At the 2013 International Large Animal Rescue Conference (ILARC) in Australia, Dr. Chris Riley of Massey University in New Zealand predicated his presentation with photos of injuries sustained by riders and students and asked a very difficult question to the audience: “What is the price of learning and love for animals? Should a student be willing to die for their work and learning?” 

The room full of veterinarians, students, and emergency responders at Roseworthy Campus of Adelaide University positively wiggled with whispers and nodding heads, the audience acknowledging that these things do happen. Risk assessment and management are a fundamental part of emergency response agencies, which normally consider a “near miss” event to be fundamental to changing standard operating procedures (SOP).

Many horse and vet types take a polar opposite approach--using the “red badge of courage” approach of experience gained through exposure and hopefully survival. Thus attitudes to equine-related incidents are often based on fear and risk aversion (especially at the corporate level) and may result in knee-jerk SOPS instead of evidence based concerns. This reliance on anecdotal evidence as to how dangerous it is to work around large animals has been spotty and commonly the expertise to stay out of danger is based on experience (which is unfortunately often associated with injury). When Roseworthy Campus was building their brand new equine clinical building at the veterinary school, which opening coincided with the ILAR conference, they took the chance to attempt to answer these questions, and Chris was a driver of this effort to design the school. He realized that large animal interest has been waning over the last 20 years or so, often because of concerns for safety centered around working with live large animals. He asked the question whether that was fair.

This research project came out of his efforts to find some concrete answers: Riley asked us, “How much training do people get to be able to drive a vehicle--versus the amount of training they get in actually handling horses and cattle?” When you think about it, obviously more people die in vehicle accidents than they do in large animal incidents, but there are still measureable numbers for both. He mentioned cutting edge methods used in various workplaces to increase safety (Example: the use of the Equichute for training jockeys).

The basis of his research was based on the SHELL model for aircraft safety affected by human factors in which he wanted to look at how human factors can improved. Chris, his student researcher Jess, and colleague Kirrilly Thompson used a survey to obtain information on the background equine experiences of veterinary and animal science students, and of horse-related injury during their studies. Of 260 students, 8% students reported horse-related injuries. The most commonly injured parts of the body were the foot or ankle, the upper leg or knee, and hands. Being trampled was associated with about 30% of injuries, and being kicked by a hind limb, 30% of injuries. The nature of the injuries reported was most often bruising (90%) or an open wound or laceration (17%). No treatment occurred for 60% of incidents; the rest of the injuries were self-managed.

The research showed that most incidents (>50%) occurred during program-related extramural placements for training in equine or farm animal husbandry. Injuries were attributed to inexperience on the part of the student, inattention by the student or the handler, and fear or aversion responses by the horse. Students were at risk of injury that is mild to moderate in severity. Although injury rates and severity were modest, a proactive approach to injury prevention is recommended for equine handling or veterinary education. Particular attention should be given to reviewing safety procedures during program-related extramural placements where students receive training off-campus, and accident and injury data should be monitored to ensure effective evaluation of risk-reduction initiatives.

Riley's long term goal is to make sure that the large animal careers maintain their status as a rewarding and sustainable career path for students moving into them. He has submitted this research for publication and I look forward to seeing the full treatment of their research soon. This presentation generated lively discussion with the groups represented after the presentation was complete, and all comers congratulated Riley for his cutting edge attitude towards this effort.

I am sure that many of you will have questions and be able to relate your stories similar to injuries of veterinarians and students by horses--please feel free to share them here. I personally have met equine veterinarians who have done this work for many years and had minimal injuries, but I also know several veterinarians that have a laundry list of horrific and small injuries to themselves and their staff members. 

The goal is not to bravely show off our injuries when we survive--it is to find better ways to keep ourselves safe and our staff members and students.  What are your ideas on this?