Lack of knowledge and financial constraints were perceived to be the root cause of poor horse welfare in Britain, in a study in which 31 equine stakeholders were interviewed in depth.
The racing industry and travellers’ horses were identified by respondents as areas of the equine industry where horse welfare was particularly vulnerable to compromise.
The study team, writing in the peer-reviewed open-access journal, PLOS ONE, said a large number of issues were identified, suggesting that prioritisation may be necessary to target research and resources effectively.
“Many of the problems identified by the interviewees have undergone limited scientific investigation, pointing to areas where further research is likely to be necessary for welfare improvement,” reported Susan Horseman, Henry Buller, Siobhan Mullan and Helen Whay.
The researchers noted that, despite growing concerns about horse welfare in Britain, there had been little surveillance of the welfare status of the horse population.
“Consequently we have limited knowledge of the range of welfare problems experienced by horses in Great Britain and the situations in which poor welfare occurs,” they said.
Thirty-one in-depth interviews were conducted with a cross -section of equine stakeholders in order to explore their perceptions of the welfare problems across Britain.
Problems relating to health, management, riding, and training were identified, including horses being under or overweight, stabling 24 hours a day, and the inappropriate use of training aids.
The interviewees also discussed broader contexts in which they perceived that welfare was compromised; for example where poor grazing was on offer.
Lack of knowledge and financial constraints were perceived to be the root cause of poor welfare by many interviewees, Horseman and her colleagues reported.
Estimates suggested that there were at least one million horses and ponies in Britain, the majority of which are kept for sport and leisure purposes, they noted.
In recent years concern had grown that the welfare of many of these horses may be suboptimal, the researchers said. Two consecutive reports, published collaboratively by the main Britain-based equine welfare charities, highlighted these concerns and outlined fears that the welfare charities would soon have insufficient resources to cope with the number of horses needing their help.
The researchers recruited 31 stakeholders across four distinct categories – equine health, riding/training, welfare charity/enforcement work, and leisure use. They were involved in a cross-section of disciplines, including leisure riding, showjumping, dressage, eventing and racing.
Face-to-face interviews were conducted with each of them.
The interviewees identified welfare concerns under three broad categories – health, management, and riding/training.
Health-related welfare problems raised by 10 or more of the interviewees were being underweight, poor foot care, being overweight, parasites, and laminitis. Health issues raised by fewer than 10 participants were dental problems, skin problems, lameness, metabolic diseases, musculoskeletal problems, strangles, genetic defects, foot abscesses, colic, dehydration and azoturia – a condition causing muscle cramp.
Management-related problems most commonly raised were 24-hour stabling, under-feeding, inappropriate rugging, lack of water, over-feeding, and social isolation. Those mentioned less frequently were incorrect feeding, tethering, inappropriate worming, not vaccinating, overclipping, over-stocking, and fly grazing (grazing horses on someone else’s land without permission).
The most commonly mentioned riding and training issues mentioned were inappropriate use of training aids (for example, whips and spurs), and poorly fitting tack. Those mentioned less frequently were breaking in horses too young, rollkur (hyperflexion), over-bitting, lack of clear aids, heavy-handed riding, unbalanced riders, over-working the animal, failure to warm-up the animal properly, and rapping in jumps training.
The researchers noted: “Whilst individual, discrete welfare problems, for example laminitis, were discussed by the interviewees in this study, they more frequently discussed broader contexts in which welfare may be compromised.
“These included contexts where horses are kept in unsuitable environments, where horses are ‘used’ inappropriately and where horses do not match the expectations of their owner/rider.
“Contexts where horses are transported were raised by 10 of the interviewees as a potential cause of poor welfare for horses in Great Britain.”
They continued: “Lack of knowledge and poor advice-seeking behaviour as root causes of the welfare problems experienced by horses were discussed by 27 and 16 interviewees respectively, suggesting that these are perceived to be the predominant causes of poor welfare in Great Britain.
“However, scientifically studying how caregiver knowledge impacts on welfare is highly problematic, as there is no gold standard way of assessing it.”
The noted, however, that lack of knowledge or awareness may not be the sole reason behind examples of poor welfare. They referred to a previous study which found that horse owners who had knowledge of management practices that supported good equine welfare did not always implement them, perhaps due to practical constraints.
Horseman SV, Buller H, Mullan S, Whay HR (2016) Current Welfare Problems Facing Horses in Great Britain as Identified by Equine Stakeholders. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0160269. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0160269