Behaviour Change in Horse Owners to Safeguard Horse Welfare

Sat, 06/30/2018 - 05:32
Health Care
Good housekeeping: horses turner out in the field :: Photo © Astrid Appels

At the 2017 Annual ISES Conference researcher Lauren Hemsworth of the Animal Welfare Science Centre at the University of Melbourne presented her study of how enable human behaviour change within the equine industry.

The welfare of recreational horses has become an increasingly important issue, as evident by their high representation in welfare investigations. A substantial proportion of horse welfare problems are reportedly due to horse owner mismanagement, as a result of ignorance rather than intentional abuse. Based on research on the human–animal relationship in recreational horse ownership and extensive research in the livestock industries, education and training programmes which target the key attitudes and behaviour of horse owners could potentially improve the attitudes and behaviour of horse owners towards their horses and horse management, with consequent beneficial effects on horse welfare.

The Study

The welfare of recreational horses in developed countries has become an increasingly important issue, as evident by the high representation of horses in welfare investigations. A substantial proportion of horse welfare problems are reportedly due to horse owner mismanagement, as a result of ignorance rather than intentional abuse. An important determinant of domestic animal management and their ensuing welfare outcomes is the quality of the human–animal relationship (HAR). Furthermore, the most direct influence on intended human behaviour is the attitude an individual possesses towards performing the behaviour in question.

Azjen’s (1985) Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB) proposes that, where the individual may not have complete volitional control over his or her behaviours, behavioural intent is predicted by a combination of attitude towards behaviour, normative beliefs about that behaviour, and control beliefs about the behaviour (perceived behavioural control). This theory is able to both predict and understand the motivational influences on human behaviour and to identify target strategies for changing behaviour. According to the TPB, a horse owner’s attitudes towards horse management is a key determinant of the owner’s management behaviour, which in turn is a key determinant of the welfare of the owner’s horse.

A similar sequential human attitude–behaviour relationship described by the TPB has been shown in the pork, poultry, veal and dairy industries. There is considerable evidence in the animal agriculture industries of relationships between the attitudes and behaviour of the stockperson towards interacting and working with their animals, and subsequent animal behaviour, welfare and productivity outcomes. For example, studies in the dairy and pork industries have shown that cognitive-behavioural training, in which these key attitudes and behaviours of stockpeople are targeted, can successfully improve the attitudes and behaviour of stockpeople towards their animals, with consequent beneficial effects on animal stress, welfare and productivity.

The HAR research, development and education in the agricultural industries highlight the value in understanding the HAR and its implications on the welfare of animals in other animal use settings such as recreational, companion and zoo settings. To improve stockpeople’s beliefs about their animals and particularly their beliefs about handling and working with their animals, cognitive- behavioural training provides stockpeople with key information on their livestock including the ease with which livestock can and should be handled, their sensitivity to the range of ‘negative’ behaviours used by stockpeople (and their sensitivity to stressors in general), and the adverse effects of these negative behaviours on their fear of humans, which in turn can have negative consequences on their welfare, productivity and ease of handling. The training also provides stockpeople with information on ‘positive’ behaviours which can be used to reduce fear in their animals. In addition, explicit attention is given to the barriers to change (both attitudinal and behavioural) including conformity pressures from co-workers, and incorrect beliefs about perceived barriers to change, such as poor facilities, poor animal temperament and lack of time. To address the behavioural aspects of the intervention, stockpeople are given the opportunity to rehearse the relevant behaviours, either directly or vicariously. Furthermore, a facilitator can be used to assess stockperson responses during training to ensure that defensiveness, misunderstandings and counter arguments can be addressed. To reinforce the information that targets improvements in both beliefs and behaviours, stockpeople are provided with on-going follow-up support in the form of written material including a booklet, posters and newsletters. Evaluations of these cognitive-behavioural interventions show that this type of approach to training is practical and effective among a wide range of stockpeople working in a variety of situations. These types of training programmes have been developed and are being employed in Australia (ProHand) and Europe (Welfare Quality) for a range of farm animal species. An important characteristic of these programmes is that they are based on scientific research and their effectiveness in improving animal welfare and productivity has been demonstrated by properly designed intervention studies. Because they use a standardised form of presentation, there is a reduced risk that the content will drift over time or that individual and possibly non-validated messages will be conveyed during the training.

Research on the HAR in recreational horse ownership provides evidence of relationships between horse owner attributes, including attitudes and behaviour and horse welfare outcomes. These findings are consistent with the considerable livestock literature and the TPB, and indicate the potential to predict a horse owner’s management behaviour from their attitude towards the behaviour in question. The proposed sequential relationships between horse owner attributes and horse welfare outcomes demonstrate the opportunity to modify the husbandry and management behaviour of horse owners by targeting their attitudes towards the behaviour (salient beliefs), and subsequently reduce the incidence of poor welfare in recreational horses. A practical recommendation for modifying horse owner attributes may be the implementation of education and training programmes targeting improvement in horse owner knowledge on effective management practices to safeguard horse health and welfare. An education strategy aimed at changing the management behaviour of horse owners is likely to require a multi-faceted approach. One potential strategy would involve a two-tiered approach, incorporating both the provision of educational material and advice to horse owners, and a targeted training programme based on the cognitive-behavioural intervention programmes successfully employed in the agricultural industries to improve key attributes of stockpeople and reduce animal welfare concerns.

Clearly further research is required to not only demonstrate the sequential nature of the human–horse relationship and provide evidence of causal relationships, but to determine the effectiveness of education and training programmes in improving horse owner management and subsequently safeguarding the welfare of horses.

by Lauren Hemsworth

Source: ISES 

Related Links
Attitudes and Perceptions on Equine Training Techniques in an Online Discussion Forum
2017 ISES Equitation Science Conference in Australia on 22 - 25 November 2017