Monday, December 9, 2019

Obesity is arguably one of the biggest problems facing equine welfare in the UK. With growing concerns from our members, BEVA Council have come up with a new initiative hoped to make improvements and urge owners to take action. BEVA Vice President Lucy Grieve tells us more.

Earlier this year you worked with the Government’s “Nudge Unit”; can you tell us a bit more about what they are, what it involved and why you chose to do this? 

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is a think-tank set up by the Government in 2010, specialising in behavioural economics and psychology. David Mountford saw first-hand some examples of where their work had resulted in impressive changes, but also where well-intentioned actions had produced the opposite of the desired outcome. This inspired us to think about how we could use similar techniques in the fight against obesity. Members have for a very long time voiced their concerns about this ‘growing’ problem, yet despite all the best efforts of numerous equine welfare charities and campaigns, there seemed to be no tangible solution. So, we invited the BIT to hold a workshop on equine obesity with BEVA Council and some leading experts in the field. We were determined to not waste time reinventing the wheel of yet another owner-damning, body-condition-score-explaining, leaflet and social media campaign. The fact was that the information was already out there in the most wonderful formats thanks to those charities and research bodies who had produced them... the question was, why were owners not listening and acting?

So, what’s was the next step?

The BIT workshop was really thought-provoking and challenging. Our training led to the formation of a small working group which revisited the technique, considering the existing challenges all parties involved with a horse were facing, and produced several possible ideas with which we could move forward. The most convincing proposal we came up with, which could be affected by vets themselves, was to utilise the annual (or now more frequent!) vaccination visit as a time to assess a horse’s body condition score. We came up with the idea of using a traffic light colour system of vaccination reminder stickers, which could then be stuck to the front of the passport with the objective of genuinely reminding the owner of when the next vaccination is due, but with additional information on whether their horse was a ‘healthy’ body condition (green), carrying too much fat tissue and therefore needing to effect moderate changes to the diet and exercise (amber), or carrying excessive amounts of fat tissue which were placing the horse in morbid danger (red). Whether or not the owner was receptive to discussing the matter with the attending vet, there would be a QR code on each sticker which the owner could follow using their smartphone. This will lead to three associated short videos explaining the reason their horse has been designated the colour of sticker on their passport, and this in turn would end with a link to more specific advice on what the owner needs to do next.

What impact do you hope the stickers will have?

Given that there seems to be a significant issue with owners and carers (and judges) failing even to recognise when a horse is overweight, we felt that this was an obvious, and critical, step to overcome. Unless an owner accepts that their horse is overweight, they won’t come on board and, only once you have an owner on board, are they likely to be determined and committed enough to carry out the often gruelling task of dieting their horse. There can be a multitude of factors colliding to create the perfect storm, which rapidly escalates out of control and into often-threatening disease states. The hope is that owners will be ‘nudged’ by the sticker intervention to consider the information they have been offered.

How is this project being launched?

The BIT advise that any interventions are properly tested before being rolled out. Therefore, we’ll shortly be launching a pilot project with a range of practices. After six months we’ll look at how it worked for the vets involved, what proportion of owners used the QR codes, visited the advice pages and sought guidance from their vets.  It’s important that we remember that the success of this project will be measured by assessing whether the stickers resulted in more owners recognising that their horse is overweight not by the number of kilograms lost (that’s further down the line).  Hopefully we’ll see some success and, having tweaked the intervention based on the feedback we receive, we can push the project out across the membership.

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