New book: The Horse: A natural history

the horse book2

I’m proud, delighted and very pleased with my new recently published book, co-authored with Catrin Rutland, Associate Professor of Anatomy and Developmental Genetics at Nottingham Trent University.

An evolutionary, anatomical, behavioural and anthrozoological overview aimed at equine professionals, enthusiastic amateurs and undergraduates, it’s an easily-readable and accessible book that has been academically peer reviewed by Princeton University. Published by QuartoKnows/Ivy Press, “Ivy Press specialises in producing books that take innovative approaches to the subjects that you want to read about. The books are written by experts in their fields and designed to the very highest standards. Ivy Press produces titles that will inspire you…. books that will inform you, books that will expand your mind, and books that will stimulate you, however much you already know. Its bestselling non-fiction list includes titles on natural history, general reference, popular science….”.

“The Horse: A Natural History looks not only at the horse in the human context, but also at its own story, and at the way horses live and have lived both alongside people and independently. An initial chapter on Evolution & Development takes the reader from the tiny prehistoric Eohippus to modern-day Equus. Subsequent chapters on Anatomy & Biology and Society & Behavior offer a succinct explanation of equine anatomy, and outline the current thinking on horse behavior, incorporating information taken from the most recent research. Chapter 4, Horses & People, studies the part the horse has played in human history. Finally, a visually stunning gallery of breeds offers wonderful photographs alongside individual breed profiles. This is an essential addition to every horse enthusiast’s library.”

Amazon link here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Horse-natural-history-Debbie-Busby/dp/1782405658

Training – is it a choice?

Horse – health care treatment video

Some of you will know I’m not a fan of some of the purportedly “animal has choice” videos that are out there in the worlds of horse and dog training and management. I see many where the animal is being asked to do something frivolous, not beneficial to its wellbeing, and is clearly at/over threshold, aroused and/or finding the situation unpleasant, but stays around for the treats because they are so salient as species-specific biologically relevant stimuli.

Recently I watched a video (not the one linked here) where a horse being clipped stood like a little tin soldier whilst being “clicked and treated” (rewarded with food after the click of the marker signal); however an examination of the subtle signs of sympathetic arousal were indicators that the horse was in a negative emotional state, just as if he had been cross-tied to be clipped.

It’s ethically questionable to use a sufficiently salient positive stimulus operantly to coerce an animal into putting up with an aversive experience. The article linked below discusses this further with reference to humans. However, it is culturally normative for us to restrict other species both spatially and in terms of the opportunities we allow for the expression of behaviours on their natural ethogram. It comes to pass, therefore, that we need to engage in caregiving activities to maintain good physical and psychological health.

This video, link above, by horse trainer Melanie Watson is an example of good health care practice within a management and training paradigm that focuses on positive reinforcement and positive affect. The horse, Magic, is physically unrestrained and as Melanie observes, is sometimes at threshold because he does not find the washing a pleasant experience. His biological systems combine to express this externally by lifting his hind leg or swishing his tail. These are the early stage expressions of negative emotional state that have the potential to escalate into walking away (if free to do so) or fidgeting/biting/kicking (if physically restrained).

Something that Melanie has done, however, which wasn’t present in the other video I saw, is to have previously classically conditioned in her horse a positive emotional response to standing on the mat. This will have been achieved by many many repetitions in many different environmental contexts. This is what keeps Magic in place despite not loving the treatment he is receiving. The combination of the strong positive classical conditioning to the mat (think child + teddy at the dentist), plus the conditioned stimulus of the clicker and food rewards, and the psychological effects of selective attention, are sufficient for Magic to allow Melanie to continue washing him, yet he is still free to express any behavioural signs that he has reached a threshold where Melanie knows she may have to change what she’s doing, or give him a break. Their long interspecies relationship over time is part of this effect too.

