Nineteen experts in equine welfare have weighed in on the lives of horses in a study, with researchers using their input to prioritise the areas of greatest need.
Fiona Rioja-Lang and her University of Edinburgh colleagues, writing in the journal Animals, note that horses may be vulnerable to a large number of different welfare issues, some of which are unique to equines, such as responses to being ridden or trained.
“Compared to farmed livestock, their welfare has received less attention, but concern for their welfare is increasing,” the study team said.
The European Union is home to about 7 million horses, with about 1 million in Britain.
Most are kept as leisure animals, but horses are unusual in that they are often not classified as companion animals and many do not live at the same address as their owners, but nor are they considered livestock.
In addition, although few horses in Europe are now used for draught purposes, some are also kept for racing, competitions and other professional uses. They are also employed in tourism, forestry, agriculture and therapy.
Globally, horses and other equids are still widely used for traction power in low and middle-income countries, are used for meat in many countries and for conservation grazing, and there are also feral horse populations.
Welfare issues can arise from the environment in which they are kept, how they are treated by their caregivers, and their health.
Rioja-Lang and her fellow researchers, Melanie Connor, Heather Bacon and Cathy Dwyer, sought the opinions of 19 equine welfare experts for their study.
The experts were either associated with non-governmental organisations or equine charities, or were academic researchers, trainers, industry representatives, veterinarians, associated with equine policy, or had other expertise.
To begin, an initial list of 84 equine welfare issues was generated, based on analysis of an online discussion board.
Experts then ranked these welfare issues for perceived prevalence, severity and duration of suffering associated with each issue on a six-point scale.
The list was further reduced in subsequent rounds before a subset of the experts attended a two-day workshop to determine the final priority list of welfare issues.
The welfare issues considered most common were:
- Lack of biosecurity;
- Delayed euthanasia;
- Lack of owner knowledge of equine welfare needs;
- Fear and stress from use; and
Those considered to cause the greatest suffering for individual horses were:
- Delayed euthanasia;
- Lack of recognition by owners of pain behaviour;
- Large worm burdens;
- Obesity; and
- Being fed unsuitable diets for equine feeding behaviour.
Discussing their study, the researchers said although the horse experts in the initial rounds did not achieve very high levels of agreement, a better consensus was achieved during the face-to-face discussions.
Many areas considered important in the survey also ranked highly in the workshop, they noted.
By comparing the outcomes with other studies that have attempted similar assessments, the researchers found common welfare concerns raised frequently by different groups, which lends greater weight to arguments that these are important horse welfare issues.
“In particular, lack of owner knowledge, or application of knowledge to the management of horses, is an important welfare concern, which has also been seen in other species.
“In addition, many of the other issues that have been highlighted may also stem from poor owner knowledge or the application of traditional or culturally mediated methods of managing or using horses.
“These include poor biosecurity practices, not recognizing pain behaviour, use of poorly fitting or restrictive tack, inappropriate training practices and keeping horses in environments that do not meet their physical, nutritional or behavioural welfare needs.
“Increasing numbers of studies have demonstrated that these practices can result in fear, frustration or distress in horses, and an effective means to transfer this knowledge to owners and an assessment of the barriers to implementing changes are required.”
The researchers say that prioritizing different welfare issues can help to focus attention on the most pressing or severe issues causing the greatest amount of suffering.
The researchers are all affiliated with the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, which is part of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Rioja-Lang, F.C.; Connor, M.; Bacon, H.; Dwyer, C.M. Determining a Welfare Prioritization for Horses Using a Delphi Method. Animals 2020, 10, 647.