Researchers around the world have teamed up to determine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on horse owners and their animals.

Using separate online surveys, the international research team is collecting qualitative and quantitative data to investigate the varying effects of the pandemic at different moments in time in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and United Kingdom.

The study is led by three world-renowned academics. Dr David Marlin, Adjunct Professor in Physiology at Oklahoma State University and Dr Jane Williams, Head of Research, Department of Animal and Agriculture at Hartpury University are studying the responses within the United States and the United Kingdom, while the Australian and New Zealand part of the study is led by Associate Head of School and Associate Professor of Equine Science in the Charles Sturt School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences Dr Hayley Randle.

The first survey measured reactions to factors such as whether owners were able to keep their horses at home or at agistment, whether owners could still visit their horses, whether horses could still be ridden, changes in services from vets, farriers, dentists, and ongoing and future costs.

1207 responses were collected in Australia (680) and New Zealand (527), between 30 March and 3 April.

The preliminary results have revealed concerns in four main areas:

  • horse activity within the industry (training, leisure riding, competing),
  • horse management,
  • health, horse welfare and
  • human well-being.

Before delving into more detail, it helps to place the preliminary results of the first survey of Australian and New Zealand horse owners within the context of the evolution of the pandemic in both countries.

Australia reported its first case of COVID-19 on 25 January and on 27 February, the prime minister activated the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan. During March, the number of daily confirmed cases increased, peaking at 460 new daily confirmed cases on 29 March. During March, restrictions were tightened but guidelines differed between states, with school closures and a nationwide ban on public gatherings announced on 29 March. Horse racing has continued uninterrupted (without public attendance) and, while equestrian events were being cancelled throughout March, it was on 1 April that Equestrian Australia announced a total suspension of activities.

New Zealand reported its first case of COVID-19 on 28 February and had already set up the National Health Coordination Centre in response to the outbreak one month earlier. All borders and entry ports were closed to non-residents on 19 March. On 21 March the government introduced a four-level alert system that was similar to the existing fire warning systems. On 25 March, New Zealand implemented a level 4 nationwide lockdown restricting all activities, asking that everyone stay home and act as if they had COVID-19.

Dr Hayley Randle says work is underway to publish the findings from the first survey and, while quantitative data are not available at this time, she was able to provide a summary of the Australian and New Zealand responses.

“Horse owners have real concerns about both current and future shortages in feed and other things necessary for looking after their horses. For Australians, this comes on top of a long drought and the devastating bushfires” Dr Randle said.

“They are also worried about access to horse care-related professionals, primarily vets and farriers, but also a wide range of other people who help to keep their horse going.” According to Dr Randle, New Zealand respondents were particularly concerned that at that time, farriers were not deemed an essential service.

An overwhelming number of Australian participants indicated they wanted a more consistent guide for what they could and could not do, such as interstate travel to care for horses or clarity around horse racing.  In contrast, New Zealand respondents were reasonably happy regarding guidance for what they should and should not do, however, they didn’t feel it was fair that other ‘fresh air’ sports were permitted whilst horse riding was not.

Australian horse owners were generally more concerned that financial implications of the pandemic will affect their ability to keep their horses than their New Zealand counterparts. This concern also extended to those running a horse-related business, and the general uncertainty may have also influenced a higher concern from Australians in regards to human mental health and wellbeing.

Respondents in both countries reported they were modifying their behaviour to comply with restrictions and reduce risk of hospitalisation.

“A lot of people have put themselves under self-imposed restrictions and stopped doing things such as riding young horses and jumping, because they considered these more risky,” Dr Randle said.

“Those who normally compete their horses were very worried about the loss of opportunities to do so and the impact that has on long-term horse fitness and also for resale value.”

Businesses and owners were concerned the financial implications of COVID-19 would impact decisions they make and affect their ability to keep their animals in the future.

In addition to the effect the pandemic has on the mental and physical health of horse owners, they also indicated they were worried the COVID-19 restrictions would impact horse health and welfare.

On a positive note, those horse owners that kept their horses at home felt relatively unaffected by restrictions and some were even thankful for the opportunity for more frequent and improved interactions with their animals.

“It is amazing how many people who are able to keep their horses at home expressed their gratitude for not their having access to them restricted due to the kinds of necessary social distancing measures being imposed in other places, such as agistments,” Dr Randle said.

The next survey for Australian and New Zealand horse owners will be issued on 30 July.