I have also seen this method used by a colleague to trim the feet of an unhandleable pony, again using a previously classically conditioned “comfort” stimulus to elicit positive emotions.

https://mh.bmj.com/content/41/1/40

Caregiver responses to equine emotions

horse-head-2775082_1920 (1)

This study (link below) reflects an important stage in human behaviour change. Participants reported beliefs that horses have complex emotions including fear, pain and joy; however they also reported that they act towards their horses in ways that will cause psychologically negative emotions, despite stating that they wanted their horses to have a good life and avoid negative feelings. For example some of them knew that keeping a horse in social isolation or causing fear would lead to negative emotions, but they accepted this as part of domestic equine life.
“Some management practices that may cause negative emotions to horses are so common in the equestrian environment that people do not perceive them as causes of affective, emotional, or welfare problems for horses.”
What this says is that captive, managed horses are being kept in ways that represent poor emotional and physical welfare as a matter of course. To have this recognised from a scientifically evidential perspective adds weight to the transition towards a new paradigm in equine management. On the Transtheoretical model of behaviour change (five stages of change) this is an early stage, inviting and initiating contemplation which may lead to greater recognition of, and motivation to provide, the constituents of equine wellbeing.

https://thehorse.com/171321/horse-emotions-human-beliefs-and-how-they-drive-care/

Bestial Boredom

“Generalist (species) traits do correlate positively with boredom-relevant traits including neophilia and innovation at the species level… Further suggestive evidence comes from captivity, where it seems to be particularly neophilic, generalist species… that proactively seek – even aversive – stimulation in barren environments.”

I came across this very interesting article while researching neophilia in horses. Full article pdf available on Researchgate.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347217301811

UK dangerous dogs legislation fails to protect the public while harming animal welfare

My APBC clinical animal behaviourist colleague and erstwhile university lecturer David Ryan gave oral evidence in June to the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, as part of their inquiry into Dangerous Dogs: Breed Specific legislation. The report is published today and calls for a full-scale review of current dog control legislation and policy to better protect the public, recognising also the effect on dog welfare.
The report recommended better education about responsible dog ownership and staying safe around dogs, and crucially it highlighted the need to ensure that better education is not undermined by bad practices in private industry. The committee said the Government should investigate the impact of poor dog training practices, and it should consider *stricter regulations to ensure all trainers are properly accredited according to a standardised framework.*
The Committee recommended removal of the ban on transferring banned breeds to new owners. This ban was declared misguided, resulting as it did in the unnecessary destruction of good-tempered dogs that could have been safely re-homed.
The Committee also proposed an independent review into the factors behind dog aggression and attacks, and whether banned breeds pose an inherently greater threat. The robustness of the Government’s evidence base on Breed Specific Legislation was challenged, citing evidence that some legal breeds can pose just as great a risk to public safety as illegal breeds.
Any new dog control model should include early intervention and consistently robust sanctions, including mandatory dog awareness courses for owners involved in low to mid-level offences.
You can read the full report on David’s website:

https://www.dog-secrets.co.uk/dangerous-dogs-legislation-fails-to-protect-the-public-while-harming-animal-welfare/

Equine Behaviour in Mind

Applying behavioural science to the way we keep, work and care for horses. I’m very proud to have co-authored this book with a group of esteemed colleagues.


Intended for people who work with horses and for owners who want to learn more, Equine Behaviour in Mind provides ideas for practical ways that changes can be incorporated into daily interactions with horses. This book advocates a mindful approach to working with horses, encouraging the reader to think in a horse-centric way. Academic behavioural research is used to underpin understanding of horse behaviour and changes that can be made to positively improve horses’ lives. The aim is to provide both the theory behind behaviour-minded horse management and the practical application to enable impactful changes to be made. Real world examples and case studies are provided to highlight these points. Horse behaviour is discussed in a range of contexts, including breeding, training and competing. A behaviourally minded approach to teaching riding, to medical and dental check-ups, to rehabilitation and rescue, and to driving change for horse welfare in both developed and developing countries is also covered. Equine Behaviour in Mind will enable readers to think critically in an objective way about how they manage and work with their horses.

E-BARQ Equine Behaviour Assessment and Research Questionnaire

Horse owners! Can you help to develop a new and exciting equine behaviour questionnaire which will greatly advance our understanding of how training and management affect horse behaviour. This current questionnaire is a draft which will eventually turn into a final version due for wider release next March. There are already canine and feline versions of this assessment tool, designed to provide owners and professionals with standardised evaluations of temperament and behaviour, and the canine one particularly is well on its way to being recognised as the only behavioural assessment instrument of its kind to be extensively tested for reliability and validity on large samples of dogs of many breeds. This is what the E-BARQ aims to replicate for horses, and it would be great if you could help with its development at this early stage. Link to the survey below, should take about 30 minutes but you can save it and do it in stages.

https://www.kandooequine.com/p/e-barq

The animal welfare baby and the animal rights bathwater 

The chief executive of World Horse Welfare has called for a “social licence” between the wider public and the horse industry. Gone are the days when lay people deferred to “expert” horse people as to which practices were acceptable and which were not; today the pressure from other parts of society on the treatment of horses is increasing. To establish this social licence, equestrian bodies need to be honest and transparent and they need to take decisive action to eradicate anything that harms the welfare of the horse, WHW Chief Executive Roly Owers argued.

