Welfare impact of our lives with horses scrutinized in study

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It may one day be possible to map and score the impact that various management, training and competition activities have on horse welfare, according to researchers.

Owners and professionals interact with horses in many different ways, but to what degree do these various interventions affect welfare?

An international panel of 16 horse welfare professionals gathered to consider this question, and have described their findings in a paper published last week in the journal Animals.

“It is self-evident,” they said, “that all elective processes and interventions are undertaken for a reason.

“However, if we are to justify a procedure, we must establish that the reason is both good and sufficient. In some cases, we may question whether the procedure is even necessary.”

The panel collectively had expertise in psychology, equitation science, veterinary science, education, welfare, equestrian coaching, advocacy, and community engagement.

They assessed the perceived harm, if any, resulting from 116 interventions that are commonly applied to horses.

They individually assessed the impact of these interventions, then gathered for a four-day workshop to discuss and finalize their rankings. They assessed each intervention in relation to nutrition, behaviour, mental impact, adverse environments, and health – collectively known as the five domains.

The interventions were considered within a range of contexts – weaning; diet; housing; foundation training; ill-health and veterinary intervention, both medical and surgical; elective procedures; care procedures; restraint for management procedures; road transport; and competition activity, work activity, and breeding activity.

Each intervention was scored on a scale of 1–10, with higher scores indicating a greater adverse impact.

For weaning, abrupt individual weaning was scored as having the greatest adverse impact. The lowest scores were for natural weaning.

For diet, feeding 100% low-energy concentrate was scored as having the greatest adverse impact. “This was not because it was felt to have an adverse effect on nutrition, but rather because of its adverse effect on behaviour,” the researchers said. The lowest scores were for cut forage or varied pasture with choice of grazing and browsing.

© Lidingo CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For housing, the pre-workshop scores identified both outdoor tethering with no social contact and indoor tie stalls with no social contact as having the greatest adverse impacts. “During the workshop, indoor tie stalls with no social contact were assessed as having the greatest adverse impact.” The lowest scores were for living outdoors with full social contact.

For foundation training, the pre-workshop scores identified dropping a horse with ropes as having the greatest adverse impact. During the workshop, both dropping a horse with ropes and forced flexion were assessed as having the worst welfare impact.

Turning to ill-health that required medical intervention, long-term curative treatments were seen as having the greatest adverse impact, whereas short-term treatment was considered less harmful. The lowest ranked intervention assessed during the workshop was long-term palliative treatment.

Turning to surgical intervention, the researcher ranked major deep intracavity surgery as having the greatest adverse impact, scoring minor surgical interventions at the other end of the scale.

For elective procedures, castration without veterinary supervision scored highest, with hoof branding at the other end of the scale.

Triple Crown winner California Chrome sporting a tongue tie, as well as nasal strips. © Maryland GovPics - Flickr: 139th Preakness Stakes. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Triple Crown winner California Chrome sporting a tongue tie, as well as nasal strips. © Maryland GovPics – CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Looking at care procedures, tongue ties were scored as having the greatest adverse impact by participants both before and during the workshop. “Additionally, restrictive nosebands were scored as having an equally high adverse impact during the workshop assessment.” Low pre-workshop scores were given to wearing hoods, rugging, sheath cleaning, and trimming; while during the workshop low scores were given for deworming, hot shoeing, trimming, and whisker removal.

Examining restraint for management procedures, pre-workshop and workshop scores identified the ear twitch as having the greatest adverse effect. Pre-workshop scoring also identified the nose twitch in this regard. The restraint with the lowest score was leg-lifting.

Turning to road transport, pre-workshop scores identified both transport in a group with unfamiliar companions and individual transport as having the greatest impact in this context. Travelling in an individual pen accompanied by familiar individuals was given the lowest pre-workshop score. Road transport scored relatively highly for an adverse environment in comparison with other contexts, the researchers said.

Looking at competition, pre-workshop scores for adverse impact were highest for both jumps racing and polo whilst, at the workshop itself, jumps racing and Western performance were assessed as having the greatest impact. The competitive activity assessed as having the lowest adverse impact was trail riding.

Turning to work, the pre-workshop scoring exercise identified rodeo as the activity with the greatest adverse impact, whilst during the workshop, carriage and haulage work was considered to have the greatest adverse impact. The pre-workshop assessment rated the collection of urine from pregnant mares to have a low adverse impact, but this score increased markedly after workshop discussion. Stock work was given a low score.

The breeding assessment was divided into male and female categories.

For mares, in-hand mating was identified as having the greatest impact in pre-workshop scoring, whilst during the workshop, wet nursing during transition between foals was considered to have a far greater adverse impact.

For stallions, the experiences of teaser males and stallion in-hand matings were both rated most highly within this context. During the workshop, the experiences of teaser males were ranked as the greatest adverse impact within this category, with scores that were higher than during the pre-workshop assessment. Pasture mating was considered to have the least harmful impact.

The researchers said the aim of the project was to assess the potential harmful impacts of common interventions on horses.

“In future,” they said, “the assumptions presented here may lead to a scoring system that allows horse carers to map the impacts of various management, training, and competition activities on horse welfare.

“Furthermore, the basis of this model can be extended to other domestic and captive species (e.g., working elephants and camels) in order to provide a unique and perhaps more accurate and holistic assessment of welfare than previous approaches.”

The panelists came from Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, and the United States.

