If A Horse Could Talk, What Would They Ask Of Us?
Compared to animals raised for food, the subject of horse welfare has received far less attention. Horses fall into a gray area, classified as neither companion animals nor as animals used for food. While they’re still used in agriculture in some countries and regions, the developed world tends to employ them in racing and other competitions, as well as tourism, therapy, and forestry. They are also kept for leisure activities such as trail riding or trekking, and used as pack animals for camping and hunting. However, their dependence on human guardians leaves them vulnerable to a variety of welfare issues which fall into three broad categories: (1) the environment in which they are kept; (2) how they are treated by their human caregivers; and (3) their health.
Using the Delphi method, U.K. researchers sought to learn which equine welfare issues carry the highest priority. To do this, they first surveyed experts using online questionnaires. Data from this process provided a preliminary list of issues to be refined in an in-person workshop that included 19 participants. This group of experts was comprised of practicing veterinarians, academics, trainers, charity/NGO sector employees, and representatives of the equine industry.
The final list of issues was developed and prioritized as follows based on the severity and duration of horse suffering, as well as the number of animals affected, disease surveillance, and prevention:
- failure to euthanize old or sick horses to minimize suffering.
- lack of caregiver knowledge about proper care for horses, including an inability to recognize pain behaviors.
- fear or stress from use; and
- inappropriate or indiscriminate breeding.
- poorly fitting and/or restrictive tack.
- unstable social groups.
- poor feeding practices; and
- poor weaning methods.
The second item on the list, a lack of knowledge on the part of horse caregivers was an issue cited repeatedly at all stages of this study as well as in prior research. Indeed, other studies have documented failures to vaccinate or provide dental care, though these lapses may also result from financial constraints or historical practices of horse management. To be clear, horses need guardians who are familiar with equine health requirements, both physical and emotional. A lack of knowledge contributes to most of the items on this list. In particular, horses under the care of people who fail to recognize illness can suffer terribly. Rather than illness or debilitation, pain signals may instead be written off as bad behavior.
Another very prevalent welfare issue is the failure to euthanize horses in a timely manner. Uncontrollable pain results in needless suffering, which can be prevented if an animal’s life is ended humanely as soon as it becomes apparent that no further medical treatment will cure or correct a condition. As noted above, uninformed caregivers may not know when a horse has reached this point, or they may lack the financial means to pay for the service.
Horses may also suffer from poor training or use. The experts noted that guardians who have no formal education themselves in how to create desired behaviors, often do their own training. As a result, they may use aversive methods or tack (saddles, bridles, and bits, for example) that hurt the horse.
While horses may love oats and apples, they evolved to eat rough forage. Wild horses graze for many hours each day, taking in small amounts of food as they move along. Thus, keeping a horse stabled most of the time, even if they receive the right amount of food, runs counter to normal equine feeding practices. This can also lead to undesirable behaviors. And just as with humans, a large percentage of horses don’t eat a good diet. Studies in the U.K., Sweden, Italy, Germany, and the U.S. suggest that 25-45% of horses are overweight or obese. Excess weight in horses leads to diabetes and equine metabolic syndrome. Laminitis, a painful foot condition, is also linked to obesity and often results in euthanasia.
Furthermore, horses are social creatures. They need to be with others of their kind for emotional health. So here again, prolonged stabling, along with being continuously tethered, causes horses much suffering.
The results of this study can help to focus further research on the best ways to improve equine welfare. It also gives horse advocates a wealth of information they can use to craft education campaigns aimed at improving the lives of horses. It is apparent that many horse guardians lack basic knowledge about equine behavior and what it means. This could be an excellent place to start to better the lives of these magnificent animals.