Horse owners in Australia believe the social and behavioural needs of their horses are being met largely through access to pasture and equine companionship, the findings of a survey suggest.
A national online survey in 2012 and 2013 included two questions aimed at better understanding how Australian horse owners and carers determine the health and wellbeing of their horses. It was clear that horse owners valued their horses being kept at pasture and having company, even if that company was over a fence.
Asked how their horses’ wellbeing could be further improved, owners suggested more company, more paddock time, and larger paddocks.
The findings have been published online in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour.
Independent research consultant Kirrilly Thompson and Larissa Clarkson, with the Australian College of Applied Psychology, said the health and wellbeing of domestic horses was a direct outcome of human action and inaction.
“Horse owners and carers are responsible for judging the health and welfare status of animals in their care, deciding if and when professional advice should be sought and following any recommendations for treatment.”
An understanding of how horse owners determine the health, welfare and well-being of their animals was therefore essential for promoting quality care.
The online survey resulted in responses from 505 horse owners, about 90 percent of whom addressed the welfare-related questions.
One open-ended question asked how they believed that their horse’s social and behavioural needs were met. The top three responses were:
- The provision of unmediated company with another horse (59% of respondents);
- The fact they lived in a paddock (36%); and
- Having mediated contact with another horse (24%).
When asked what improvements could be made, the top three areas included:
- Providing company/more company (46%);
- Spending more time in a paddock situation (15%); or
- More or improved training (11%).
Some horse owners considered horse wellbeing was enhanced by competitions and outings; training and work; interaction with humans; and experiences that would typically occur “in nature”.
In some instances, interpreting horses as being ‘like’ humans motivated horse-keeping practices largely considered positive, such as providing equine companionship.
“However, there were instances where interpreting horses as being ‘like’ humans motivated practices considered negative or stressful (such as training and outings),” the pair said.
Some owners believed that work and training helped meet the behavioral and social needs of their horses. Work was seen as important to mental stimulation.
Routine and consistency in work appeared to be important to participants.
Some valued outings for their provision of stimulation to horses.
It was clear that many respondents placed value on human interactions in boosting the well-being of their horses.
Thompson and Clarkson noted that some of the answers raised the spectre of anthropomorphism – the attribution of human characteristics to non-humans.
They noted that the key reasons given for believing that the health of well-being requirements of their horses were being met – contact with other horses and access to paddocks – aligned to some degree with the Five Freedoms framework for analysing animal welfare.
However, they did not seem to reflect the other key planks – freedom from pain, injury or disease, and freedom from fear and distress.
“Nonetheless, the absence of evidence for these concepts in an open-ended question cannot be taken to imply their unimportance to participants,” Thompson and Clarkson said.
The pair noted that anthropomorphism is often considered erroneous, unscientific, or a threat to animal welfare. “However, rather than being considered as the misguided assertion that non-humans can be like humans, anthropomorphism should be taken as an acknowledgment of doubt that non-humans cannot be like humans.
“That is, we don’t know if a horse enjoys interacting with humans, going on outings or socialising the same way humans do, but neither can we say that they do not.
“Thinking that horses (like humans) need outings, work and interactions with humans to have their social and behavioral needs met might be considered anthropomorphic.
“However, it is humans who are responsible for the social and behavioral well-being of domestic horses, and with whom horses co-create a shared interspecies existence.”
Humans and horses shared much in common, experiencing the world through the same senses.
“It seems somewhat short-sighted to judge instances of anthropomorphism as necessarily ‘wrong’, ‘bad’ or incongruent with animal welfare.”
The pair suggest that further research is required to determine how anthropomorphism might be used to improve horse welfare and well-being through education and communication.
However, such interventions would need to be carefully developed and rigorously tested to evaluate their usefulness and ensure there were no unintended consequences.
Thompson told Horsetalk: “For me, the take-home message about anthropomorphism is that in many ways horses are like humans but in many other ways horses are not and we need to start talking about the similarities and the differences rather than just poo-pooing anthropomorphism.
“The take-home message about horse welfare is that a lot of people think they’re doing the right thing and they think that outings and training etc are good for horses – and in some ways they can be good – but if done wrong they can have negative implications.
“Depending on what method of training is used, for example, horses might be under a lot of stress.”
Thompson, K., Clarkson, L., How owners determine if the social and behavioral needs of their horses are being met: Findings from an Australian online survey, Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2019), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.12.001.