How changing our habits could improve horses’ lives *H&H Plus*

  • Horse & Hound reports from the National Equine Forum, where topics included the importance of human behaviour change in relation to disease prevention and control

    Changing human behaviour could be key to improving welfare — and potentially averting an equine health crisis, according to experts at the National Equine Forum (NEF) today (5 March). Speakers covered areas from human psychology to strangles and wormer resistance, in presentations looking into how behaviour can be changed and why this is so important.

    NEF vice-chair Pat Harris told H&H information is no more than facts if not used.

    “Often one of the biggest challenges in applying new knowledge is providing it in a way that the user can understand why implementation is important,” she said. “Changing owner, rider, feeder behaviour is often key, which is why this year’s NEF has chosen to concentrate on this critical issue.”

    Zac Baynham-Herd, of the government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), covered some barriers to changing behaviour. He explained people do not make decisions just based on information and intentions; environment and context have an effect. He said either a fast automatic system is used, for example by an experienced rider in the saddle, or a slow reflective system, used by novice riders who have to think about every movement. He said these insights, used by marketers, can promote positive change in equestrianism.

    If riders’ peers, for example fellow liveries, are committed to a certain behaviour such as vaccinating, this will make them more likely to follow suit.

    But in trying to change opinions, the BIT considers the EAST framework: is the desired behaviour easy, attractive, social and timely?

    “We think about reducing the effort it takes to do something, by increasing the effort it takes to do the thing we don’t want,” Dr Baynham-Herd said, adding that this can be as simple as putting biscuits in a hard-to-reach place for dieters.

    “The attractive bit is in terms of attracting attention, and making the behaviour more attractive,” he said, explaining that the desired behaviour should fit with people’s sense of identity, and that incentives such as saving money or prizes can help.

    The social aspect is the influence of other people — what they do and what others think they do — so the more people vaccinate, the more are likely to. And while highlighting the fact that not enough people do may seem a good warning, it might also make those who do not vaccinate feel secure in that, as many others also do not, so the right message is key.

    In terms of being timely, it has been found that when people are changing something, they are more likely to change something else, and they are more responsive to change at different times. The right messenger is also important, and the challenges are major.

    “We tell ourselves to do things and don’t [follow through], so try telling other people!” Dr Baynham-Herd said. “It has to go beyond providing information and telling people to do things.”

    Andrew and Abigail Turnbull, of Richmond Equestrian Centre in North Yorkshire, have been helping raise awareness and hopefully change behaviour after their venue was closed down by a strangles outbreak last summer.

    “We’ve tried to turn a very negative situation around and give it a positive tilt and educate people,” Mrs Turnbull said. “We told everyone straight away and I was very surprised how many professional people told me I should have kept quiet and stayed open; it was really disappointing. It’s not worth thinking about what would have happened if we’d covered it up.”

    Mrs Turnbull said the centre was reopened eight weeks later, thanks to the strict biosecurity protocols and hard work of staff, and liveries’ co-operation, and that she hopes her experience will help change attitudes.

    “The seven weeks was hell, but it could have been seven months,” she said. “Our vet said he’d never seen a yard take it so seriously but we have a duty of care.

    “It was dreadful but we have a different perspective now; I think we got more out of it than it did out of us.”

    Changing owners’ attitudes

    Sarah Freeman, professor of veterinary surgery at the University of Nottingham, spoke of how the REACT colic campaign, run with the British Horse Society based on research funded by World Horse Welfare and the University of Nottingham, has been trying to change owner attitudes to colic. PhD student Katie Lightfoot has also been studying the campaign’s impacts and behaviour change in more detail.

    “It’s about trying to work out if the messages we put out are right,” Prof Freeman said, adding that the information given can depend on what stage a horse owner is at in the decision-making process.

    She said it can be very difficult to change beliefs people have held for years — such as that it is better to walk a colicking horse rather than let it roll — and that if others at the same yard believe differently, it can make it even harder.

    “If you target individuals but others at the yard, or the yard owner, believe differently, nothing will change,” she said, adding that they are looking at different ways of affecting what happens on yards, and ensuring the campaign and vets are giving out the same messages, as vets are still often the most trusted source of advice.

    Feedback from owners has shaped how messages are sent, and how advice is worded.

    “The challenge is trying to get to different people,” Prof Freeman said. “Those who worry, those who don’t have time, those under pressure from the yard. All this goes back into planning our campaign.”

    Ms Lightfoot added: “It’s about getting people to think about things they probably think about already — but better.”

    David Rendle, an equine internal medicine specialist, spoke about the impact of behaviour change on worming. He said the relationship between horses and their parasites is “at risk of turning full circle” as treatments become less effective; years of indiscriminate use of wormers has led to resistant parasites.

    “Will changing human behaviour avert the potential equine welfare crisis that will inevitably ensue if anthelmintics are rendered useless?” he asked, adding, “We are about to find out.”

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