Huge equine welfare problems are caused across the globe by delayed euthanasia, the head of a leading horse charity says.
The chief executive of World Welfare, Roly Owers, says extreme examples can involve animals being abandoned and left to die over a period of days before eventually succumbing to starvation or dehydration.
The horse world needed to recognise the problem, Owers told delegates from around the world attending the FEI General Assembly in San Juan, Puerto Rico, today.
“This is clearly a highly sensitive and emotive matter, but we have to recognise that every horse owner has a responsibility to provide their horse with a good life, and a good death,” he said.
Owers outlined a range of euthanasia issues around the world.
“Available options for euthanasia can be very limited in some parts of the world – either through a lack of the necessary tools – such as appropriate firearms or drugs – or where veterinarians lack the necessary training, confidence or the status to perform the procedure.
“National law in some countries can significantly restrict euthanasia – for example, in many European countries horses cannot be put down except under the advice of a vet, and even here, sometimes this is not even allowed unless there is a real emergency.”
In some parts of the world the cost of euthanasia and disposal of the body can be prohibitive for many horse owners, which he said can delay the decision until there was a genuine emergency. “This can be especially relevant in societies that do not accept or do not allow equines to be slaughtered for human consumption.”
Owner attitudes to euthanasia can also be misplaced, delaying the necessary decision.
“For example, in the UK, preliminary data has shown that most horse owners presume their horse will die naturally, when the reality is that this happens in fewer than 9% of cases.
“And probably the most challenging issue here are the cultural and religious beliefs relating to euthanasia in many parts of the world. However, in our experience, handled carefully, acting in the best interests of the animal can often overcome this issue.”
Owers continued: “Where relevant, we need more accessible, more affordable solutions and a real change in attitude towards euthanasia. And most especially, despite the significant sensitivities, together, we need to be a strong voice to state unequivocally that an animal’s quality of life has to be the primary driver for making decisions around euthanasia.”
Owers revisited the question that he had asked of delegates last year – whether national federations were actively placing welfare at the heart of their strategies, and whether the status quo was being challenged enough when it came to improving horse welfare in sport.
“Because, while standards are already rightly high, keeping them high must be an ongoing, rigorous process if we are to do it right.
“It is so important that the FEI and federations lead and set the agenda here, rather than ever being perceived as reluctant followers.”
Ower said there had been some significant and positive developments in the last year, referring in particular to the current review of the part of the Dressage Stewards Manual that deals with training methods, and robust action taken by the FEI over endurance – a reference to the world governing body’s handling of welfare concerns centred on the United Arab Emirates.
“Everyone in this room understands that responsible horse sport dictates that the rules need to be enforced – rigorously, consistently and without fear or favour. That is the only way we can ensure public support for equestrian sport which by definition is truly the most amazing example of the horse-human partnership.”
Owers said perhaps the greatest challenge focused on how horses were cared for and managed on a day to day basis.
“For instance, I do think we have to question how some of our horses and ponies are kept in stables for most of their lives, with an often cited justification that this protects them from accidents in the field.
“Is this really the highest standard of horse welfare? We all know that horses need social contact and the freedom to just be horses.
“And with training methods, so much depends on the person doing the training.
“We must get the message across loud and clear that those training our horses must have the horse’s welfare at the top of their priority list. They should be consistent in their approach, avoid quick fixes and, above all, never be aggressive.
“This is obviously very difficult to monitor, behind the closed gates of the training yard, so the emphasis has to be on greater peer pressure and a zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour.”
Owers said equine obesity was a growing concern in some parts of the world.
“In competition, overweight and even obese horses are appearing more frequently in certain FEI and non-FEI disciplines.
“Outside of competition, the picture is even more alarming. This is madness and has massive equine welfare implications. The amount horses are fed should be commensurate with work, and outside of elite horse sport and most certainly in most leisure horses, their work simply isn’t that demanding.”
He talked of the high profile of the world’s elite sport horses.
“The real tragedy is that for the majority of the world’s horses nothing could be further from the truth – simply because they are invisible.
“They are invisible because people – governments, policy makers, regulators, academics, the public – cannot or choose not to see them: those horses that fuel emerging economies, those horses locked in barns to starve, those roughly handled in training yards, those transported in brutal and cramped trucks for slaughter and those who are left to languish in fields, deserts or livery yards uncared for and ignored.
“So many of the global challenges for equine welfare – from elite horse sport to world’s millions of working equines – are best solved through education.
“This is easier said than done – and without doubt we will achieve so much more by working together – in coalitions, in partnerships, in joint initiatives.”
He urged federations to work together towards that end. This is not a vague, sentimental invitation – my plea to you on the need for timely, effective euthanasia hopefully demonstrates that.
“It is extraordinary how we can better build relationships with our own governments and influencers when they better understand how our equestrian industries can improve economies, livelihoods and skills.”