A new study looks at how COVID-19 has affected horses —and their owners— and what it all means for vets. By Rob Johnson
Our leaders have been quick to realise you should never waste a crisis. This is as true for animal welfare as it is for human health (and political parties). While it appears COVID-19 hasn’t been a direct threat to animals, the unique situation of the global pandemic created an opportunity to get real-time data that can inform simple changes for animal welfare. During the height of the pandemic’s first wave, a group of academics did just that.
Associate head of School and Associate Professor of Equine Science in the Charles Sturt School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences Dr Hayley Randle joined UK researchers Dr David Marlin and Dr Jane Williams to survey horse owners in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand to investigate the varying effects of the pandemic. They found a genuine need for a single source of true information for horse owners around issues of biosecurity in all countries.
Also, “Horse owners in Australia have real concerns about both current and future shortages in feed and other things necessary for looking after their horses,” Dr Randle says. “They are also worried about access to horse care-related professionals, primarily vets and farriers, but also a wide range of other people who help to keep their horse going.”
According to Dr Randle, the trigger for their research was simple; “We thought, people can’t get to their horses, let’s research it. Hopefully we won’t get this opportunity again. But also, because Jane, David and I do a lot of welfare work as well, our thought process very quickly jumped from ‘we’ve got a problem’ to ‘how will this impact horse welfare?’”
She explains that often, people think of welfare only as health, without giving a lot of consideration to other elements that make up welfare as well. This then extends to the importance of services supplied by associated or emerging horse care professionals, as well as access to exercise and time with owners. “There was a massive concern about welfare, and it wasn’t just about the fact that owners can’t go and work with their pony or that they couldn’t compete. It was also about the fact that, ‘my horse needs me, and I can’t get to him’, or ‘if I can get to him, it’s only for a short time’.”
Their survey took place between 26 March and 1 April, just after the pandemic’s first peak and as developed economies were locking down. They received 11,500 responses from horse owners in the US mainly, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand.,
Many owners expressed concern about restricted access to their horse during lockdown. Social distancing guidelines often meant older or injured horses could only be seen at specific times (so services didn’t cross over). In New Zealand, farriers weren’t deemed an essential service, but as Jeremiah Bridges wrote as far back as 1751, “no foot, no horse”.
“One of the other areas causing concern was the availability of resources,” Dr Randle adds. “Particularly in Australia, on the back of drought, bushfires, and floods, the ability to buy hay and other feeds was already getting a bit worrying. So a lot of people were really worried about that.”
One finding that surprised her—but, she admits, perhaps shouldn’t have—was that many people were really worried about not getting their fix of being with their horse. “And that wasn’t just about riding, it was actually just spending time with them,” she says. “Time with the horses was quite a therapeutic thing for them. So they were saying things like, ‘I was really worried about my physical health and my mental health’.”
While respondents did report curtailing their activities with their horses, often if was to avoid the risk of injury and subsequent hospitalisation. No-one wanted to be in a hospital during the height of the surge—for fear of using up scarce resources, and of catching the virus themselves. But that behaviour also impacted horses.
“I think horses are very habitual creatures and disruptions to routines for some horses can be quite impactful. Obviously we didn’t assess horses directly in this study, we were only able to investigate the impact on the human and then potentially on the horse.”
Vets lead the way
While fears about access to veterinary services proved unfounded—Australian vets have been run off their feet since the lockdowns started—there are some opportunities for a better response next time around. And even the optimists among us expect that there will be a next time.
“One of the other messages,” she says, “is people were really feeling like they didn’t know where to go for advice. Organisations like Equestrian Australia were offering advice, small local groups were offering advice, but it was all based on each other. Whereas, the lack of a central government overview from an official body left a lot of people floundering.”
There is a role for vets in the dissemination of information, too, she says. “But that information would need to be produced for all practitioners, again from a central body. Because I think sometimes there’s always the opportunity of conflicting advice because you’re advising based on what you know. Certainly around here (central Western NSW), all of the vet practices were very good at communicating. I think that could probably be built on, perhaps with a bit more support.”
Such a central body could also encourage coordination between vets, paraprofessionals like farriers and emerging fields like horse physios to ensure optimum treatment for animals during such times of crisis. While that may happen informally here already, there is an opportunity to create a more formal structure based on clinical evidence with the vet at its centre. After all, one should never waste a crisis.