British Horse Society’s Welfare Conference 2016 – by Mariella Savage

On Thursday, 1st September 2016, I was very fortunate to have been invited to attend The British Horse Society’s Annual Welfare Conference as part of my role as the BHS’ Veterinary Student Champion. This year’s conference was held at Hartpury College, which was a fantastic venue. The conference this year was entitled ‘Stressed out? The Causes, Effects and Prevention of Stress in the Horse and Rider’.

The timetable included in our ‘goodybags’ provided by the BHS, showed a varied, interesting and busy day, which indeed it was. After a 9am registration, the day started at 9.15am with welcome and introduction talks by Lee Hackett, BHS Director of Policy and Dr Hayley Randle, this year’s Conference Chairman, before the first speaker of the day, Dr. Teresa Hollands, took to the stage.

Dr Hollands, who we as vet students are fortunate enough to have as our Senior Teaching Fellow in Nutrition at the University of Surrey, gave an engaging and formative talk, ‘Gut Instinct’, on the effects of stress on the digestive system in horses. This talk explained to the audience the importance of correct dietary management and the effects it has on not only the performance of the horse, but its mental and physiological health. Dr. Hollands also explained the often misunderstood concept of ‘heating’ vs ‘non heating’ feed types, the huge importance of forage and the crucial signs to look for in an overweight, and thus stressed horse. The volume of questions asked at the end of the talk showed the audience’s interest in the subject, which certainly gave a lot of food for thought!

Ben Hart, an expert in equine behaviour, then presented the audience with a different approach to equine stress, engaging with us by considering the effects of the environment on the wellbeing of a horse. Ben did this by comparing a stabled horse to one being stuck in an elevator. His light and humorous way of communicating, provided the audience with entertainment, although his message about the environment that we as humans unnaturally place our horses in, was an important one.

After a refreshment break, the talks resumed with Professor Natalie Waran, Jeanne Marchig Chair in Animal Welfare Education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Waran questioned whether it is always acceptable to train horses in a certain way, that being one that may cause conflict and confusion, thus stress. She interestingly mentioned that, ‘70% of horse related accidents are due to the behaviour and training of the horse’, which emphasises the importance on correct and minimally stressful training and handling of this species.

After a delicious lunch, Dr David Marlin explored the physiological benefits that stress can have on the equine body, known as “good” stress, which is necessary for bone and muscle to grow stronger and adapt in response to successful training. Dr Marlin also explained the fine balance between this “good” stress and “bad” stress, which may be seen in excessive or incorrect training, leading to strain and ultimately fracture.

Charlie Unwin then gave a very interesting talk which really appealed to all those in the audience who suffered with nerves when riding or competing. He concentrated on focusing the mentality of riders and instructors on acknowledging factors which may trigger their anxiety, and to focus on themselves and not on distractions around them. Charlie provided perfect examples and visuals to reinforce this. I will definitely use his advice when competing and coping with the pressure that my degree sometimes brings.

With Charlie’s talk finished, we all moved out of the lecture theatre to the fantastic indoor arena at Hartpury for the practical demonstration, led by Dr David Marlin. We watched two horses being put through all their paces while connected to heart rate monitors, which Dr. Marlin talked us through as he received the information wirelessly on his iPad. It was great to see the accuracy of the technology Dr. Marlin was so clearly passionate about, and the change in heart rate as each horse moved up his paces. It was a brilliant end to a very successful and interesting day.

As a vet student and keen competition rider, I took some very helpful information home with me from the conference from each speaker:

  1. Maintaining fibre is essential for ensuring correct gut homeostasis, even for laminitics. A decrease in fibre has been linked to an increase in cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone) which can lead to stereotypical behaviours, for example cribbing or weaving. Increased cortisol levels in the blood has also been linked to insulin resistance.
  2. Whilst the horse is now very much considered a domestic species, it is essential that the environment we create for them mimics their natural surroundings as much as possible to prevent unnecessary stress. This can be done by ensuring interaction with the same species, space and mental stimulation. Mental stimulation, for example toys and mirrors, are especially important if the horse is stabled frequently.
  3. As flight animals, horses learn to avoid stimuli when they are associated with something negative, for example pain. When training horses, it is essential to recognise fear or anxiety, in order to replace these experiences with positive ones, which will result in a more relaxed and safer horse.
  4. Exercise is a stress on the body. Overworking a horse has a negative effect on the horse mentally, physically and physiologically.
  5. As a rider, it is important to consider the reasons behind why you become nervous, and focus on mastery, rather than outcome.
  6. The REACT campaign, presented and launched by Professor Sarah Freeman from the University of Nottingham, is a fantastic aid for horse owners to recognise the initial signs of colic. I am looking forward to helping to raise awareness of the campaign and its importance through the Vet School at the University of Surrey.

Everyone I spoke to at the welfare conference agreed with me that the day had been a huge success, with every person in the audience leaving Hartpury armed with information to improve the welfare and reduce the stress of both their horses and themselves. A huge congratulations and thank you must go to the Welfare department at The British Horse Society for organising such a fantastic event, in particular to Emmeline Hannelly, BHS Welfare Education Officer, who worked tirelessly throughout the day.

BHS Welfare Conference speakersreact-launch