Wide Open Spaces: Horses Need More Space To Thrive
You might be surprised to learn that 500,000 horses are slaughtered across Europe every year, destined to become somebody’s food. It’s a practice that’s less-common, though not unknown in North America. Perhaps unsurprising, however, is that the living conditions for horses raised for meat are, generally speaking, quite poor.
There is ample evidence that animals confined in intensive farming systems are negatively affected by crowding. However, the authors of this article were the first to specifically examine the welfare of horses raised for meat. They were especially interested in how “stocking density,” or the amount of living space provided per horse, affected welfare.
The study was conducted at a large horse breeding farm with a sample of 561 horses. The researchers adapted the Animal Welfare Indicators (AWIN) protocol to assess horse welfare according to 4 principles and relevant indicators:
- Good feeding, including appropriate nutrition and the absence of prolonged thirst
- Good housing, including comfort around resting, thermal comfort, and ease of movement
- Good health, including the absence of injuries, absence of diseases, and absence of pain and pain induced by management procedures
- Appropriate behavior, including the expression of social behavior, and expression of other behaviors
The AWIN protocol is currently the only tool validated by the European Commission for assessing horse welfare. However, the authors note that it is intended to be used for adult horses (over 5 years old) and the average age for horses in this study was 16 months.
The researchers split the sample into two groups based on stocking density: low stocking density (≥ 3.95m2/horse) and high stocking density (≤ 3.95m2/horse). They found that the low stocking density group did significantly better than the high stocking density group for the following seven welfare indicators: space at the feeding area, body weight, coat cleanliness, bedding quantity, coughing, feeding behavior, and resting behavior. This analysis used the median stocking density seen on the farm (3.95m2/horse), and the authors also compared groups based on the 75th percentile stocking density.
The researchers created two groups based on the 75th percentile stocking density of 4.75m2/horse: low stocking density (≥4.75m2/horse) and high stocking density (≤4.75m2/horse). Similarly to the median stocking density groups, they found that the low stocking density group did significantly better than the high stocking density group on seven indicators: space at the feeding area, coat cleanliness, bedding quantity, mane condition, tail condition, feeding behavior, and resting behavior. However, they didn’t find any differences between the groups in terms of body weight or coughing. It’s interesting that comparing groups on either side of the 75th percentile showed differences in mane and tail conditions; the researchers didn’t see a difference when they compared mane and tail conditions on either side of the median stocking density (3.95m2/horse). This observation could mean that providing an additional 0.80m2/horse leads to significant improvements for this indicator.
Although the main takeaway from this study may seem like common sense — horses seem better off when they have more space — the reality is that assessing horse welfare is complex. This is the first study to investigate welfare specifically in horses destined for meat production. The authors point out three key categories of welfare indicators needed for a proper assessment: resource-based, management-based, and animal-based indicators. They emphasized stocking density and feeding management factors within their adapted version of the AWIN protocol to make it more relevant for horses raised on intensive breeding farms. However, they point out that future researchers should continue to adapt the protocol to include more emotional indicators. One of the main limitations of the current study is that the AWIN checklist could not effectively assess the emotional state of the horses.
In addition to the need for future research on horse welfare indicators, there is a pressing need to continue pushing for better conditions for farmed horses. According to the AWIN protocol, the minimum space needed per horse is 7m2/horse. None of the horses in this study were provided that amount of space, which severely limited their ability to eat, sleep, and express appropriate behaviors. The authors also note that horses prefer to simultaneously eat in groups while staying at least two meters away from each other. For the high stocking density group, the median space at the feeding area was 0.6m/horse, which does not allow them to express natural feeding behaviors. This could be one of the reasons why horses in the higher stocking density group were thinner than the low stocking density group. Finally, it’s notable that the researchers didn’t observe many expected natural behaviors in these horses (such as playing, mutual grooming, and sexual behavior). They think this lack of natural behaviors could be a sign of apathy triggered by an uncomfortable environment, suggesting that the horses are not thriving.
The bottom line of this study is that we need more research that looks into the welfare of horses raised for meat production, because it is still a new and unexplored area. Additionally, we need advocates to take up the issue and create guidelines for horse farms to protect their well-being. Although there isn’t a large evidence base yet, advocates could start with what they’ve learned from this study as a starting point: we need to push to increase the amount of space in housing enclosures and increase the feeding area for horses raised on intensive farms like these.