It is important to evaluate horse welfare without being influenced by popular beliefs, says Clemence Lesimple, with the Laboratory of Human and Animal Ethology at the University of Rennes, in France.
“Animal welfare opens a very interesting but a very difficult research area, where strong emotional and popular beliefs risk overriding scientific evidence,” she writes in the open-access journal Animals.
The status of horses, she says, elicits strong emotional reactions.
“Although scientists and legislators recognize the necessity to rely on scientific evidence, old habits and popular beliefs die hard.”
Lesimple set out in a review to disentangle welfare parameters and to differentiate reliable horse‐based indicators of welfare from potential signals of acute sickness, discomfort, temporary states of pain, stress or emotion.
Lesimple says scientific interest in animal welfare was initially driven by popular emotional, ethical and political concerns.
“It has now become an important societal question and all the stakeholders agree on the necessity to rely on unambiguous scientific evidence for evaluation and making decisions.”
Animal welfare, she says, is defined as a chronic state reflecting an animal’s subjective perception of its situation, as indicated by behavioural, postural and physiological parameters.
Because of their many uses, as farm, leisure, sport or pet animals, horses experience an array of environmental conditions, some of which can impair their welfare.
The main aim of all research on horse welfare is to ensure that every decision will lead to an improvement in their living conditions, Lesimple says.
“Taking this into consideration, and to prevent making premature decisions that could be harmful, it is crucial to conform to scientific standards and to the definition of welfare.”
Thus, when investigating horse welfare, it is important that the signals recorded truly reflect a chronic state; that they are meaningful for animal welfare and measure what they are supposed to; that the definition and description of the signals are clear and can be identified beyond question.
An animal can experience temporary pain or fear even though its welfare is good and, conversely, it can experience a positive mood temporarily even though its welfare is impaired.
“The assessment of fear, pain or emotional level has to be clearly differentiated from welfare evaluation.”
Reliable and visible indicators of horse welfare exist, and should be exclusively used when evaluating welfare, she says.
“Subjective human perception should clearly be removed from welfare evaluations, as it introduces emotional biases with a high risk of drawing incorrect conclusions and making harmful decisions.
In the last decade, she says, studies investigating horse welfare flourished together with new measures that were not always scientifically tested before being used.
“Before presenting or publicizing novel indicators of horse welfare, their reliability and validity must be more effectively checked so as to avoid making incorrect evaluations and incorrect decisions.”
In her review, Lesimple traverses a range of indicators, including body-condition scoring, postural indicators, physiological indicators, and a wide range of behavioural signs, including stereotypies, as well as health issues, including the likes of gastric ulceration.
Most of these signals are not specific to welfare impairment, she says, and can indicate acute and chronic states.
“Thus, their presence cannot be considered as signals of welfare impairment but should lead to further examination of the animal.”
The term welfare, she says, refers to the persistent state of an individual over time – that is, chronic. It can be either positive or negative, according to each animal’s subjective perception of its environment.
Feeling pain or negative emotions on a regular basis over time can lead to a negative welfare state, whilst a succession of positive emotions is a likely precursor to a positive welfare state.
“However, an individual in a negative welfare state can experience positive emotions, and conversely, an individual in a positive welfare state can experience negative emotions.
“When investigating welfare conditions … it is crucial to adopt a chronic perspective and to evaluate the long‐lasting situation of the organism rather than its temporary state, to prevent drawing unfounded conclusions.
“Whatever the approach adopted, authors commonly accept that welfare is a complex multifaceted concept reflecting an organism’s subjective perception of a chronic situation.”