A new method for equine performance assessment has been tested on vets. Conducted by Dr Sue Dyson, Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Centre for Equine Studies at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, the study assessed how accurately vets may be able to use an ethogram (1), developed by Dr Dyson, to assess pain in ridden horses. The participating vets collectively commended the value of the ethogram, which defines 24 ridden behaviours that may reflect pain and lameness.
The study was conducted at World Horse Welfare’s centre in Norfolk on July 21. 20 horse and rider combinations, together with a range of professional practitioners, who volunteered their time to support the study, which has the potential to transform the welfare of ridden horses.
Initially, the horses were assessed by Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT) physiotherapist, Jo Spear. The back was examined to check for any areas of muscle tightness or discomfort. Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) Saddle Fitter, Liz Suddaby, checked the fit, placement, balance and suitability of each horse’s saddle. The horses were then given a 15-minute ridden warm-up before executing an eight-minute purpose-designed dressage test.
During the dressage test, a team of 10 equine vets, selected from 40 volunteers, scored each horse for the presence of 24 behaviours that may reflect pain. The tests were filmed, so that Dr Dyson could make a comparison between her own real-time behaviour assessments and video analysis and so that the rider skill level could be scored retrospectively by Dr Anne Bondi BHSI.
The 10 equine vets, four men and six women, who varied in their years of experience, collectively said that it was one of the best days of continual professional development that they had ever had and that they would change their procedures for both pre-purchase examinations and investigations of either lameness or poor performance in the future.
Helen Whitbread of Deben Valley Equine Veterinary Clinic summarised: “This system is such a useful tool; most of the factors we were scoring were not a surprise, but by being able to quantify the pain in a way that a client can understand and relate to is priceless. Too often in the past, our suggestions that a horse is demonstrating abnormal ridden behaviour because of pain has been brushed aside as ‘it has always done that’. Now I can say, for example: ‘Yes, it has scored >8 and is therefore likely to have been in musculoskeletal pain the whole time you have owned it’.”
Dr Sue Dyson continued: “The behavioural differences between the lame and non-lame horses in the study were very apparent. I am currently cross-referencing analysis of the volunteers’ results with me as the Gold Standard. Early indications show that by giving vets a clear understanding of pain associated behaviour markers, they will be better able to recognise pain-related behaviour in ridden horses, which may reflect lameness, and to communicate potential performance problems more effectively with their clients.”
An overview of this study will be presented at the Saddle Research Trust Conference in December.
To find out more about the Saddle Research Trust Conference on Saturday, December 8 and to buy tickets, visit www.srt2018.com or call 07948 303281.
(1) Dyson, S, Berger, J, Ellis, A, Mullard, J. Development of an ethogram for a pain scoring system in ridden horses and its application to determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain. J Vet Behav: Clin Appl Res doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2017.10.008