The aim of a new and different pilot programme aimed at tackling equine obesity is to help save as many horses’ lives as possible.
The British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) is launching a six-month pilot of its new scheme, which was developed using knowledge gained from the behavioural insights team (BIT), a government think tank specialising in behavioural economics and psychology.
The idea is to use routine annual or six-monthly vaccination visits as a chance to assess equine body condition, and use a traffic light system of vaccination reminder stickers on the front of horse passports.
A green sticker indicates an animal in healthy condition, amber is for horses who are carrying too much fat, advising that moderate action must be taken, and red means the animal is carrying excessive fat, which is putting it in “morbid danger”.
BEVA president elect Lucy Grieve, who is on the association’s obesity campaign working group and chairs its ethics committee, explained that the idea is to start conversations about equine weight, its potential health implications and how to address any issues.
Each sticker also has a QR code, which owners can scan to access videos and more information on why each colour sticker has been given, and what to do next.
“Obesity is one of the main welfare issues in the UK herd, and it’s one we can prevent if we find the right ways to get the message out there,” Mrs Grieve told H&H.
“Obesity is a manmade disease, in that it comes from how we keep horses; there’s a mismatch between what they need and what we perceive to be a happy life for them.
“We have to rein in our desire to feed and clothe and keep them warm. Of course, people aren’t trying to hurt horses; quite the opposite, but we need to re-centre the way we look at our horses.”
Mrs Grieve explained that BEVA CEO David Mountford attended a Defra-organised event at which changing people’s behaviour to improve biosecurity, involving BIT, was addressed.
Having looked into their research on how people react to different campaigns and actions — often not as had been thought — and what approaches tend to work, the BEVA team put this into practice in the obesity campaign.
“It’s really changed the way we look at some problems,” Mrs Grieve said. “It’s not about being critical but trying to educate; lots of great work has been done, by welfare charities and others, but there hasn’t been a huge change in the obesity we’re seeing, so we wanted to try to go from a different angle.”
Mrs Grieve said the stickers should help start what can be a difficult conversation, and that it should be of benefit that they come from vets. But she would ideally like all practitioners — such as farriers, bodyworkers and trainers, eventually — to provide more frequent updates on condition, so the industry is sending a consistent message to owners.
“Imagine if we could all work together, so at every visit, the owner would know whether their horse had lost weight, or maintained healthy condition,” she said.
“We know how difficult it is, and we’re not pointing fingers, but hopefully by all working together, we might see fewer and fewer obese horses.
“It’s the horse who suffers and nothing breaks my heart more than turning up to a laminitic pony with rotated pedal bones, who’s going to die if we can’t act in time.”
World Horse Welfare CEO Roly Owers told H&H the charity is “massively supportive” of the campaign.
“Despite the internet and peer pressure, the owner-vet relationship is still fundamental to horses’ health and welfare,” he said. “People still very much look to their vets as a respected source of advice.
“We also recognise that obesity is the number one welfare challenge facing the UK herd, and while there are some great initiatives, many clearly aren’t convincing owners to change their behaviour, especially as they often think they’re being kind and doing the right thing.”
Mr Owers believes the simplicity of the visual scheme could work well, including as a good way to start a difficult conversation, and as it is better to prevent weight gain in the first place. He also believes it will link well with other charities’ weight-loss advice and initiatives.
“We recognise the scale and challenge of this epidemic and need to tackle it in different ways,” he added. “We know generally that fat shaming doesn’t work but supporting people to lose weight, or owners as their horses lose weight, in a positive manner, has to be the way forward.”
Helen Whitbread of Deben Valley Equine Veterinary Clinic in Suffolk, one of the nine practices running the pilot scheme, said: “This can be a difficult subject for clients to comprehend and anything that can raise owner awareness has to be a good thing. Obesity is a welfare challenge and it is important that owners know about laminitis risk as well as the many other detrimental health issues.
“Fat on the outside is matched by fat on the inside of the horse, around important organs such as the liver; people often don’t realise that. I hope this scheme will direct owners to look at a reliable source on the BEVA website and digest the information in their own time and realise we are here willing to help them.”
The pilot scheme will run for six months, after which changes may be made, taking vets’ feedback into account.
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