relevant wherever they are transported on roadways.”

Padalino hopes that the BUT will be incorporated into the current regulatory framework for transporting horses. Her team also would like to expand their study on a larger group of horses in different situations to further validate the tool. Once further testing is complete, the tool would be ready for wider use.

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

Laura Menchetti, Emanuela Dalla Costa, Michela Minero, Barbara Padalino. Development and Validation of a Test for the Classification of Horses as Broken or Unbroken. Animals 2021, 11(8), 2303. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11082303

Infrared thermography images collected at the end of Broken/Unbroken Test (BUT) in haltered (a) and non-haltered horses (b).
Infrared thermography images were collected at the end of Broken/Unbroken Test (BUT) in haltered (a) and non-haltered horses (b). Image: Padalino, Minero et al.

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