Changing conversations to save equine lives *H&H Plus*

  • A new resource aimed at helping vets help owners in the fight against equine obesity covers how to get the most important conversation started. H&H speaks to those behind the initiative

    NEW resources for vets are aimed at helping practitioners have potentially difficult conversations about obesity with owners – which may help save horses’ lives.

    This latest weapon in the fight against the UK’s equine obesity epidemic, one of a number of resources available for vets on the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) website, is a collection of ways to bring up the issue of weight in a manner that will have the best effect.

    It sets out phrases a vet may say and what is meant by them, but also what an owner might understand. For example, if the vet says: “He looks like he’s been on the grass”, meaning “he is fat”, the owner may not realise this is a problem.

    The table was created by research associate Tamzin Furtado, who completed a PhD on management of equine obesity, focusing on horse-human relationships and human behaviour change.

    Dr Furtado told H&H she put it together after conversations with professionals including vets and farriers, who said obesity was a hard topic to introduce.

    “We did some focus groups with vets, who said it was easier not to bring it up as they knew it would be a nightmare, or owners wouldn’t listen, but owners had told me something different,” she said.

    “The owners said if the vet didn’t bring up a horse’s weight, they thought it must be fine. I wanted to highlight the mismatch; vets need to bring it up or many owners assume they’re happy.”

    All the phrases included as examples of how not to start the conversation have been said to owners, who highlighted their understanding of the comments to Dr Furtado. Others include “He’s at risk of laminitis while carrying this much weight”, meaning: “This is urgent, please act now”, but which the owner interpreted as “The vet’s mean; he’s always been like this”.

    Alternatives include asking owners what they think of their horses’ weight, or “blaming BEVA” by saying BEVA wants vets to condition-score horses, and “would you like us to go through that now?”

    Dr Furtado said getting owners involved in this way is key.

    “It’s an approach called motivational interviewing, used by GPs and developed in addiction counselling for humans,” she said. “There’s a massive evidence base behind it but in short, if you want people to change their behaviour, the best way is to empower them to find out their reasons for wanting to change; not to tell them, but to involve them in the conversation.”

    BEVA president Lucy Grieve told H&H the hope is that vets in general will be more proactive on obesity.

    “We identified that while we can be good at owner-bashing, vets can absolutely also be rubbish at saying, ‘Your horse is fat,’” she said. “If it was a cut leg, we’d say it as it was and hopefully do something about it, but because of the taboo around obesity, in every species, no one wants to talk about it.”

    Ms Grieve noted that there is no “one size fits all” solution; that many vets will be happy bringing up the subject, and that the reception will also vary between owners.

    She said one reason it can be a thorny subject is that it could be seen as criticism of the way an owner is caring for a horse, similarly to telling parents their children are overweight.

    “And if you say, ‘Your horse is fat’, it almost implies the owner doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” she said. “If you treat it like a common enemy, you can start the journey together.”

    Ms Grieve said so much of the battle is about people skills, and agreed that the best approach is involving owners and making it a team effort, as weight management is very challenging.

    “You don’t want to teach people to suck eggs but if the owner says, ‘He is a bit fat’, you can say, ‘Yes he is; what shall we do about it?’” she said.

    “Some vets are great at this but if we can give the others some more tools and tips, it might save a huge number of horses from suffering and pain. There’s so much we can do about obesity; we could have a real impact if we can just crack this nut.”

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