Safety aspects in children's mounts undervalued - research

August 30, 2011

by Neil Clarkson

The Australian pony market appears to undervalue safety attributes in mounts, research suggests.

Pony pricing indicated the market valued elite performance ponies.
The findings indicate that premium pricing applies not to bomb-proof mounts suitable for children, but to animals with show and dressage experience.

Increased height was also a factor in higher pricing.

The lead researcher, Dr Lesley Hawson, told Horsetalk that pricing indicated the market valued elite performance ponies when, in reality, most would be ridden by less-than-elite riders.

The researchers, whose findings have been published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, found no evidence that people selling ponies perceived that positive safety-related affected their pricing calculations.

Hawson, from the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, and her fellow researchers examined the Ponies and Pony Club sections in six consecutive 2009 editions of Horse Deals, the leading Australian horse-trading magazine.

The advertisements represented a total perceived value of about $A4.2 million.

"Horse-riding is a particularly dangerous activity for children, especially before they have accrued significant riding experience," wrote Hawson and her co-authors, Catherine Oddie, from the University of Newcastle, Andrew McLean, from the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre in Broadford, Victoria, and Paul McGreevy, from the University of Sydney.

The team set about examining whether there was a relationship between the use of descriptive terms associated with pony safety and the advertised price.

Their analysis identified 66 terms and phrases that vendors used to describe the ponies in advertisements. The researchers put them into four categories based on the extent to which they communicated a behavioural or biological characteristic of the pony relevant to rider and handler safety.

Of these four categories, three reflected positive attributes while the fourth contained warnings about the pony.

Very reassuring phrases included terms such as bomb-proof, mother's dream, obedient, safe, good in traffic, trustworthy, and unflappable, while, at the other end of the spectrum, there were phrases such as girthy, no beginners, re-schooled, sensitive, green, needs confident rider, and fearful.

They gathered data on price, descriptions, and other characteristics - age, height, gender, colour, breed, registration and experience - for 875 advertisements.

Statistical analysis revealed that price significantly increased with factors such as height and experience in showing and dressage.

The study appeared to show that vendors value characteristics that are different from those valued by buyers of ponies.
Positive descriptions of the safety aspects of mounts were not associated with an increased asking price in the pony market. "Safety behaviours and attributes that may be reassuring to buyers of children's ponies are not factored into the pricing decisions of the pony vendors," they concluded.

However, asking prices were lower for every warning that appeared in advertisements. It was clear, they said, that training ponies so that warnings were unnecessary in advertisements was likely to bring pricing and safety dividends.

"Our findings concur with previous research carried out in other horse markets and may provide further evidence that vendors value characteristics that are different from those valued by buyers," they said.

The researchers recommended that potential pony buyers become better informed of the importance of safety and predictability in animals bred and trained to be ridden by younger riders.

The authors noted that the unknown factor in the research is the buyers' perceptions of the phrases used to sell ponies.

Hawson told Horsetalk there appeared to be two market forces applying in the pony market - the show pony market and the genuine "kid's pony" market.

"Perhaps the results from the pony club market are more reflective although then you get sum-of-experience issues coming into the pricing equation.

"It also begs the question: who is actually going to ride those show ponies and who is the 'show ponies' market focused on? In other words, what is the market the show pony breeders are breeding for?"

This, she said, led into a larger question. "We are breeding performance horses and ponies for elite performance, but the reality is most horses will be ridden by less-than-elite riders.

"I would suggest that we should be celebrating and rewarding obedience and reliability of mounts, especially children's mounts, as much if not more than the performance of elite horses.

"Further, we need to develop clear measures of what to look for in these 'reliable and safe' mounts - for example, obediently stops within two strides from canter EVERY TIME when pressure is applied to the horse's mouth. This goes to training of horses and people.

"I am extremely disturbed that one in four sports related deaths in kids is horse-related. We need to encourage safe mounts for these kids.

"The negative impact of 'warning' terminology suggests that the vendors are aware of a responsibility for the danger an unsafe horse represents, but safety attributes continue to be devalued."

Hawson said she was currently involved in a similar study on "all-rounders" in the adult market, "which is beginning to show a similar disregard for safety in the market".

The pony study, entitled "Is safety valued in the Australian pony market?", was funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation of Australia.

The researchers ask "who is actually going to ride those show ponies and who is the 'show ponies' market focused on? In other words, what is the market the show pony breeders are breeding for?"