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Good welfare is more than a shiny coat

“These horses have a better life than most humans!  They have private grooms, the best tacks, the best bedding and the best feed. Stop attacking good owners! Why don't you spend your energy speaking up about REAL welfare issues.” This is the general response I get when raising any concerns regarding the equestrian ‘sport’ industry. Because in most people minds, as long as the horse is fed and have a shiny coat there is no welfare issue. But welfare goes further than that; both the physical and mental state of the animals must be considered.

What is welfare? 

Animal welfare refers to the physical and emotional health of animals. Animal welfare laws vary from country to country but in the United Kingdom, the primary legislation governing animal welfare is the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The act not only makes it a crime to be cruel to an animal it also states that any person responsible for an animal must meet its basic welfare needs. These welfare needs are based on the 5 freedoms which are:

 

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst – by providing access to water and an appropriate diet. 

  2. Freedom from discomfort – by providing a living environment that provide shelter from the heat and cold and a comfortable resting place.

  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease – by preventing injuries and providing rapid veterinary care when necessary.

  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour - by providing the proper facilities and management to allow the animal to act out the majority of his natural behaviours. 

  5. Freedom from fear and distress – by avoiding handling and management conditions that cause mental suffering.
     

These freedoms are, unfortunately for animals, not rights but tools used worldwide to access the welfare of various species and can be used by willing horse owners as a road map to improve their animal’s welfare.
 

Double standards

The first two freedoms are what most people consider to be welfare. And in developed countries, theses are most often taken care of, even if many times inappropriately. For example, many horses are fed too little forage and too much concentrate which can cause welfare issues such as stereotypies and gastric ulcerations (McGreevy et al., 1995; Luthersson et al., 2010)

 

People also consider the third freedom important but some may be biased on what they consider ‘acceptable’ pain or injury. For example they may react in anger at seeing an underweight Egyptian donkey with a broken leg due to being over worked but in the same breath say “It’s a tragedy but the horse has die doing what he loved.” when a competition horse breaks his leg at a cross country event.

Similarly, some individuals may find some level of fear and distress acceptable in one scenario but not in another. An underweight donkey pulling a cart in Egypt, being whipped by his uneducated owner who depend on the animal for survival is a horrible welfare issue, but a horse with a shiny coat being whipped after refusing a jump at a show is "just being corrected". The truth however is that both of these scenario are welfare issues. The first scenario being worst than the other in one aspect certainly does not eliminate the issues with the other scenario. We need to hold ourselves accountable and use our privileges (internet access, education etc.) to better ourselves for the sake of the animals in our care. We need to stop taking researchers findings as personal attacks but as an opportunity to improve our management and training methods.

Click on the video to be redirected to Youtube and get subtitles and language options. 

More of a visual learner?

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Noseband tightness is a welfare issue.

Researchers found that horses with tight

nosebands had higher heart rate, high eye

temperature and displayed post-inhibitory

responses (Fenner et al., 2016).