Empowering horse owners in poorer countries can help their animals – study

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A horse prepares to be loaded with bricks in India. Photo: © Manpreet Romana/The Brooke
A horse prepares to be loaded with bricks in India. Photo: © Manpreet Romana/The Brooke

The value of encouraging communities in poorer countries to take a leading hand in improving the welfare of their own working horses has proven its worth in a study centred on India.

Researchers have published their findings, based on a study that examined the welfare of working animals in 42 communities in and around the city of Jaipur, in the open-access journal, PLOS ONE.

Half of the communities joined a two-year participatory intervention programme and the other half were treated as the control group, with no such programme.

The programme involved the training of respected local community members to run voluntary meetings that participating horse owners were encouraged to attend.

These trained facilitators, who were selected by their own communities together with project staff, were trained over three sessions to run exercises and stimulate discussion during the meetings, which were held every one or two months.

The exercises explored equine husbandry needs, such as feeding and working practices, and identified actions that horse owners could take to meet their animals’ needs and reduce the risks for lameness and limb problems.

The British and Indian researchers, whose study was funded by The Brooke, the British-based charity that helps working animals around the world, wanted to see if the horses owned by those in the programme were better off after two years than those in the control group.

Helen Whay and her colleagues said working horses supported families in impoverished communities. However, lameness and limb abnormalities were highly prevalent in these animals and were a cause for welfare concern.

In all, 439 owners of 862 horses took part in the study.

The horses were given lameness examinations, based on 41 parameters, at the start of the study, after one year, and after two years. Results between the groups were then compared.

The researchers analysed the data gathered on the horses that were assessed on all three occasions, and had remained with the same owner throughout the two years. In all, there were 149 horses in this category – 83 in the programme group and 66 in the control group.

The horses whose owners were in the programme showed significantly greater improvement than the control horses across 20 lameness parameters, most notably in their overall lameness score, measures of sole pain, and the range of movement on limb flexion.

Control horses showed slight but significantly greater improvements in four parameters, including frog quality in fore and hindlimbs.

The researchers concluded that the programme succeeded in improving lameness and some limb abnormalities in working horses, by encouraging changes in management and work practices which were feasibly within their owners’ socioeconomic and environmental constraints.

“Demonstration of the potentially sustainable improvements achieved here should encourage further development of participatory intervention approaches to benefit humans and animals in other contexts,” they wrote.

The researchers noted that there were about 17.3 million horses in the 70 countries defined by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation as “low-income food-deficit countries”.

Most were used for draught or pack work to support the livelihoods of low-income owners.

Of the 149 horses that were assessed on all three occasions, a majority were engaged in ceremonial work – ridden by bridegrooms at weddings. The remaining horses either transported goods by cart, carried people by cart, were foals, or carried out other types of work.

The researchers noted that the most significant improvements among horses in the programme group were achieved in the first year, and then remained fairly constant or even deteriorated slightly in the second year.

Whay, from the University of Bristol in England, was joined in the research by Christine Reix, Jo Hockenhull and Richard Parker, from the same institution; Amit Dikshit, who is with Help in Suffering in Jaipur; Anindo Banerjee, from the Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices, in New Delhi; Charlotte Burn, of Britain’s Royal Veterinary College; and Joy Pritchard, from British-based Animals in International Development. Reix and Pritchard are also with The Brooke.

Reix CE, Dikshit AK, Hockenhull J, Parker RMA, Banerjee A, et al. (2015) A Two-Year Participatory Intervention Project with Owners to Reduce Lameness and Limb Abnormalities in Working Horses in Jaipur, India. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0124342. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0124342.

The full study can be read here

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