Factors that affect a horse’s quality of life explored

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How is a horse’s quality of life measured?

The question was addressed by researchers and horse enthusiasts who gathered for the 15th annual International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference in Canada.

Astute horse owners realize that their horse’s welfare is about more than having food, water and appropriate shelter.

The horse’s emotional well-being, also known as their quality of life, is an important piece of the welfare puzzle.

However, it is unclear what measurements are accurate and reliable enough to help objectively assess this area of a horse’s welfare.

A group of researchers from Britain, New Zealand and Australia have teamed up to address this.

They completed two systematic reviews of studies in horses.

One review focused on identifying equine behaviours that could reflect the horse’s mood and general well-being — that is, how they feel. The other focused on physical measures of equine emotion — for example, heart rate.

The initial results of these reviews were presented at the conference, held at the University of Guelph.

Natalie Waran, from New Zealand’s Eastern Institute of Technology, presented on the findings related to equine behaviour. This review included 75 publications.

Some of the behaviours they explored included: feeding behaviour, types of interactions with humans and other horses (for example, were they friendly or combative), and interest in the environment. They found that these types of everyday behaviours, and responses to training, were the clearest indicators of a horse’s emotional state.

“Examples of behaviours that indicated a positive emotional state were increased feeding behaviour, friendly social interactions (between horses and with humans) and interest in the environment,” Waran said.

“Examples of behaviours that indicated a negative emotional state were decreased feeding behaviour, negative social interactions, reduced interest in the environment and increased repetitive non-functional movement patterns.”

Waran concluded that “these behaviours should help form the basis of assessment criteria so that horse owners and carers can assess and improve the quality of life of the animals under their care”.

Hayley Randle, from Charles Sturt University in Australia, presented on the results from the physical measures related to a horse’s emotion.

“Heart rate, heart-rate variability and cortisol are the most commonly measured physiological indicators of equine emotion.

“Other suggested indicators include eye temperature, respiratory rate and salivary alpha amylase, but many of these lack validation in relation to association with emotional state.

“There were methodological problems with all of the measures we looked at, such as the lack of standardisation of reporting and interpretation.”

She concluded: “The physical measures of equine emotion looked at in this review revealed that these may have limited use when assessing horse welfare.

“A comprehensive set of measures that takes into account the horses’ experiences at any one time is needed to assess equine welfare and his/her overall quality of life.”

ISES council member Kate Fenner expanded on the importance of the presentation.

“This research is an important step forward in equine welfare assessment. We need studies like this that can help us identify consistent indicators of quality of life in order to build reliable welfare assessment tools that evaluate every domain of equine welfare.”

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