Junior Year Research proposal:
Causes & Management of behavioral problems in therapy horses
I have been working at Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center in Woodinville, WA for over 8 years now as a volunteer, barn staff, intern and instructor. At Little Bit people with mental and physical disabilities come to ride their therapy horses and reap the numerous physical and mental benefits that accompany horseback riding. While this amazing therapy does wonders for disabled riders, it has some questionable effects on the welfare of the therapy horses. Many of the riders at Little Bit have impaired balance and motor coordination which can be uncomfortable on the horses' back and mouths. In addition the horses are handled by hundreds of people each month, all with varying degrees of horse handling knowledge...you can imagine how that would get a little stressful for them.
After spending so much time at Little Bit I began to notice patterns in the horses' behaviors-specifically increases in what I call stress and avoidance behaviors. I would see these behaviors (eg. head tossing, refusal to walk forward, nipping, tail swishing) all throughout the therapy session, but especially before, during and after the rider mounted their horse. Stress and avoidance behaviors not only indicate unhappiness in the horse, but also pose a large safety concern for riders and their volunteers (who lead and walk next to the horse).
I was lucky enough to bump shoulders with Dr. Robin Foster, an applied animal behaviorist and adjunct professor at the UW. With her help, I recorded the frequency of these behaviors during therapy sessions and designed a study that, using positive reinforcement through clicker training, would hopefully decrease the frequency of stress and avoidance behaviors displayed by the therapy horses during mounting. I've attached my research proposal below, and I consider it to be one of my proudest accomplishments! I learned a lot about how to design a scientific study (it's like a puzzle! so many pieces and variables that you have to take into account when writing your methods) as well as how to do a scientific literature review (I am way too familiar with online journal databases now). Most importantly, I actually enjoyed writing this paper and learned a lot about horse behavior in the process. This learning process has been profound enough to change how I interact with my horses on a daily basis; it has really opened my eyes to the importance of considering the horse's instinctual behaviors whenever I ask them to do a task.
Unfortunately, none of this research is actually going to happen...bummer right? After hundreds of hours of horse observation and proposal writing, Little Bit rejected my project, saying that they were concerned about the use of treats during training interfering with the horses behavior later in therapy sessions. While their concern is understandable, I don't think I was ever more frustrated or disappointed in my academic career than I was at that moment. All that work and the beautiful 30 page paper I wrote is going to waste. AND I had to design, write about and implement a whole new study in the next year if I was going to complete my Departmental Honors degree. I seriously considered dropping the program but I felt like I had a responsibility to these therapy horses, who give so much to help my fellow humans. So, Kelsey's horse research has continued but in a slightly different format. Check out my "Senior Year Reality" page to find out what I'm doing now!