What represents a welfare risk for horses? It’s not necessarily simple, study suggests

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Ignorance and financial reasons were identified by equine professionals as the key drivers behind potentially welfare-compromising situations for horses, a Canadian study has found.

Researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario explored the views of 14 professionals to learn more about their views on 12 scenarios with the potential to compromise the welfare of horses.

They were asked to score the scenarios on a scale of 0-5 based on the perceived severity of the welfare risk. They were also asked to justify their answers and explain what they thought might cause a person to put the horse in that situation.

The pool included at least one individual from the following groups: veterinarians, farriers, racing industry, certified equine massage therapist, equine dentists, certified equine riding coach, equine research, individuals with an equine-related post-secondary degree, and humane officers with experience in equine cruelty. They were chosen based on their industry certification and experience (at least 10 years).

The scenarios they considered were:

  1. A horse owner is looking to sell their horse. In order to ensure that he doesn’t get “marked up” by his pasture mates, his owner turns him out alone in a paddock where he can still see other horses but cannot interact with them, even over the fence.
  2. A horse owner takes their horse to a local horse show run by their uncle, where both the owner and their younger sibling will be competing. Their horse finishes the first class and seems to be limping. The owner gives their horse an oral analgesic so that their sibling can ride the horse in a class later the same day.
  3. A person owns a riding stable with several ponies. One spirited pony has been off work for several weeks and the owner wants to use him in a beginner’s lesson. They ask one of their more experienced riders to “tune him up” before the lesson.
  4. A horse owner notices their horse’s feet need trimming and decides to do it themselves, as they have watched their farrier do it many times before.
  5. A person’s horse is known for “mixing” her hay into her bedding every night. In order to stop this behaviour, her owner reduces the amount of hay she is given while she’s in her stall.
  6. A couple’s two children leave home for university. As they live on a farm, the couple decides to leave their children’s two horses on the back pasture instead of stabling them inside at night. They check on the horses every two to three days to ensure they have hay and water.
  7. A person’s horses stay outside all winter and often their water trough freezes over when the temperature drops. Their owner carries two buckets of warm water out to help thaw the troughs in the morning and evening, but otherwise does not provide additional water.
  8. A person boards horses at their hobby farm. A client brings a mare with a colt, and after assurances that he’s too young to breed, the hobby farm owner turns them out together with one of their mares. By the next spring, their mare gives birth to an unexpected foal.
  9. A riding school owner often takes their horses off-property to horse shows where they are ridden by students. On show days, the riding school owner gives their horses an injection because it “settles them down” for the inexperienced riders.
  10. A person has a young horse that they would like to be able to ride. They decide to start the horse under saddle by themselves after watching a YouTube series produced by a popular horse trainer.
  11. A person’s horse develops a career-ending injury during her final competition performance. The horse’s owner decides to retire her as a broodmare because they think she would make a wonderful mother. The mare is bred upon her return to the farm.
  12. A person thinks their horse has stomach ulcers. At the recommendation of their trainer, they give their horse 15 over-the-counter antacid pills (for humans) per day until her symptoms disappear.

The researchers, Cordelie DuBois, Helen Hambly-Odame, Derek Haley and Katrina Merkies, found that the duration of the situation and the extent of its consequences most greatly affected the scores given by the professionals.

Scenarios considered most serious by the equine professionals, with a median score of 4, were numbers 2 (oral painkillers to “mask” lameness), 7 (a frozen water trough in winter), and 12 (the use of human antacids for potential stomach ulcers). Scenarios 1 (isolating a horse for sale), 3 (“tuning up” a pony), and 8 (accidental breeding) received the lowest median scores.

However, a large variation in score values was seen across the 12 scenarios.

“Results from this study suggested that professionals were most sensitive to situations that had the potential to cause horses pain, which is likely to influence how they perceive and react to horses experiencing a state of poor welfare,” the study team reported in the open-access peer-reviewed journal Animals.

The wide range of scores showed the range of opinions, even among a relatively small group of equine professionals, they said. Their findings highlighted the complexity of perceptions of welfare at the situational level.

Despite the differences in scores, the professionals consistently reported ignorance and financial reasons as the motivators behind all the scenarios. Human convenience was also offered frequently as a factor.

Discussing their findings, the study team said there were several instances where one respondent would say welfare was severely compromised, while another would state that welfare was not compromised at all (a score of 0).

Only one scenario (masking lameness) did not receive any comments as being perceived as acceptable.

There were three instances where respondents indicated that the situation described was considered “common practice” and thus did not warrant intervention.

They noted that although “unwanted horses” was an issue of importance, the scenario that resulted in an unplanned horse birth received the lowest scores. Survey respondents indicated that it was not in and of itself “welfare-compromising” until the horse in question received the full effects of being “unwanted”.

Though half the scenarios contained some potential psychological distress, the case of the horse being isolated had the lowest median score in the study. Comments suggested some respondents believed this scenario to be short term, which may have reduced the score.

Many participants had indicated that the outcome of five scenarios was dependent on the skill of the person performing the action.

“No respondent cited willful abuse as a potential motivator behind the actions in any scenario.”

The study participants frequently justified a slight decrease in the welfare of the horse in exchange for a greater increase in areas such as human safety (for example, the scenario in which a horse is given a tranquilizing drug before competition).

“Of additional note, survey respondents commented on both the welfare implications and the ethical implications of several scenarios, which is a topic worth further investigation.”

An Exploration of Industry Expert Perception of Equine Welfare Using Vignettes
Cordelie DuBois, Helen Hambly-Odame, Derek B. Haley, and Katrina Merkies.
Animals 2017, 7(12), 102; doi:10.3390/ani7120102

The study, published under a Creative Commons License,  can be read here

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