When we consider the connections between human, equine and ecosystem health, a more holistic, integrated understanding of wellness emerges. The “One Health” approach is gaining momentum in veterinary medicine and beyond.
In a time of unprecedented environmental change, the interconnections between our health and that of our planet are becoming increasingly evident. This goes for our horses too. From extreme weather events to the emergence of infectious diseases like West Nile virus, the changes taking place on a local to global scale are impacting our horses and their well-being. One Health, a new way of thinking about the health of humans, animals and the Earth, can help get us back on the right track.
A shifting paradigm
One Health is an overarching concept and approach that’s grounded in the recognition that the health of people, animals and the environment all depend on one another. Traditionally, human healthcare, veterinary medicine and environmental sciences have all operated independently of each other. One Health bridges these diverse fields and seeks to foster communication and collaboration among them.
While the ideas behind One Health aren’t new, it’s an approach of growing importance in today’s world. This is because many factors – including population growth, increasing global travel and trade, climate change and pollution – are contributing to changing interactions among people, animals and ecosystems. This impacts the patterns of health and disease we see today. For example, infectious diseases – whether in people or horses – may travel quickly across regions and borders. Human activities impact the environment, which in turn impacts our health (think air pollution and respiratory issues, and the role trees play in absorbing C02 from the atmosphere).
We live in a web of intricate interconnections between all life forms. One Health recognizes this and facilitates a more holistic approach to health.
The One Health triad
The One Health approach recognizes the inherent interdependence of human, animal and environmental health. It calls for collaboration across many sectors, scientific disciplines, and communities of practice.
The horse-human connection
Horsepeople are no strangers to the ways in which human and equine health are connected. Time with our horses can produce a multitude of health benefits – from mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, to the physical activities of riding and working in and around the barn.
We live in a web of intricate connections between all life forms. One Health recognizes this and facilitates a more holistic approach to health.
We also know that horses can play a valuable role in a range of therapeutic settings. Equine-assisted therapies provide profound benefits for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, in prisoner rehabilitation programs, and for children and adults with learning or physical disabilities. In addition, many of these programs provide meaningful work and a good home for horses that might otherwise be at risk.
For example, researchers at UC Davis are exploring the benefits for both horses and humans of a program that uses equine-guided work for people living with dementia, and their caregivers. This study grew out of a collaboration between the UC Davis School of Medicine and The Connected Horse Project, as well as the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and Center for Equine Health.
Closer cooperation among human and veterinary medicine also facilitates advances through a One Health approach. Horses face a number of health issues that are similar enough to disease processes in people to provide valuable insights when novel treatments or genetic studies are explored. Equine arthritis, respiratory conditions and insulin resistance are just some examples where this is already happening. And the benefits can go both ways. The model for back pain in people, for instance, has been used to guide research on physiotherapy-based approaches for back issues in horses.
The spread of infectious diseases is another area where a One Health approach has much to offer – by providing a better understanding of the interactions at play, and by developing more effective prevention strategies. The study of diseases transmitted between animals and people (zoonoses) is bringing human and veterinary medicine together. Climate and environmental change can further the spread of infectious diseases by influencing wildlife and insect populations.
Lyme disease, transmitted through ticks carrying the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, is a primary example. Ticks normally go dormant in the winter, but a warming climate means ticks are active for longer periods of time. In addition, they are expanding their geographic range northward into regions where they hadn’t previously been present. These factors are contributing to an upward trend in Lyme disease cases in people and animals, both in the US and Canada. Environmental changes that impact the life-cycle of mosquitoes, as well as their interaction with birds infected with West Nile virus, have similar consequences for the incidence of West Nile virus in people and horses.
Globally, nearly three-quarters of emerging diseases are either zoonotic (animal-human transmitted) or vector-borne (e.g. by insects). This underscores the need for collaborative One Health approaches that span veterinary, medical and environmental fields of research and practice.
Horses and the environment
Healthy ecosystems that provide clean water, food and biological diversity are essential for the health of our horses. The way we manage our horses and farms, in turn, can have important implications for the health of the environment – both positive and negative.
Horse farms contribute to the amount of green space in our neighborhoods, providing important natural habitat for a range of plant, animal and healthy microbial species. Healthy pastures and soils can absorb water during heavy rains, lessening the runoff that can carry away soil, manure, and nutrients to nearby waterways. Trees provide natural shade and shelter for horses while helping to remove harmful C02 from the atmosphere. Time spent in these natural spaces has physical and mental health benefits for horse and human alike.
Healthy ecosystems that provide clean water, food and biological diversity are essential for the health of our horses.
However, horses produce a lot of manure, therefore it’s important that it be managed properly so it doesn’t become an environmental pollutant. Excess nutrients from manure that get carried away by rainwater runoff are harmful for freshwater ecosystems. Bacteria and parasites are also a concern, as are the medications or de-worming products horse manure and urine can contain. Vegetation buffers along waterways provide a natural solution by trapping and filtering these potential contaminants, while the roots of plants help stabilize the soil and prevent erosion. For farms with manure piles, a concrete storage pad with walls or other container can prevent leachate (the brownish liquid that seeps out of manure and bedding waste) from seeping into local ground or surface water sources. Avoid spreading manure on fields, frozen ground and areas close to waterways.
How to reduce your horse’s environmental hoof-print
- Ensure proper manure management.
- Protect waterways with natural buffers.
- Use refillable containers, and recycle to reduce plastics and other waste.
- Dispose of hazardous waste (e.g. old medications, paint, batteries) appropriately.
A shared responsibility
Taking care of the world we live in is a shared responsibility. The decisions we make today will shape the future we create for generations to come. Today, the need for an integrated, holistic approach to health – one that honors the interconnectedness of all life – is more important than ever.