Human-to-Horse Bonds Make Tough Decisions Tougher

Researchers explored the bonds people have with their horses and how that affects care, ownership change, and end-of-life decisions.
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Human-to-Horse Bonds Make Tough Decisions Tougher
Researchers found many owners sacrifice their dreams and goals to keep paying for a retired horse’s care because they can’t afford to take on a second horse after the first can no longer perform his job. | iStock.com
Best friend. Beloved family member. Buddy and confidante.

But sometimes also: bank account drainer.

Many people initially buy horses for the job they’ll perform. With time, they often become very bonded, which can lead to conundrums when faced with tough decisions about health, welfare, and finances, said Sarah Freeman, PhD, of the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham in Loughborough, Leicestershire, the U.K.

It’s the unique situation of the modern horse, and it can lead to challenging and emotionally charged decisions about health care, management, and especially euthanasia, Freeman said.

“The human-horse relationship is so complex, because you buy the horse to use for pleasure or to become a competition athlete,” she said. “But then people speak about the horse becoming part of the family. So you’ve got something that you buy and put a financial value on, and then that just changes. It’s almost like buying a member of your family.”

Dogs are usually acquired to be companions, whereas cattle, sheep, and other livestock are meant to fill production roles, said Freeman. “But horses end up being both of those things,” she said. “So how do you put a price on that? It’s a quite a strange conflict that we have with the horse.”

To explore the bonds people have with their horses and how that affects their decision-making processes, Freeman, her student Harriet Clough, BVM&S, and their fellow researchers conducted an online survey. Nearly 1,000 horse owners in the United Kingdom responded to questions about their relationships with their horses and how they approached decisions regarding their horses’ care, change of ownership, and end of life. They also performed one-on-one interviews with 11 of these owners to get more detailed information, particularly about purchasing and euthanasia decisions.

They found that 93% of the respondents considered their horse a family member, Freeman said. Most described considerable financial and monetary investments, and some said they spent more time with their horse than with other family members, including spouses. In certain cases people hid the related financial costs from loved ones.

The one-on-one interviews also highlighted critical themes in the horse-human relationship, including finances and time obligations, the importance of getting the right horse-human match, ensuring the horse’s quality of life, and strong emotions—grief, guilt, and a sense of duty—regarding end-of-life decisions.

The researchers noted the emotional conflict owners face becomes even more complex when the horse isn’t the right fit for the rider, but the rider has bonded with him anyway. It’s also a greater issue when the horse has health problems that are expensive to treat or that make him unfit for the work he was meant to do, she said. While euthanasia becomes a relatively clear choice for an animal that’s suffering, the decision is harder in other cases.

“In an ideal situation, we’d retire all our horses, and they’d all live out in the field happily until they were ready to be at the end of their life,” Freeman said. “But that isn’t an option for some people, and then that decision becomes very difficult.”

Not everyone can afford to pay for very expensive long-term care, she said. And many owners sacrifice their dreams and goals to keep paying for a retired horse’s care because they can’t afford to take on a second horse after the first can no longer perform his job.

“Horses cost a lot of money,” she said. “So you find yourself having to make the call of when this animal—who started as a purchase but has since become a friend and family member—is going to be euthanized. And you’re asking yourself, ‘At what point do I make that decision? Is that decision right? Is that decision fair?’ And even when the decision process is long, it can still lead to a lot of guilt.”

First-time owners were at particular risk of experiencing guilt and spending excessive amounts of money to treat injured or sick horses, because they felt like it was their responsibility to care for the family member regardless of cost, she said.

Moving forward, shared decision-making could help relieve guilt and help owners make difficult decisions when they have strong relationships with their horses, said Freeman.

“Shared decision-making is our ongoing project,” she said. “We are working on coming up with a model or a framework for owners to be able to talk with more people about decisions, so that they don’t internalize those feelings of guilt and regret and those conflicts about what to do. The idea is to give people a way to talk about those decisions while simultaneously helping them make the right ones.”

The study, “Qualitative study of the influence of horse-owner relationship during some key events within a horse’s lifetime,” was published in the March 2021 issue of Veterinary Record.

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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