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From racehorse to therapy horse: pioneering study into welfare of horses who help people

Press release issued: 6 September 2021

A new study will examine the selection, training and welfare of thoroughbred horses as they transition from racetrack to therapy horse. The pioneering project, led by academics at the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School in collaboration with Racing to Relate, will develop a recognised global welfare standard for former racehorses who are moving into Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT).

Thoroughbreds are recognised for their sensitivity and this project will provide a research-based approach to retraining them for therapy work. EAT careers could include work with a diverse group of people, from veterans and disabled children to those struggling with mental health issues. The research, which is funded by the John Pearce Foundation, is the first of its kind to study EAT across many countries and will look at practices in the UK, USA, France and Ireland, to understand the impact of EAT on the horses.

Claire Neveux, Bristol Vet School PhD student for the project, said: "I have worked with thoroughbreds for about 20 years, mainly with broodmares and young horses, and I have always been amazed by their high reactivity and sensitivity. I'm also fascinated by the human-horse relationship. I had a few opportunities to participate in Equine Assisted Therapy programmes as an intern during my graduate studies. That's why, when I met Jennifer Twomey from Racing to Relate, I took the opportunity to be part of this pioneering and collaborative project, and I'm thrilled to contribute to this research. I'm convinced that a better understanding of the thoroughbred personality traits and suitability of horses for EAT is essential for equine and human welfare."

The main aim of the research is to create a create a global standard for selection and training, to help the racing industry to improve welfare support for off-track racehorses going into a career in EAT. The research will help industry and stakeholders to improve Thoroughbred welfare through a successful transition to their new career in EAT.

Little research has been carried out on the welfare of horses within EAT programmes, and especially on the impact it may have on their wellbeing. In particular, this research will analyse the educational process for all horses within the EAT sector, to gain a clearer picture of why and how horses are selected for particular roles. The aim is to fully understand the current selection and training methods within the sector and identify specific characteristics of the thoroughbred, which are suited to a career in EAT. The study will also explore details of the life and routine of equines within EAT, examining existing perceptions and considerations of horse welfare.

Dr Mathilde Valenchon, Research Fellow at the Bristol Vet School and co-supervisor of the PhD project, added: "I am delighted we successfully developed this research project to understand and facilitate the involvement of ex-racehorses in EAT activities. I have been studying equine behaviour, cognition and welfare for the past 12 years. I have always been impressed by the thoroughbred's sensitivity and adaptability. I am thrilled to contribute to a better knowledge of their suitability for EAT and the development of standards, as this will significantly and positively impact the horses' welfare, as well as people’s. I am especially proud that our research includes the horse's perspective."

Dr Siobhan Mullan, Senior Research Fellow at Bristol Vet School, and co-supervisor of the PhD project, said: "Thoroughbred horses involved in EAT programmes are performing a really special and valuable role in society, and yet little formal research has been done to understand how to optimise their welfare throughout their transition from racehorse to therapy horse and in the course of their new career. I'm heartened by the interest around the world in using the results of our research to develop standards which will have a long-lasting impact on horse welfare."

Further information

Study at Bristol Veterinary School

The University of Bristol Veterinary School offers a range of undergraduate courses including:

The newly launched (September 2019) BVSc Veterinary Medicine: Accelerated Graduate Entry Programme for students with a relevant first degree

The five-year BVSc Veterinary Science degree

BSc Veterinary Nursing and Companion Animal Behaviour

In addition, postgraduate courses including:

The MSc Global Wildlife Health and Conservation;

Continuing professional development courses provided from leading research academics.

Based at Bristol's Langford Campus, Bristol Veterinary School boasts first-class clinical facilities and encompasses a small animal hospital, a dairy farm, diagnostic laboratories, farm animal and small animal practices.

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