After the Ride is Over: Evaluating the Welfare of Carriage Horses
The use of carriage horses for tourism is one that has received a fair bit of media attention in the U.S., especially in cities such as New York, where many advocates have called for an outright ban on the practice. Elsewhere in the world, working horses still play a significant role in farming and supporting other livelihoods. According to a study from Chile, “in many countries, animal rights advocates are pushing for the ban of activities that involve working [carriage] horses, but […] there is scarce information on the welfare needs of this group of working horses, contrary to the available information on other types of working equids in developing countries.” Comparing carriage horses and other working horses is not a direct one-to-one comparison, as the animals face different welfare challenges based on the kind of work that they do and the environment they live in.
To try to come up with a more scientific assessment of carriage horse welfare, the researchers of this study sought to employ “objective physiological indicators” to better understand how much stress carriage work puts on horses, and how long it takes them to recover. They stress the importance of having “local data and when possible compare individuals with their own baselines.” The aim of the study overall was to assess the changes in physiological indicators of welfare of carriage horses, under real working conditions. The research provides somewhat inconclusive results, and the authors note that these conclusions should be “interpreted with caution.” While a good portion of the horses were able to recover to base values within ten minutes of a carriage ride, some were not. The researchers used these findings to conclude that the carriage horses have more or less adapted to their work, although even they note that they only assessed one welfare aspect related to physical status.
The results of the study are limited, and raise further questions. Firstly, doesn’t the evidence that some horses were unable to adapt to the work indicate that their treatment is unethical? Secondly, wouldn’t assessment of the psychological aspects of carriage horse work give a more holistic picture? Advocates for carriage horses have documented the unacceptable stresses these horses go through which needs to be properly examined for any strong conclusions to be drawn.