An Equine Behavior/Welfare Research Fund

If such a thing existed, would you donate to an equine behavior/welfare research fund? I'm just curious. Funds for equine research are hard to come by --- especially funds for behavior/welfare research. I'm thinking of setting up such a fund in my will, but doing so means I won't be around to see the results. I would hope, though, that once such a fund existed, other people would donate to it, so that research in the field could be advanced. I thought it would be interesting to get comments from horse-related groups.

Mental health (welfare) is a difficult issue in animals, but much is possible with behavioral studies. For example, such studies can allow animals to tell us which of two environments (or enrichments) they prefer --- and how much more they prefer it. "Rebound" studies can indicate how much exercise horses WANT, while physiological studies could show how much they NEED. The Equine Research Foundation is currently doing studies of equine perception and cognition that I would consider worthy of funding. (See http://www.equineresearch.org/horse-research.html.) I would also consider more biologically based studies of perception and cognition to be worthy of consideration. What is important is that such studies should be well-designed, objective, and hypothesis-driven.

Several researchers have been conducting studies on how training techniques affect horses. Examples of subjects include “Variations in the timing of reinforcement as a training technique for foals”, “The use of blended positive and negative reinforcement in shaping the halt response of horses”, “Rein contact between horse and handler during specific equitation movements”, “Effects on behaviour and rein tension on horses ridden with or without martingales and rein inserts”, and “The effect of double bridles and jaw-clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses.” The purpose of these studies is to identify which training techniques are best or worst from a welfare standpoint.

Other studies approach behavior and welfare from a physiological standpoint. Examples include “Study of the behaviour, digestive efficiency and gut transit times of crib-biting horses”; “Behavioral and physiological responses of horses to head lowering”; “The ethological and physiological characteristics of cribbing and weaving horses”; and “The Behavioural and Physiological Effects of Virginiamycin in the Diets of Horses with stereotypies.” A lot of the physiological type work revolves around identifying possible causes of stereotypies, like cribbing, so that we can try to prevent and treat them successfully.

In addition to training techniques and stereotypies, popular topics for behavioral research include laterality (“handedness”), preferred (by the horse) transportation methods, geophagia (why horses eat dirt), diet effects, stress effects, drug effects, genetic effects, conformation effects, effects of changes in stalls (flooring, windows, mirrors, and so on), etc. Then, of course, there are the studies of wild horse behavior, which can guide us as to the needs and preferences of both wild and domestic horses. Equine behavior covers a very large field, but as far as I know, there is no large fund set up specifically to support research in this area.

I’m afraid this post is rather boring, because it’s mostly made up of lists of things, but I hope people find the thought behind it to be of interest. My intent in listing all the subjects I mentioned was to show the types of research that could be subsidized through an equine behavior/welfare research fund. If you’ve managed to read this far, and found any of the subjects to be worthwhile, I hope you would consider donating to help fund such research. Of course, right now, there’s no place I know of to make such a donation, but if people are interested, then I hope that, someday, people might have such an opportunity.

So, what do you think? Would you donate if you could? Does anyone know of such a fund already existing? Does anyone have any ideas on how such a fund should be set up or advertised? All comments are welcome. Let me know how you feel. I’m waiting to hear.

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Comment by Wendy Koch on January 29, 2014 at 1:47pm

The studies of tight nosebands, inadequate environments, etc., are done on horses whose owners are using those techniques.  In other words, those horses have to put up with such problems regardless.  The researchers aren't adding to their discomfort.  They're simply documenting it, which might persuade the owners away from such things --- which is why we need the research.

I don't think stalls are going away any time soon, but I have no doubt that stalls can be improved.  However, right now, we have no scientific guidelines for the minimum size for a stall, the minimum amount of time for turnout, the minimum provisions for socializing with other horses, etc.  If we had such things, people might start building better stalls and using better management practices --- which is why we need the research.

Research isn't going to solve all the problems, because some people will misuse their horses regardless, but science-based guidelines will help increase the number of people who "do it right."  Such guidelines tend to become standard practices, because most people do want to care for their horses properly, and good standard practices raise the bar for all horsekeeping.  For one thing, they make it easier to identify and prosecute bad practices.

The vast majority of equine research now being performed is on colic, laminitis, and lameness.  I'm all in favor of such research, because those problems are killers.  However, a horse isolated in a small four-sided box without ever getting out for exercise (or one that's abused every time it IS taken out and ridden) may actually be better off if it colicks and dies.  There's more to welfare than physical health, but right now, there's almost no funding for studies of things affecting mental health --- which is the gap I'd like to fill.

Comment by Marlene Thoms on January 29, 2014 at 12:32pm

Interesting idea, fraught with a million problems. My biggest concern: how would you investigate "jaw clamping" and nosebands (or any other cruel technique), without causing deliberate discomfort or pain to horses? How can you test if an environment is less than needed (or inadequate) without putting horses in an environment which is inadequate? Some of the best research that I think is donation-worthy is that done on laminitis, because I think it is largely preventable and often treatable (if caught early) if it does occur, and a lot of owners don't realize at what point they are putting their horse at risk. without researching every little aspect of horse care, exercise, feed, housing etc, I think some basic standards could at least be laid out and regulated. We don't need research really to tell us that a horse needs more mentally and physically than being stalled all day every day, and needs to get out and at least cruise around even if they aren't getting optimal exercise, yet many horses are practically stall bound for long hours every day.

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