Mr Owers highlighted the unique horse-human partnership seen in equestrian competition, and the great respect in which equestrians held their equine athlete partners. He encouraged industry stakeholders to respond to public perceptions by actively engaging with people whose lives don’t revolve around horses in the same way, and by demonstrating excellent welfare practices, pointing out that welfare rules do exist within sporting bodies’ regulations and emphasising that these must be enforced, and must run the spread of the horse’s life from foaling to death.

However in some reports of Mr Owers’ speech there could be some confusion and generalisation about the motivations of “animal rights” activists. He is quoted as saying, “This growing movement to recognise the rights of animals is often conflated with animal welfare…………..But animal welfare is about improving conditions and treatment of animals, not seeking to ban their involvement with humans. There is a big difference.”

In my research and experience I have not found that all those who campaign for animal rights seek to ban all animals’ involvement with humans (though certainly a proportion may). Rather, many who might sit in this category are concerned that animals whose lives are managed by humans, be that on farms, in zoos, on free-roaming reserves, as sporting athletes or as companions, are allowed to exercise choice and indeed agency in psychological terms, and are able to express their species-specific behaviours with the frequency and intensity that their natural activity budgets determine. That’s certainly not a call for stopping all human-animal interaction,  and both those conditions are clearly articulated as desirable criteria in evaluating the “life worth living” or “good life” welfare standards called for in the Five Domains model (see link below, Mellor, D. J. (2016). Updating Animal Welfare Thinking: Moving beyond the “Five Freedoms” towards “A Life Worth Living.” Animals : An Open Access Journal from MDPI, 6(3), 21. http://doi.org/10.3390/ani603002)

To generalise all those concerned with what has come to be defined as animal rights, both popularly and as an ethical position in moral philosophy (see Peter Singer and Tom Regan), and to set this apart from a drive to improve animal welfare, may be to create an unhelpful dualism that all those who seek to improve the lot of animals might usefully consider transcending.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4810049/

Beyond “being nice”


Who doesn’t understand the confirmation bias? I mean really. It’s so basic, all undergrad Psychology second years are just so familiar with it. See what I did there? Read on… there is so much to like in the article below (click on the link to open it). It’s interesting to think about human behaviour change in the context of the many changes taking place in our understanding of domestic horses, how they feel and function.

Information about how our management and training affects our horses’ health and physiology is still generally more persuasive than information about how our decisions affect them emotionally, even though both are from equally valid and scientific sources and indeed overlap in their effects on a companion animal that we would prefer to be in good physical and mental working order for the various activities we like to enjoy with them. So for example most horse people understand the need for trickle feeding to the extent that this is essential to minimise the risk of colic or ulcers; fewer understand the horse’s essential need for the company of its own species, and I don’t mean across an electric tape or a stable partition. But both are fundamental needs which must be met to ensure good physical and mental health. They are not desirable but essential.

Does a horse’s mental health matter if all you want to do is ride? Some people would be mortified to think they were not doing everything they possibly could to keep their horse happy; others want a physically fit animal capable of performing at the levels they require of them. These two categories are not mutually exclusive!  Clients sometimes ask me why I recommend a treatment plan that emphasises pleasant experiences and avoids unpleasant, fearful or painful ones. I do this because retraining and rehabilitation by activating positive emotions has been found over and over again to be the most effective and risk-free way of changing unwanted behaviour. And this includes permament changes at neural level, right inside the animal’s brain. One of the significant risks of using other methods is the risk that the stress causes to your horse’s health, whether that’s through inflammation (skin conditions, puffy joints), immunosuppression (endocrine/metabolic dysfunction), accident or injury. A napping, rearing, bucking or aggressive horse is a risk to handler safety too of course.

So I wonder why so many horse owners still eschew their horses’ emotional wellbeing, whilst rightly paying so much attention to physical health? Could the confirmation bias be at play?

https://heleo.com/facts-dont-change-peoples-minds-heres/16242/