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U of M student's compassion adds dignity to horses' end of life and beyond

 

Woman riding a brown horse in the snow.
When she's not doing research and outreach for Extension, Hannah Lochner enjoys horseback riding. Photo by Shelley Paulson

Hannah Lochner completed her undergraduate degree in animal science at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities while interning with the University of Minnesota Extension livestock team. She’s now continuing her studies at the U as a graduate student in the same department and serving the Greater Minnesota community through Extension. 

Extension communications intern Will Macheel sat down with Hannah to learn more about the research and community outreach she does for the Extension equine team and the University of Minnesota.

Will: Why did you choose the University of Minnesota to study animal science?

Hannah: I grew up in Buffalo, Minn., and was an active member of the Willing Workers 4-H club in Delano. When the Leatherdale Equine Center first opened, my 4-H club’s horse project group decided to tour it. I’ve always had a passion for equines, starting riding lessons at a young age. After seeing the Leatherdale Center and meeting some of the veterinarians, I was inspired to study animal science, specifically equines. It was through that experience that I was determined to attend the U of M.

I took Krishona Martinson’s horse management class as an undergraduate. She is both a professor and an Extension specialist. There was an in-class portion and a practicum portion, where we had hands-on experience with the research horses. I loved the applied science and detailed work; we did a lot of forage sorting and weighing.

Krishona let me pursue an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, where I was partnered with one of her graduate students. Together we managed a research project on fly protectants (fly sprays, leggings, etc.) for adult horses, which I was able to present at the Undergraduate Research Symposium.  

Will: What research have you engaged in as a graduate student?

Hannah: We have a large community of horse owners in Minnesota. Recently, it’s been more difficult to dispose of horse remains after death. 

So, we’re exploring and demonstrating alternative options, focusing on composting. There’s an unfamiliarity regarding composting in the equine community; however, composting offers environmental and economic benefits and is a manageable option. 

Will: Why does horse composting matter beyond the scientific aspects?

Hannah: Outside of burial and rendering, Minnesota horse owners have limited carcass disposal options. Cremation is expensive and fewer and fewer renderers will accept chemically euthanized horses. In addition, burial may not be an option for horse owners because sites must meet certain criteria to prevent groundwater contamination. 

While not new, mortality composting is not a common practice for horse owners. Many owners are unfamiliar with the compost process, as well as its environmental and economic benefits.

Will: How has your research and work with Extension helped the Greater Minnesota community?

Hannah: We held our first field day in September, where we discussed euthanasia practices, how to construct a carcass compost pile and land application. We received a lot of positive feedback. We plan to have another field day in the spring when the first composting trial is over to show people how to use and apply the final compost product to fertilize fields. 

We’re also creating infographics, YouTube videos, a webinar and a six-week short course that discusses composting. Our goal is to educate horse owners and professionals on the process and benefits of composting. 

Will: What steps does Extension take to make sure the research on this end-of-life stage feels respectful for the horses and the families that loved them?

Hannah: All of us collaborating on this project understand the close relationship horse owners have with their horses and recognize the difficulty that comes with losing a horse. Several of us, including myself, have horses of our own, so this project hits close to home. 

Composting is a peaceful and respectful approach to managing a horse's remains. Composting naturally recycles the horse's remains and allows them to be returned to the earth to support new life. 

Through our research and education efforts we are helping horse owners better understand this process to help prepare them for end-of-life scenarios with their horses. Through our research, we manage the remains and lead discussions as if the horses in our project were our own. 

Will: How have scholarships supported your education and research?

Hannah: I’ve been fortunate enough in graduate school to be on an assistantship that was funded through the Rapid Agricultural Response Fund grant, a state legislative fund. 

The scholarships I received really helped me get through my undergraduate studies and focus on what was more important—education.

As an undergraduate, Hannah was a recipient of the CFANS Dean’s Scholarship (2017), the CFANS Agriculture Future Funds Scholarship (2016) and the Augustus L. Searle Scholarship (2015).

Will: What do you do in your spare time for fun?

Hannah: In my spare time, I like showing my horse with the Minnesota Pinto Horse Association, but also enjoy recreational horseback riding as well. One of my favorite state parks to trail ride at is Fort Ridgely State Park. 

When I am not studying or horseback riding, I’m likely on a traveling adventure. Visiting all of the national parks is on my bucket list and so far I have crossed 10 out of 61 off my list. 

Will: What advice would you give to someone who is new to the horse community in Minnesota?

Hannah: I think connecting with Extension is a really great option for those joining the horse community. The horse community is very diverse, and I think Extension has a way of bringing everyone together through research and education. We have a variety of programs for people to participate in. If you’re a young person, 4-H or FFA are also great ways to get involved. 

I started in 4-H in 2008 and was involved for about seven years. When I got my own horse, I participated in the horse project. That really opened up a whole new world for me, meeting other kids across the state that also have a passion for horses. 

 

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