Can positive change be achieved on social media?

It starts with a photo, a horse looking withdrawn and depressed, or scared out of his mind, or starving to death, or getting his head yanked against his throat, or getting his nose cranked together with a noseband so tight it cuts into his skin and makes his mouth bleed. Then you get the description, with the explanation of where the photo was taken and how important it is to stop this sort of thing. And below that, you get the comments, and the comments, and the comments. Before you even read them, you know what they’re going to say—words like “horrible” and “scandalous”—and what they’ll include—like suggestions for prison sentences or even death threats.

Welcome to the critical world of social media…

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. And in fact, according to researchers at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, that’s just the wrong way to get change to happen. If we want to see change occur, they said, a positive approach is the better way to go.

“When it comes to human behaviour change, we really need to consider the potential of positive psychology,” said Elise Lofgren, PhD, research associate at Purdue. Lofgren presented her team’s work at the 14th Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) in Rome, Italy.

Lofgren and her fellow researchers decided to try a “positive approach” experiment with social media users. They asked 259 people to look at five sets of two descriptive scenarios, each representing one of the Five Domains Model of animal welfare assessment and monitoring (Nutrition, Environment, Health, Behaviour, and Mental State).

The participants were asked to choose which scenario was better for the horse. By focusing on which was better, instead of which was worse, the mentality shifted towards the positive instead of the negative, Lofgren said.

“With the positive approach, we can approach a situation with a constructive energy as opposed to destructive,” Lofgren said.

Their results showed that the vast majority (96%) of the respondents had at least five years of experience with horses, and almost as many (90%) were horse owners. About half kept horses at home, and 60% attended or participated in horse shows.

Respondents were heavily one-sided in their selections when it came to the Behaviour domain, Lofgren said. About 86% chose the same scenario as the most positive—the one that allowed more turnout and ability to express natural behaviours.

However, they were more divided when it came to the domains of Nutrition and Health. They were fairly evenly split in their selection of which one was the most positive.

Interestingly, a common theme among the social media respondents was a desire to just see the horse being permitted to “just be a horse,” according to Lofgren. “This really raises the question, ‘What is a happy horse?’” she said during her presentation. “They’re saying, ‘I want the horse to just be a horse,’ and it’s worth investigating now to get more explanations about what people actually mean by that.”

Overall, the use of the positive approach—encouraging people to debate on what’s better instead of what’s worse—shows strong promise in encouraging positive change for equine welfare, the researchers concluded. And that can have significant influence on the way discussions evolve (and the way people react) on social media platforms.

“When you approach an equine welfare situation with a positive, constructive, ‘I see what you are doing here, now how can we make this better?,’ we are coming from a place of improvement and empathy,” Lofgren told Horses and People. “The second that someone feels judged or threatened, that person shuts down and is no longer willing to engage in your feedback.

“The positive approach to human behaviour change in horse training and management boils down to also having the empathy and communication with each other as humans as much as the horses,” she continued.

“Encouraging more empathy towards the horses is important, because depending on what lens someone views this animal through (machinery, commodity, livestock, pet, friend), whether you agree with it or not, it’s their perspective. That’s especially true in the social media environment, when it seems that we are judging not just a snapshot of someone’s interaction with a horse, but the weight of their worth as a human in general.

“The negativity and judgement that pours into the comments section is certainly not productive and isn’t creating positive change or empathy. Promoting a positive approach and empathy in the delivery of our welfare concerns results in less pushback and more progress.”

This study was presented at the 14th International Equitation Science Conference in Rome. The abstract can be found in the proceedings.

Here are the horse welfare scenarios that participants had to choose from:

Scenario 1

a.  Horse A is 20 years old and is used in a lesson program and is ridden for five hours a day four days a week by children during lessons. When not being used for lessons, Horse A lives in a 5 acre pasture with 3 other horses. The pasture has one run-in shed, a round-bale, and water trough.

b.  Horse B is 10 years old and is in Grand Prix dressage training with the owner’s goal of becoming an international competitor. The horse has a personal groom, massage therapist, and chiropractor. Horse B is exercised regularly and is also put on the horse walker. When not working, the Horse B lives in a 14 foot by 16 foot stall with a window, but is not turned out due to concerns of injury and fading of his coat.

Scenario 2

a.    Horse C is 6 years old and is used as bucking stock for rodeo competitions. When not traveling to rodeos, Horse C lives on 50 acres of pasture with 20 other horses. Horse C is provided no additional grain nor hay, but has access to grass in the pasture. There are multiple water troughs, but no man-made shelters other than some areas shaded by trees.

b.    Horse D is 2 years old and is in futurity training to be a reining horse. Horse D is ridden 4 days a week and shows most weekends. When not working, Horse D lives in a 12 foot by 12 foot stall a stall and is turned out for 5-6 hours a day with one other horse.

Scenario 3

a.     Horse E is 8 years old and is an off-the-track Thoroughbred. Horse E is on the thin side with a body condition score of 3. Horse E is not being exercised currently, and lives in a 12 foot by 14 foot stall for half the day and is turned out in a dirt paddock with hay for the other part of the day. Horse E is being fed unlimited hay and a high-fat grain ration.

b.    Horse F is 16 years old and is a family trail horse. Horse F is on the fleshy side with a body condition score of 7. Horse F is ridden once or twice a week out on the trails, and lives in a pasture with full access to grass and a round bale. Horse F receives a handful of 12% grain twice a day.

Scenario 4

a.    Horse G is 10 years old and is a western pleasure horse. Horse G is competed regularly and is ridden 4 days a week. Horse G has some hock and coffin arthritis, and this is managed through injections twice a year, as well as a supplement. Horse G lives in a 14 foot by 14 foot stall and is turned out every other day for two to three hours in a dirt paddock.

b.    Horse H is 13 years old and is a hunter/jumper. Horse H is competed regularly by a teenager in the lower levels. Horse H has chronic navicular pain that ranges from moderate to occasionally severe, and this is managed with isoxuprine to assist with blood flow, and bute as needed. The bute used is in compliance with AQHA/USEF drug testing guidelines.  Horse H lives in a pasture with 2 other horses with access to grass and is also given flakes of hay from a round bale twice daily.

Scenario 5

a.    Horse I is a 2 year old that will eventually be used as an endurance horse. Horse I is learning to load onto the trailer and is reluctant to load. Horse I rears and pulls away from its handler when brought to the trailer and has yet to load successfully. When the Horse I resists loading, the handler is told by the trainer to back Horse I up quickly and then chase him in a tight circle, then try again.

b.    Horse J is a 4 year old saddle seat horse. Horse J is in training 5 days a week and is regularly trained on the long lines with resistance bands on its legs to enhance its gait. Horse J is always alert, energetic, and is a willing worker.

The study was presented at the 14th International Equitation Science Conference in Rome. The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) is a registered charity (UK) that aims to facilitate research into the training of horses to enhance horse welfare and improve the human-horse relationship. The 2019 International Equitation Science Conference will take place from Monday August 19th to Wednesday August 21st at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Click here to find out more.