You know your horse best andthat’s why researchers need you to help advance horse welfare

You read the articles about how scientists study horse behaviour, and you think, Why did they need to study that? I could have told them that.

Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe the scientists found that horses tend to behave in a way that’s totally the opposite of the way your horse behaves. And you think, Maybe they should know that.

Or, then again, maybe you’re fascinated by everything that these scientists are doing, and you find yourself asking, How does my horse’s behaviour and training compare to what other horses in the world are doing?

And then, you discovered E-BARQ.

Designed as a link between horse owners and horse researchers, the online Equine Behaviour Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ) brings real-world data to scientists while giving owners a practical way to track their horses’ progress. This “citizen science” project benefits people in the laboratories and in the barns, as well as horses in general, as it hones in on factors that affect equine welfare, according to Kate Fenner, PhD candidate at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

“It’s win-win for everyone,” Fenner said.

The E-BARQ platform, web-based or on a mobile app, allows horse owners to complete profiles of their horses and answer a series of questions about their horses’ training, management, and behaviour. Participants can update the profile every six months, revealing how the horse evolves over time. They can access graphs that show where their horse sits compared to other horses registered in the E-BARQ system, for individual criteria like trailer loading or social confidence, as well as graphs mapping their own horse’s unique progress. And meanwhile, researchers can take that data and apply it to their studies about horse behaviour and welfare, said Fenner.

“Looking at the individual graphs and then the profile as a whole, many owners are often pleasantly surprised to find that their horse is doing better than they thought,” she told Horses and People.

But filling out research surveys—even if it only takes 30 minutes once every six months—doesn’t seem to entice many people, despite the benefits to science. That’s why Fenner and her colleagues decided to test how attractive their E-BARQ platform was, and to find ways to make it more worthwhile to participants. “In order to have reliable data, we really need a strong base of participants,” she said. The “dog version” of E-BARQ, called C-BARQ (for “Canine”), has accumulated data on more than 85,000 dogs since its unveiling in 2005. That data has been used in more than 100 published scientific studies.

The research team asked nearly 800 academics, professionals, practitioners, and enthusiasts in the horse world to answer three simple questions about motivations and challenges related to data-driven research surveys. They realized that participants would be more likely to get engaged in E-BARQ if they could have incentives, like personalized feedback—hence the individual progress charts now included in the E-BARQ platform. The fact that users can click on these graphs and share them with their coach or within their chosen networks, provides an even greater incentive, Fenner said.

This investigative study also turned up an unexpected finding, Fenner added. Many respondents indicated (in the free-text section of the questionnaire) that they had a hard time getting reliable information about good behaviour and training science. Although many people read popular horse magazines and websites that give training and behaviour advice, readers don’t always have confidence in choosing the most reliable source since there’s so much conflicting information, she said. Furthermore, many coaches continue to train and advise based on outdated information without applying learning theory and other scientific knowledge, making it even more difficult for owners and riders to follow scientific recommendations.

Participation in E-BARQ could bridge that gap by connecting people at the grassroots of the horse industry with those accumulating and analysing the data in scientific laboratories, Fenner said.

“Data gathered from E-BARQ respondents—the people who know their horses better than anyone else—will help researchers identify and investigate those areas of horse training, management, and behaviour that are of greatest importance to owners,” she said. “This, together with ensuring that study results are accessible by those who need them, promises to benefit all stakeholders, particularly our most important one, the horse.”

This article is open access: The Development of a Novel Questionnaire Approach to the Investigation of Horse Training, Management, and Behaviour by Kate Fenner, Katherine Dashper, James Serpell, Andrew McLean, Cristina Wilkins, Mary Klinck, Bethany Wilson and Paul McGreevy and you can read it here.