The study participants were listed as Paul McGreevy, Jeannine Berger, Nic de Brauwere, Orla Doherty, Anna Harrison, Julie Fiedler, Claudia Jones, Sue McDonnell, Andrew McLean, Lindsay Nakonechny, Christine Nicol, Liane Preshaw, Peter Thomson, Vicky Tzioumis, John Webster, Sarah Wolfensohn, James Yeates and Bidda Jones.

Using the Five Domains Model to Assess the Adverse Impacts of Husbandry, Veterinary, and Equitation Interventions on Horse Welfare
Paul McGreevy, Jeannine Berger, Nic de Brauwere, Orla Doherty, Anna Harrison, Julie Fiedler, Claudia Jones, Sue McDonnell, Andrew McLean, Lindsay Nakonechny, Christine Nicol, Liane Preshaw, Peter Thomson, Vicky Tzioumis, John Webster, Sarah Wolfensohn, James Yeates and Bidda Jones.
Animals (Basel) 2018, 8(3), 41; doi:10.3390/ani8030041

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

 

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One thought on “Welfare impact of our lives with horses scrutinized in study

  • April 18, 2018 at 3:26 am
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    Congratulations to the authors of this article and especially for the following two sentences. They wrote, “… if we are to justify a procedure, we must establish that the reason is both good and sufficient. In some cases, we may question whether the procedure is even necessary.”

    A procedure for welfare assessment that should be added to the intervention selection list is use of the bit. The link below provides access to what is, after 5000 years of bit usage, only the second batch of data to be published on this long-accepted but relatively unexamined intervention.

    Cook W.R. and Kibler, M. (2018): “Behavioural assessment of pain in 66 horses, with and without a bit.” Journal of Equine Veterinary Education. https://doi.org/10.1111/eve.12916

    Using the five domains model, the conclusion from this questionnaire-based study was that, when bitted, a 66-horse, non-random population showed marked to severe welfare compromise and no enhancement. This same population, when bit-free, showed low welfare compromise and mid-level enhancement. From a template of 69 behavioural signs of pain, the number of pain signals shown by each horse, first when bitted and then bit-free, was counted and compared. After mostly multiple years of bit usage, the time horses had been bit-free ranged from 1-1095 days (median 35). The number of pain signals exhibited by each horse when bitted ranged from 5-51 (median 23); when bit-free from 0-16 (median 2). The number of pain signals for the total population when bitted was 1575 and bit-free 208; an 87% reduction. Percentage reduction of each of 69 pain signals when bit-free, ranged from 43 -100 (median 87). The bit-free data was consistent with the ‘one-welfare’ objective of minimizing risk for the rider and preventing avoidable suffering for the horse.

    The only other bit/bit-free data yet published comes from an earlier study on four mature riding school horses (Cook and Mills, 2009). In two consecutive four-minute ridden tests, first bitted then bit-free, riders’ scores improved from an average of 37 (‘fairly bad’) when bitted to 64 (‘satisfactory’) when bit-free. This represented an average improvement – in the horses’ and riders’ first-ever bit-free four minutes – of 75%.

    Karl Popper (1902-1994), the philosopher of science, taught us that no amount of evidence in support of a hypothesis can prove it but one piece of evidence can disprove it. The statement that ‘all swans are white’ cannot be proved true by sighting 100 white swans but the sighting of one black swan proves it false. Note that were the statement true, it would be hard to prove it true. Vulnerability to falsification is a prerequisite for a scientific hypothesis. Accordingly, the statement I propose for testing is that ‘all bits are justified.’

    The fact that countless riders since the Bronze Age have used a bit does not justify the procedure. A study of 66 horses shows that use of a bit inflicts avoidable pain. On these grounds alone, its use is unjustifiable. Apart from the inhumanity of the procedure, infliction of pain handicaps a rider’s wish to control a horse, develop a horse’s trust, and successfully train a horse. Pain is an impediment to communication, increases risk and renders schooling less successful.

    One study on pain may not be considered sufficient, by itself, to overturn 5000 years of standard practice. However, the infliction of avoidable pain, albeit unintentionally, is still a definition of cruelty. Evidence of bit-induced pain is only the most recent piece of evidence indicting the bit that has been published in the last 20 years. It has been shown, for example that the bit
    • triggers digestive system reflexes in the exercising horse when respiratory reflexes should predominate
    • damages the jaw bone and causes dental erosion
    • is a cause of breathlessness and negative equine welfare (Mellor and Beausoleil 2017)
    • causes not less than 69 unwanted behaviors
    • is a safety hazard for both horse and rider
    • Is unnecessary

    Countless riders worldwide have, in the past 20 years, conducted their own ‘natural experiments’ by switching with advantage from bit to bit-free riding. The accumulated evidence indicting the bit is overwhelming.

    A cost/benefit analysis of the bitting procedure from the horse’s point of view sets the cost of pain, fear and difficulty in breathing against a complete absence of benefit. From the rider’s point of view, the risk of the procedure and the wastage it causes is not justified by the sole benefit, that it enables riders to compete in those disciplines for which a bit is mandated.

    I conclude that the statement ‘all bits are justified’ is untrue. Bitting a horse is a harmful intervention. Any reason for retaining a rule that mandates bit usage can, therefore, be neither good nor sufficient.

    References

    Cook, W.R. and Mills, D.S (2009): “Preliminary Study of Jointed Snaffle vs. Crossunder bitless bridles in four horses.” Equine Veterinary Journal. 41, 827-830

    Mellor, D.J. and Beausoleil, N.J. (2017) Equine welfare during exercise: An evaluation of breathing, breathlessness and bridles. Animals. 7, 41 https://doi.org/10.3390/ani.7060041

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