Getting people to develop empathy towards horses is crucial to getting better welfare outcomes, the head of a leading British equine charity says.
World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers says empathy can motivate change, encourage good management practices and ensure that any changes were sustained.
Owers made a presentation to last week’s British Equine Veterinary Association Congress, where he addressed issues around the prevention of suffering and the roles of welfare organisations in achieving that.
Often the animals were “loved”, he said, but their welfare needs and the impact of not fulfilling those needs were not completely understood by the owner.
Once there was an understanding of the issue and a drive or willingness to change, then advice on how to implement those changes was likely to be acted upon far more freely than it would be if the owner was simply told to make the same changes, he said.
Owers said welfare organisations could play a key part in this by engaging with owners in an appropriate way to bring about sustainable changes in behaviour.
There was also a need to consider the human welfare angle, he added, as many cases of potential suffering could be prevented by providing appropriate support to the owner.
“Physical and mental health problems, bereavement, redundancy and a multitude of other issues can negatively impact someone’s ability to care for their horse appropriately, however strong their desire to do so.”
Owers said welfare organisations had to recognise when a wider issue was at play and do their best to address it, as it was often the root cause of the difficulties.
For example, removing animals from someone displaying hoarding behaviour and seeking to prosecute them under animal welfare legislation may help the animals involved at the time. However, it was unlikely to prevent further suffering if the cause of the hoarding was left unaddressed.
The owner, he said, would simply repeat this with a different group of animals at the first opportunity.
Liaising with appropriate agencies and organisations to ensure the owner was cared for as well as the animals can be far more effective at preventing suffering, he said.
Owers said while welfare organisations were often known for picking up the pieces after situations had deteriorated, prevention of suffering was fundamental to their activities.
“Prevention of suffering requires an understanding of what suffering is and how it impacts on the animal’s overall welfare. It also involves the ability to positively influence the behaviour of those who can have an impact on animal welfare, including owners, keepers, policy makers, law enforcement and many others.
“Legislation plays a part, with the provision in the Animal Welfare Act to remove horses that are likely to suffer, not just those which already are. But without doubt education is the cornerstone of the prevention of suffering.”
Owers said that although deliberate cruelty did exist, inadvertent suffering was far more common.
Welfare organisations were well placed to understand the wider perspective on welfare, he said, and it was critical for welfare organisations to communicate this bigger picture to the equine sector so they could make an informed decision.
“For example, many owners would believe that breeding a foal or two in their lifetime would have little impact on the horse population as a whole.
“However, research has shown that collectively, twice as many foals are produced by people who will only breed one to five foals than by people who breed over 100 each.
“With far more horses currently in the UK than there are safe and knowledgeable homes, the whole sector needs to play a part in preventing unnecessary, irresponsible or indiscriminate breeding, which involves engaging with a wide variety of horse owners with an equally wide variety of motivations.”