The use of equines is a neglected green alternative when searching for sustainable solutions to modern environmental issues, according to researchers.
Horses have been labelled “green assets” by a study team in France, who set out to identify the main environmental consequences of equine use and possession in Europe, based on scientific and technical sources.
Agata Rzekęć, Céline Vial and Geneviève Bigot, writing in the journal Animals, describe equines as holding a peculiar place in society.
“From livestock to sport, through to landscape managers and leisure partners, equines show a wide range of little-known environmental advantages and assets.
“Now, more than ever before, it is important to highlight the role of equines as a green alternative in political debates and management practices to give them the place equines deserve in the ecological transition of agriculture.”
The trio noted the drastic decline in horse numbers across Europe after World War 2 due to motorization of transport. Estimates generally agree that horse numbers had fallen about 90% in Europe by the 1950s from its peak.
“For example, in France, the total number of equines was evaluated to be three million at the beginning of the 20th century but was less than half a million at the end of (that) century.”
Before 1950, horses were largely used for agriculture, transportation, and the army.
In the post-war period, the European market situation was geared toward productivism, where the disinterest in equines as a source of power and their absence in development policies led the European equine population to collapse.
Since 1970, the rise in popularity of horses for sport and leisure has led to a progressive increase in their numbers.
This trend has been seen in some, but not all, European countries. It has not occurred in Mediterranean countries: 87% of horses were lost in Greece between 1983 and 2000, and 31% and 36% were lost in Spain and Portugal, respectively, between 1987 and 2000.
This population decline, they said, could be linked to difficulties in national economies during this period.
Today, Europe has 88.4 million cattle, 150 million pigs, 86.8 million sheep, and 12.7 million goats to ensure the animal protein needs of the European population. But Europe has only six million equines, according to the European Horse Network.
Companion animal or livestock?
The authors note significant changes in the equine industry, even since the start of this century, in terms of sports, racing, and leisure; and in terms of meat and milk production, traction, therapy, and even companionship.
“This gave rise to debates on the status of equines (as a farm animal or pet) between European countries but also inside each country.
“For example, in the United Kingdom, horses are seen as companion animals, whereas in other European countries — France, Germany, or Sweden for example — equines are considered livestock.
“These issues are particularly problematic because the European agricultural census could be a powerful tool to quantify the equine population at the European level, but today, this census underestimates the equine population because only equines kept by farmers are counted, whereas, for example, in France, only half of the equine livestock was kept on farms in 2010.
“This problem is similar in other European countries.”
They continued: “At present, the diversity of equine uses leads to a large variety of impacts on the environment, especially when activities are exclusive to equines, such as sports or racing.
“This creates difficulties in listing and evaluating the environmental impacts of the entire equine industry. However, in today’s European context, local authorities aim to maintain rural activities and to support agriculture in its sustainable transition.”
They note that the European Horse Network has expressed the need for a foundation of scientific resources to build arguments and promote equines in European policies and debates.
“Consequently, this study describes equines not only as animal producers, but also as ecosystem service providers, especially for land use and biodiversity conservation.”
The researchers’ work included an investigation of public policies, meetings with stakeholders, and a review of the available knowledge on the green assets of equines.
Equine impact on pastures
They identified five key green themes around horses, including grazing.
Equines are non-ruminant herbivores, whereas the main herbivores raised on European grasslands are ruminants.
“Equine grazing impacts pastures differently than cattle, sheep, or goat grazing,” they said, because of their physiology and body shape.
“They adapt their diet easily according to the available forage. Their behavior also differs from that of cattle in their feed preferences and greater movement when grazing (as there is no rumination rest).
“These differences induce various impacts on grasslands according to whether horses graze alone or are associated with ruminants.”
Meadows, they note, are carbon sinks that can stock 60 to 70 tons of carbon per hectare in temperate areas. Europe also has large areas of less productive rangelands.
Animal grazing presents three general consequences: maintenance of a certain level of vegetation with the control of invasive species (through the intake of plants and trampling); effects on plant metabolism (defence, resistance, and avoidance); and it enables the creation of ecological niches.
Horses, they point out, are able to live on low-nutrition feed.
Studies on exclusive equine grazing show the positive impacts on flora, including an increase of legumes in France, alongside negative impacts, such as the limited control of fast forest regeneration.
“In particularly harsh conditions, some lands are maintained by equines to decrease fire risks, for example, by reducing the aerial biomass of gorse in Galicia.
Equines able to preserve and maintain pastoral biodiversity by grazing in areas abandoned by agriculture.”
Such abandonment is identified as a specific threat to habitats and species by the European Union, as the invasion of some plants left non-grazed by livestock leads to landscape closure.
Domestic biodiversity was also identified as a green asset, with several equine breeds especially well adapted to poor grasslands and semi-wild breeding systems.
“Some of these breeds are currently endangered and their conservation is an important issue, which could be introduced in European policies.”
Equines, they note, are also present in various areas, especially where other livestock is presently absent.
“This land use is directly linked to the place of equines in society; as livestock, it is possible to find equines in farms and large areas, but as family pets, equines can be encountered near houses, sometimes on small plots of lands that are not usable for agriculture.”
They also pointed to their value in work. “In the world, there are ten times more animals used as sources of traction energy than motorized tractors.”
Their use remains significant, even in developed countries, where equines are used in sensitive or mountainous areas that make mechanization difficult.
They also have a green role in tourism, being used not only as a means of transport but also as travel companions to discover wild countries and landscapes.
There are, they note, few studies on the direct impacts of using equines in tourism.
“Because of the wide definitions of equine tourism, it is difficult to list all ecological effects of such tourism,” they said.
While there are benefits, there can also be negative impacts, especially if the correct infrastructure is not in place, and the potential impacts of horses and riders on sensitive or protected areas.
“The equine industry is constantly evolving according to changes in society,” they said.
“One of the next steps is linked to growing environmental awareness.
“In most European countries, environmental issues are not yet considered to be important enough by stakeholders in the equine industry.
“However, through their green assets, equines can have an active role in ecological transition and debates, both alone and as a complement to other economic productions and services.
“In the future, it could be interesting to support knowledge exchange in order to progress equine research, thus making this industry more visible and understandable, and to include equines in political debates about the environment and raise awareness about equine uses to avoid radical actions from animal activists.
“Creating and publishing all kinds of communication media, such as articles, photos, videos, websites, and podcasts, could be a way to reach a larger audience and make equine owners adapt their management practices to better use equine green assets.
“From European organizations to society, everyone should be aware of the potential place of equines during the ecological and agronomic transition toward a greener future.”
Rzekęć and Bigot are with the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRA); and Vial is with the French Institute for Horse and Horse Riding.
Rzekęć, A.; Vial, C.; Bigot, G. Green Assets of Equines in the European Context of the Ecological Transition of Agriculture. Animals 2020, 10, 106.