How the human-horse relationship affects our most important decisions *H&H Plus*

  • Two connected studies looked into the unique relationship between horses and humans, and how this affects decisions from purchase through to euthanasia. H&H speaks to the researchers to find out more

    THE unique nature of the human-horse relationship, from financial purchase to family member to euthanasia, has been explored in research that it is hoped will help all parties in future.

    A qualitative study on the influence of the human-horse bond on key events in equine lifetimes, and the follow-up cross-sectional research on buying and euthanasia decision-making, both funded by the Horse Trust, has been published in Vet Record.

    Principal author Sarah Freeman, a professor in veterinary surgery at the University of Nottingham, told H&H the initial study comprised in-depth interviews with owners. This raised issues that were then taken further, to the wider equestrian population.

    Prof Freeman said one finding of interest was that riders were good at asking for advice in some areas but less so in others, such as whether a horse they were considering buying was right for them, and the right price.

    “That’s definitely thought to be an area we can encourage people to have conversations in,” she said. “Many people will ask the vet if it’s healthy, but not whether it’s the right horse, at the right price. If it’s not, that can be a very difficult situation to extract yourself from.”

    Prof Freeman said the research found that many less experienced owners had “a real shock” when they found out how much keeping a horse costs, in money and time.

    “When you start asking people to add up everything, it’s clear it’s a major, major commitment,” she said. “The average annual cost was £9,215, but it went up to £14,000, and there was a perception of social pressure to buy everything and do everything. If you’re more experienced, you might know you don’t need this or that, but it can be really hard when you’re trying to be a ‘good owner’, and everyone’s pushing and marketing.”

    Prof Freeman said the team was aware in advance about how difficult it is to make decisions about euthanasia, but something that came out of the study was “responsibility grief”, when people feel guilty for putting a horse down.

    “Some people said they felt they’d murdered their horses, because they made that decision,” she said. “The horse-human relationship is a strange one because you buy a horse and it’s a financial decision, it becomes like a family member or best friend, and then you have to make that decision to euthanise it; no wonder it’s so traumatic for people. We spoke to amateurs and professionals, and thought for a pro with a string of horses it might be different, but it wasn’t; the guilt and grief was just the same.”

    Prof Freeman said the researchers were concerned about long-lasting guilt, especially when this affected future horse-buying. The team is now looking at shared decision-making models, where all the team involved with any horse can have a group discussion about its best interests, so the owner does not feel they have made the decision alone. The work is also taking in quality of life, to investigate whether end-of-life decisions are being made at the right time.

    “I’m really glad there’s more research into these areas,” she said. “I think how the horse-human relationship affects our decisions is really important.”

    Researcher Harriet Clough told H&H she was interested to find out how many respondents kept or planned to keep their horses for life.

    “So I was surprised by how many people didn’t really seek advice when buying horses,” she said. “They kept it to themselves, which is maybe a reflection of how personal a thing it is; it’s a lifestyle rather than a hobby. Many people who had lost their horses missed that lifestyle, as well as the horses themselves.”

    Ms Clough believes the shared decision-making model will be helpful, adding that some respondents said they felt judged for putting horses down.

    “There are lots of things we can do with this research, which is really exciting, and it’s good to get it out there,” she said.

    “I’d love to see people talking more about it; about how much it costs to keep horses, and the decisions they have to make, without feeling judged. These decisions are part and parcel of owning a horse and we should be able to talk about them.”

    Horse Trust head of research and policy Jan Rogers told H&H the charity funds research that is “directly applicable to the wellbeing of our own and, in fact, all horses”, and that it assesses industry priorities as well as scientific rigour in choosing the projects it funds.

    “Harriet Clough’s work identified some important decision-making points in horse ownership, purchase and euthanasia, both of which are pivotal for horse wellbeing,” she said.

    “That over 80% planned to keep the horse they bought for life makes it surprising that 38% didn’t seek advice before they bought that lifetime friend. How can we make it easier for people to access the advice that they may ultimately find could have helped?

    “This euthanasia project is important because it supports a previous study, Horses in our Hands, published in 2016 by Sue Horseman at the University of Bristol and funded by World Horse Welfare. This identified delay in euthanasia as a top welfare concern. Understanding the horse-human relationship and how vets can work with owners to support timely decision-making in the interests of horse wellbeing at end of life is one of the recommendations of this study.

    “This piece of research is now under way with many of the same researchers as a logical next step to help owners make good decisions at this difficult time.”

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