Researchers paint sobering picture of equine welfare challenges in poor regions

Four equines working together in India.
Four equines working together in India. © Brooke / Freya Dowson

The many challenges in getting long-term welfare gains for working horses, donkeys and mules are highlighted in a just-published study.

People working in the field across Africa, Asia and Latin America told researchers they faced many situations where improving equine welfare was difficult, expensive or marginal.

The study team, Joy Pritchard, Melissa Upjohn and Tamsin Hirson, explored such “no-win” situations with field staff working for international charity The Brooke, which strives to help working animals in poorer nations around the globe.

The trio later reframed such situations as “hard wins” – an acknowledgement that gains were still possible despite the difficult circumstances.

A brick kiln horse at work in India.
A brick kiln horse at work in India. © Brooke

The researchers, whose findings are reported this week in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, sought the views of Brooke staff working in 10 countries to identify these hard-win situations.

“Results showed that the prevalence, breadth and complexity of hard-win situations were all greater than initially expected,” the study team reported.

Reasons given for hard-win situations included:

  • No economic or social benefit from caring for working animals;
  • Poor resource availability;
  • Lack of empathy for working equids or their owners among wider stakeholders;
  • Deep-seated social issues, such as addiction or illegal working;
  • Areas with a high animal turnover or migratory human population;
  • A lack of community cooperation or cohesion; and
  • Unsafe areas where welfare interventions cannot be adequately supported.

Those questioned estimated the prevalence of hard-win situations as 40–70% of their work.

In the field, the rationale presented to animal owners is that better husbandry and empathy will improve welfare, which will in turn improve working ability; for example fewer days when the animal is sick, lame or cannot work at all.

An equine health care worker takes a look at a working donkey in Pakistan. 
An equine health care worker takes a look at a working donkey in Pakistan. © Brooke

Economic and wider livelihood benefits are seen as a key trigger to improve equine welfare and motivate owners to change harmful behaviour towards animals.

“Linking welfare to livelihoods is also thought to be vital when attempting to influence policy-makers and other key stakeholders which rarely recognise the value of working equids at either household and national levels,” the researchers said.

However, situations where there appears to be no clear link between improved equine welfare and simultaneous improved economics are challenging.

“An acute dilemma or trade-off between animal and human welfare may result,” they said. “These could be described as ‘no-win situations’ for the working partnership between animal and owner.”

Participants proposed several changes or improvements to approaches, including more investment in understanding people’s behaviour towards working animals so that programmes were designed to resolve underlying causes of poor welfare rather than symptoms.

They urged fewer formal advisory services or teaching/training events and more effort to allow owners to find their own solutions.

Some suggested that free or subsidised resources and services from non-governmental organisations may be contributing to a hand-out culture, although not all participants agreed with this.

Brooke’s organisational rationale for reducing free or subsidised services is that whilst free veterinary treatment engages owners rapidly in the short term, it may discourage them from making long-term changes to their husbandry and work practices.

Thousands of horses, donkeys and mules work in brick kilns across Central Asia. In India alone, 50,000 brick kilns produce 140 billion bricks annually. The Brooke works in several hundred kilns to improve the lives of the animals who toil in these harsh environments alongside their poor owners.
Thousands of horses, donkeys and mules work in brick kilns across Central Asia. © Brooke

It may also undermine or displace more sustainable, local animal health services and create a level of expectation among animal owners that cannot be met by the private sector at a later stage.

Brooke staff said systems needed to recognise and accept when interventions were not being effective and consider withdrawing if all other options have been exhausted.

“Some situations, such as poor security or very socially complex issues, may be too challenging for a single non-governmental organisation to address within its charitable remit, geographical boundaries or financial limits,” the researchers said.

“Respondents agreed that if equine welfare improvements are to span generations of animals, interventions cannot rely on relatively simple, technical knowledge-transfer strategies and quick-wins alone,” Upjohn and her colleagues wrote.

Programmes needed to be more flexible and less risk-averse in their approaches to embedding good equine welfare practices.

The survey was conducted in 2014 and the findings have since helped The Brooke reshape its programmes. It has changed roles and responsibilities to streamline its approach to hard-win situations in the complex situations in which working equids are found.

Pritchard, Upjohn and Hirson are all affiliated with The Brooke.

Pritchard J, Upjohn M, Hirson T (2018) Improving working equine welfare in ‘hard-win’ situations, where gains are difficult, expensive or marginal. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0191950.

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

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