Being cruel or being kind? How do owners determine the happiness of their horses?

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Both positive and negative welfare outcomes can arise for horses when people attribute human-like characteristics to them, according to Australian researcher Kirrilly Thompson.

Thompson, a cultural anthropologist with the Appleton Institute for Behavioural Science at Central Queensland University, discussed equine welfare with delegates at the First International Conference on Human Behaviour Change for Animal Welfare held recently in England.

She raised the issue of people assigning human-like characteristics to animals, known as anthropomorphism, and how this could affect horse welfare.

Thompson, who specialises in the cultural dimensions of risk-perception and safety, especially around human-animal interactions, analysed data gathered in a 2011-2012 Australian Horse Industry Council online survey that drew responses from 512 Australians.

There were 38 questions, five of which invited open-ended responses.

Thompson concentrated her presentation on two of them, which asked participants how they subjectively evaluated whether their horse was happy and healthy, and whether its social and behavioural needs were being met.

Clearly, she said, horse people felt they were doing good things.

CQ University Associate Professor Kirrilly Thompson
Kirrilly Thompson

Thompson pulled four strands from the answers. Many individuals said they felt their horses were happy because they took them on outings and out to competitions. It seemed to be based on the idea that because humans liked to go out and meet new people, so too should a horse.

She said she was not about to point her finger at people anthropomorphising, because it could actually deliver good welfare outcomes. However, there were recognised stress and biosecurity issues arising from competitions.

Several survey participants thought their horse was happy because it got a lot of training and work.

The third theme centred on the idea of horses having company, with some respondents saying they believed their horse was happy because they spent a lot of time with it.

The fourth theme centred on owner’s belief that their horse was happy because it was doing what horses did in nature. However, did domestic horses have the same needs as wild horses, Thompson asked?

She said it would appear that the more people saw a horse as having similar social needs to a human, the more likely the welfare outcomes would be positive for the animal.

However, if people perceived high physiological similarities to themselves, there was a likelihood of lower welfare outcomes. She cited examples of people blanketing their horses because they themselves felt cold, or believing that because they liked nice bedding and a room to sleep, horses would too.

Anthropomorphism can have positive as well as negative outcomes, she told delegates.

Thompson is president elect of the Society for Risk Analysis and vice president of the Horse Federation of South Australia.

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