Horse Rescue: Can Saving Injured Animals Be Harmful?
Despite their status as one of the most beloved animals in western culture, horses regularly have to be rescued from dangerous or challenging situations. In some cases it may be the keeper or caretaker responsible for the horse that attempts to disrupt or prevent the rescue; knowing what to do and how to treat rescued horses can likewise be challenging for rescue agencies, as they may only have brief insight into the life of the horse before the rescue. Compounding all of this is the fact that horse behavior is complicated and challenging to read, and that humans can easily act in ways that confuse, frustrate and frighten horses. Horses are animals that are learning all the time, even during rescue operations, and the rescuers may be setting up a “learning process that results in the horse being trained in some way,” whether they know it or not.
The purpose of this study was to look at horse rescue from a learning theory perspective, more deeply embedded in horse behavior, to try to evaluate how rescue practices may inadvertently affect horses and make their lives after rescue more difficult. In a thorough literature review, the authors looked at common horse rescue practices, the latest on horse learning theory and behavior, and welfare agency policies that might otherwise affect rescues. They found that there are a range of rescue practices that “may inadvertently trigger fear responses and behaviours indicative of conflict,” which can not only put people at risk, but also contribute to the horses learning behaviors that “require re-training at a later date.” While such effects may be especially dire for horses that are already under physical or psychological strain, they may also mean that otherwise healthy horses or ones that may have a good chance have a harder time being re-homed. To this end, welfare agencies need to continue to “develop their knowledge and skills, particularly with regards to the ethology of horses, their mental abilities and how they learn.”
For horse advocates, and especially those on the frontlines, this type of evaluation is crucial, and perhaps long overdue. Since rescue personnel are rarely the ones who are responsible for caring for horses post-rescue, this type of research can help to make sure rescues are done in a way that optimizes the chances of a good life for the horse in the long-term future.