Horses used for veterinary teaching programs often experience repeated handing and treatment techniques by students who have had relatively little exposure to horses. Unfortunately, that’s becoming more common now than in the past.
A team of researchers from Massey University, in New Zealand, said statistics suggest fewer veterinary students than in the past have prior experience with horses before entering their degree programs. And that, the team said, could have welfare implications for the horses they’re learning from, as well as increased safety risks for the students themselves.
As a result, the researchers recently reviewed the challenges of working with horses in veterinary teaching programs and the potential consequences for human safety and equine welfare. They’ve also proposed a model for improvement.
Veterinary program administrators must realize “that most students are now from an urban environment and that there is a need to formally teach what was previously assumed to be prior animal handling knowledge,” said Gabriella Gronqvist, PhD, MSc, a postdoctoral fellow in equine science at Massey University’s Institute of Vet, Animal, and Biomedical Sciences.
Long-term, she added, the team hopes to “identify parameters which we can measure, such as how many times can you repeat a procedure, given that different activities or procedures all have varying levels of (welfare) cost to the horse. With these metrics, guidelines for horse use can be put in place to assist with the management and the rotation of the teaching horses with the different teaching activities in order to optimize welfare.”
In their study, the team proposed a conceptual model to optimize teaching horse welfare. Gronqvist and colleagues suggested veterinary students receive basic training in equine learning theory and ethology (animal behavior) very early in their education, before being exposed to teaching horses. Notably, they should recall the social needs of horses and understand that keeping a familiar horse nearby during a consultation can reduce stress as well as injury risk.
“A focus on this would be a great first step and would provide the most significant improvement in animal welfare in relation to the time and resources required,” she said.
Meanwhile, computer simulators could help teach students to recognize equine communication signals and learning behavior, Gronqvist said. However, no such equine-specific software exists currently.
Other simulators and dummies—such as Breeding Bonnie, the jugular vein puncture simulator, and the joint injection simulator—can allow students to practice their skills without compromising teaching horse welfare, she said. But after the students have mastered their skills on simulators, they will have to practice on live horses, where their handling techniques will be paramount.
“The model proposed in the study is only a first step toward better understanding the welfare needs of teaching horses in veterinary schools,” she said.
The study, “The Challenges of Using Horses for Practical Teaching Purposes in Veterinary Programmes,” including details on the proposed conceptual model for improvement, was published in Animals.