The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the well-being and livelihood of people of all walks of life. To determine its effect on horse owners and horse welfare specifically, a group of British, Australian, and U.S. researchers conducted a survey of more than 11,000 owners from late March to early April. Lead researcher and independent scientific consultant David Marlin, PhD, presented their findings at the International Society for Equitation Science’s virtual meeting in August.
The research team, which included Jane Williams, PhD, of Hartpury University; Hayley Randle, PhD, of Charles Sturt University; Shannon Pratt-Phillips, PhD, of North Carolina State University; and Jenna Kutzner-Mulligan, of Science Supplements, distributed the 17-question survey to North American, British, and Australian horse owners via social media. It included sections on owner demographics, horse management, equine facility management, owner interactions with their horses, and financial implications of the pandemic.
Marlin described some of the key results:
- Respondents who housed their horses at home felt that the pandemic had little to no effect on how their horses were kept, while owners of horses on full or partial board reported major impacts.
- Of U.K. respondents, 66% said they were still riding, 45% of which had constraints (e.g., when and where they could ride) imposed upon them. Many had adjusted their riding activities, such as not jumping or not working with young horses. Forty-four to 84% of North American owners were still riding, 28-37% with constraints. Australian respondents reported no real difference in their riding habits.
- Owners in the U.K. reported the strictest measures being taken by equine establishments; 41% were allowing essential visitors only.
- When asked if pandemic-related restrictions were affecting horse health, up to 60% of U.K. owners, 30% of North American owners, and 33% of Australian owners said yes. “It may be that in the U.K., veterinarians were required to moderate the horses and clients they were interacting with through government directions that were not yet present in North America and Australia,” said Marlin.
- Fifteen-22% of respondents said the pandemic had impacted their access to veterinarians and allied services, while 52-85% said it hadn’t yet but would soon.
- Thirty-three-45% of owners worried about their ongoing financial ability to provide for their horses’ essential needs. In the U.K., “there was a general worry about the pandemic’s broader impact on owner decision-making, horse welfare, relinquishments, and equestrian charities,” said Marlin.
Differences Between Countries
Horse owners from different countries reported varying areas of concern. Marlin said common themes among U.K. respondents were concerns about horse exercise and management, horse health, horse welfare, and human well-being. North American respondents were concerned about horse exercise and management, horse welfare, and personal (human) impact. Australian respondents had a wider range of themes, he said, including horse health and welfare; impact on horse owner mental and physical health; a need for clearer and more consistent guidance; current and ongoing access to veterinarians, farriers, and resources such as forage and feed; and the lack of parity to other open-air sports.
Marlin noted other similarities and differences between countries:
- Australia was more concerned about the future availability of feed, he said, which was not surprising given the recent drought and bush fires.
- The U.S. was concerned about human well-being and economics as well as restricted time with and lack of purpose for the horse.
- The U.K. was more concerned about risks associated with increased stabling (e.g., obesity, laminitis); peer pressure, especially via social media, to be seen to be doing the right thing; and the pandemic’s ongoing influence on equine welfare.
“The common themes we saw across all countries were horse health/welfare and horse owner well-being,” said Marlin. “The effect on people’s mental well-being is a theme in general that has become more prominent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Recommendations and Next Steps
Based on the information they collection, the researchers made a list of recommendations for the equine industry. Marlin said the industry needs:
- Simple guidance to support horse owners. “There are lots of myths going around,” he said, “such as you can catch COVID-19 from your horse.”
- Official, unambiguous guidance from the government as well as national governing bodies.
- Guidance on how to access financial support.
- Support for equestrian charities that are suffering a downturn of income.
- Social support networks to help equestrians support one another during a difficult time.
- Support for key workers to manage their horses.
“We have shared this data with government organizations and equine charities such as British Horse Society, World Horse Welfare, British Equine Veterinary Association, and other stakeholders who could use this information to understand and manage the potential impact of COVID19 on horse welfare and horse owners,” said Marlin.
The next step, he said, is to relaunch the survey to try to understand how owners’ positions have changed and what we need to be concerned about going forward as far as horse health and welfare.