What’s in it for the horse? The question was posed by Dr Bidda Jones, chief scientist with Australia’s RSPCA, in a presentation to the recent Equitation Science Annual Conference at the University of Sydney.
» Article: What’s in it for the horse, asks scientist
What Dr Jones says about stabling:
“Indoor housing of horses presents them with a complete mismatch to their evolutionary history – wild horses do not live a solitary existence in an area of less than 16 square metres.
“In other industries, such as intensive farming, the isolation and confinement of social animals is grounds for raising serious concerns about the animals’ welfare.
“We know that stabling causes disruption of normal feeding patterns – resulting in both digestive and behavioral abnormalities.
“We know that stabling causes disruption of normal movement: In an open environment, horses are constantly moving and selectively grazing for most of the day.
“We know that stabling causes disruption of normal social interactions: which can lead to chronic social frustration and stereotypic behaviours not seen in free-roaming horses. Yet it is still ‘normal’ practice to singly house horses indoors.
“As Temple Grandin says, if you do something bad to animals often enough, it becomes normal. Well, we’ve been doing some bad things – like single housing – to horses for thousands of years, and they have become so ‘normal’ they’re almost invisible.”
What Dr Jones says about whip use in racing:
“There are two main arguments put forward about why whips are used: to make horses go faster and for rider safety. But concern about over-use or inappropriate use of whips has been around for many years.
“This quote comes from a 1991 Australian Senate report into racing: ‘The committee accepted the use of the whip as a guide or control, but could not condone … it to inflict pain on a horse for no other purpose than to make the horse run faster in what is essentially a sporting event.’
She continued: “And let’s just remind ourselves what a sporting event is – it’s something we do for recreation or diversion – for fun.
“This year, the Australian and New Zealand Racing Boards will follow the UK, India and the US in introducing changes to the use of the whip, including the mandatory use of padded whips.
“However, whips will still be used to strike horses to make them go faster.”
What Dr Jones says on jumps racing:
“There are only two states in Australia which still allow jumps racing. The season in Victoria starts on the first of March. By the beginning of May this year, five horses were dead: four at race meetings and one during a trial race. This is equivalent to one death every five races.
“Jumps racing has an average of one death every 140 starters, compared to one every 3500 starters in flat racing.
“The public outcry over these recent deaths was enormous – fuelled by pictures of the horses as they fell. As a result, Jumps racing was suspended on May 7. But it resumed again less than two weeks later with some minor changes to the layout of fences including removal of the ‘last’ jump.
“On June 20, another horse stumbled at the (new) last jump and was killed on the track. The public was reassured that this was not a preventable death, as it was caused by an error by the horse. Silly horse – apparently horses are very accident prone. Especially, it seems, when you make them run at 60kmh over fences.”
What Dr Jones says about competition in general:
“The nature of competition is to increase the level of challenge or difficulty, which comes into direct conflict with the concept of minimising suffering. Also, to be good at competition, you need to work harder and practice more often, which is likely to involve placing more demands on the horse.
“Competition inherently leads to horses being used for more and more strenuous or challenging events. It also places horses in more and more unfamiliar and stressful situations; means they have to be transported more often and on longer journeys, and places them in continually changing social groups.
“We need to ensure that increasing competition difficulty doesn’t mean increasing impact. The challenge is to keep up the level of difficulty without compromising the welfare of the horse – for example, relying more on the skill of the trainer and rider than making it harder for the horse.
“If elite competition is to be ethical and sustainable then it needs to be demonstrated that impacts are being recognised, and minimised.”
First published on Horsetalk.co.nz in July, 2009.
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