Most horses are considered beloved partners by their owners. So, why do so many scientific studies point to a high prevalence of welfare problems?
Researchers Martine Hausberger, Clémence Lesimple and Séverine Henry, in a review just published in the journal Animals, describe it as a paradox.
“There seems to be a mismatch between theoretical knowledge and field applications,” according to the trio, with the Animal and Human Ethology Laboratory at the University of Rennes in France.
They set out in their paper to disentangle the possible factors explaining such a paradox, exploring the impact of anthropomorphic and cultural biases and popular beliefs.
They also examined potential overexposure to horses in a compromised welfare state, which can change owners’ representation of what is a “normal” horse.
Horses, they said, were domesticated more than 5000 years ago and have been one of the most emblematic species living alongside humans.
“This long-shared history would suggest that horses are well known and well understood, but scientific data raise many concerns about the welfare state of most domestic horses, suggesting that many aspects have been largely misunderstood.”
As horses are non-verbal, current management practices rely upon what people think is good for them. This, they said, opens the way to subjective interpretations and projections, based perhaps on experience but probably more on cultural/social norms and influences, traditions and beliefs.
“There are many reasons why people may not actively promote their own horse’s welfare through appropriate management: They may not perceive that there is a problem; they may misinterpret signals; they may follow erroneous advice; and/or they may be influenced by culture, social networks and media.
“Thus, information in magazines and on the internet is now having an important impact on people’s thinking about animal welfare.”
Research has shown that stereotypes and biases are frequent in the equestrian community, such as mares being labeled “bossy and bad” and stallions as “highly trainable but difficult”.
Peer pressure and consensus also shape how people construct ideas about animal welfare. There is a “yard culture” — the place where different owners have their horses kept — where social processes of inclusion and exclusion influence individual decision-making.
Breaking with the local management routines, even for the horse’s sake, puts the owner at risk of being socially excluded from the community, said the trio, who cited 158 papers in their review.
The authors traversed anthropomorphism — attributing human characteristics or behaviours to an animal. “While it may be useful at some point in understanding the parallels between animal and human suffering, anthropomorphism can pose a real risk when it leads to treating animals as if they were mentally or physically the same as humans.
“There are some associations between anthropomorphic beliefs and empathy towards animals, but these concepts correspond to two very different constructs.”
One such bias centers around stables, with owners believing they provide security, weather protection, and limit the risks of injury or the consumption of toxic plants.
There is also the obesity problem, possibly fueled by the cultural western notion that “caring for others” involves feeding them well. “No wonder then that this typical human problem extends to those people love and care for, which are pets and semi-companion animals like horses.”
There is also the weight of traditions in equestrianism, which include entrenched views on bit use.
Some routine horse procedures are rarely questioned, the authors noted.
They traversed worrying levels of digestive problems and back issues in horses, mostly related to management practices. Poor welfare can in turn lead to stereotypies and aggressiveness, they said.
The authors also raised economic constraints and land restrictions as issues that can limit the ability to make improvements in horse-keeping.
“Moreover, whereas work, particularly riding, may impair horses’ health and psychological wellbeing, it does not mean horse riding should stop but that it needs re-thinking.
“Promoting horse welfare, therefore, means finding the right compromises that preserve at best horse welfare but does not impair stakeholders’ welfare.
“Improving horse welfare requires, on one hand, innovative integrative proposals that can be easily put into place in order to ensure feasibility and, on the other hand, to accompany stakeholders, but also vets and other reference persons, in developing their ability to decode animal indicators of their internal state.”
Re-thinking practices means working at the system level, they said. “Thus, if horses spent more time in free movement and in groups, riding schoolteachers would not need to insist that young riders pull on reins in order to avoid contact with other horses; horses would have less back problems and thus present less undesirable behaviors. Even when land is limited, there are always outdoor or indoor arenas where horses could be released in groups outside work, such as at night time.”
Excess weight is less a problem of food quantity than food quality. Changing commercial pellets for roughage is not more expensive, they said.
“Feral horses feed all day long, walk slowly all day long, but do not have much fast gait exercise. Nevertheless, there is no report of overweight horses. Re-thinking pastures and roughage, so as to allow permanent feeding without increasing the prevalence of obesity, is an absolute necessity.”
There is also a need for horse owners to “identify” with their animal’s welfare state.
“Only the transmission of information on reliable, validated and easy-to-decipher animal-based indicators may help developing the necessary identification, as the closest way to perceiving the animal’s internal state.
“It is clear,” they said, “that welfare problems are mostly not due to intentional abuse, but because of anthropomorphic biases, cultural and personal beliefs, lack of knowledge, and misinterpretations, horse welfare sometimes reflects the saying: ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’.
“We suggest that, rather than simply having knowledge on what should be done, identifying the horse welfare state using validated animal-based indicators is essential to identify and promote best practices.
“Ensuring that scientific information on animal-based indicators is reliable and transferred to the right networks of transmission has become of primary importance.
“Identifying and promoting existing good practices is as important as the development of ‘procedural’ knowledge which may be best promoted by providing examples. Innovative approaches with good results may first surprise and trigger mockery but then lead to active copying.”
Hausberger, M.; Lesimple, C.; Henry, S. Detecting Welfare in a Non-Verbal Species: Social/Cultural Biases and Difficulties in Horse Welfare Assessment. Animals 2021, 11, 2249. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11082249