Money, or a discipline’s popularity, should not override science on horse welfare – review

Researchers draw parallels with the climate change debate and even the "tobacco industry debacle".
Photo by Matthew Lancaster

A fundamental need to align the theory and evidence on animal welfare with what is actually happening to horses in practice has been identified in a just-published review.

Independent researchers Tim Holmes and Ashleigh Brown found there had been significant improvements to horse welfare in recent times, but there remained many welfare risks to which sport horses continue to be exposed.

They identified a need for a formal process to improve welfare in equestrian sport, including processes to assess equine welfare, identify the risks, prioritise risk factors, and implement targeted welfare improvements.

Targeted improvements should include interventions, including education, that focus on the most severe issues causing the greatest amount of suffering, they wrote in the journal Animals.

In some cases it will also be necessary to conduct further research to better understand risk factors for poor welfare, the opportunities for positive welfare, and to measure the outcomes from welfare improvements — something that should be welcomed, encouraged and supported by the equestrian sports industry, they said.

The British-based pair set out in their review, which has a focus on horse sport in Britain, to explore the evidence for the effect of equestrian pursuits on animal welfare. They sought to highlight scenarios in which equine welfare can be impaired and where efforts are being made to improve it.

In their paper, which cites 272 sources, the pair discuss animal welfare as a complex and disputed issue, drilling down into what it means and how it can be measured.

The authors concluded that barriers remain to reducing the risks across horse sport to an acceptable level.

“This is clearly not helped by weak institutions which may result from poorly defined terms either intentionally or not, and due to the complexity of issues and/or differing opinions,” they said.

The many policies, regulations and research papers covering equine welfare is not yet enough to address the significant problems that still occur, they wrote.

“Of course, there are many involved in the industry who develop deep emotional relationships with horses and truly care about them, but there remain cultures and practices that push the boundaries, resulting in poor welfare before, during and after their competitive career.

“Conclusions drawn from scientific evidence should not be ignored and overridden on the basis of the large number of people who participate in the sport or the large sums generated.

“Comparisons,” they continued, “could be made with the climate change debate or even the tobacco industry debacle, where the evidence exists but the human elements, including perceptions, attitudes, values, power and connections of individuals, overly influence the debate, leading to little or slow change.

“A fundamental problem is that stakeholders, from scientists to managers to policymakers, all have different values, approaches, interests, and goals and therefore come up with many and varied answers to the problems.

“Scientific evidence demonstrates that equids are suffering for sports and, therefore, there is a need to build on evolving new processes that incorporate animal welfare science together with human behaviour change strategies.”

They said the critical element for implementing change is not a list of dos and don’ts, but a robust framework for improved welfare.

In terms of process, there needs to be an acknowledgment that there are currently risks of poor welfare at multiple stages within the wider industry. There needs to be a willingness to invest both time and other resources for the long term to eradicate poor welfare and promote positive welfare experiences for sport horses.

The wider equine industry also needs to ensure long-term investment in research to identify welfare risks. It also needs to implement formal, objective assessment and change processes, overseen by truly independent bodies of experts to identify, prioritise and implement changes to improve poor welfare.

Further, there is a need to produce implementation plans with clearly identified outputs that address prioritised welfare risks. The industry needs to implement management, monitor outputs and evaluate welfare outcomes for equids.

Welfare outcomes across all disciplines need to be reported, providing the opportunity to share knowledge throughout the horse-sport sector.

The researchers said stakeholders in equestrian sport cover a broad range of relevant professions and experiences, including industry, community, research, charity and government sectors. Not only welfare researchers, but the likes of social scientists, psychologists, and economists all have the potential for important and relevant input.

The authors proposed the use of structured reviews across the many different contributors to equine welfare to improve learning and drive change.

All welfare risks and their causes need to be identified, they said, with decision-making on welfare backed by expert judgment.

“Even experts might have varying opinions on equine welfare because of differences in individual beliefs, values, experiences and interpretations of incomplete information,” the researchers cautioned, stressing the need for a consensus approach, even when using experts.

They stressed that there needs to be adequate flexibility within equine management processes to, for example, address individual differences among animals, such as their previous learning, personality and personal preferences.

“Fundamentally,” they wrote, “there is a need to align the theory and evidence base on animal welfare and equine science with what is actually happening to equids in practice.” Central to this is the use of a formal process to improve welfare in equestrian sports.

The authors noted the many equine-related rules and resources available across many institutions, including sporting bodies. They appear to reflect recognition throughout the equestrian sector and broader society of the need to reduce risk and improve equine welfare, they said.

Researchers stressed that there needs to be adequate flexibility within equine management processes to, for example, address individual differences among animals, such as their previous learning, personality and personal preferences.
Image by Christel Sagniez

“The sheer volume of rules developed to minimize poor welfare for animals and those specific to equids clearly demonstrates that there is a problem; hence, attempts are being made to address it. A fundamental flaw in many of the rules relating to equine welfare is that the terms are often too vague and subjective for them to be interpreted in a way that truly benefits equids.

“For example, the FEI General Regulations include an article to address the abuse of horses that states: No person may abuse a Horse during an Event or at any other time. ‘Abuse’ means an action or omission which causes or is likely to cause pain or unnecessary discomfort to a Horse, including, but not limited to: To whip or beat a Horse excessively; To use spurs excessively or persistently; To use any device or equipment which causes excessive pain to the Horse upon knocking down an obstacle.

What, they asked, would qualify as necessary discomfort? What is the measure for beating or whipping a horse excessively? Who decides?

The researchers acknowledged recent progress in improving equine welfare in the wider industry.

“On the surface, the production of multiple sources of information by a broad range of stakeholders using rousing language that suggests a real concern appears to be very positive, yet the equids used in sports are still exposed to significant welfare risks and actual harm.

“A potential reason for this is the reliance on rules that, at times, can be vague and vulnerable to subjective interpretation; hence, welfare compromise can still occur despite United Kingdom legislation stating that animals’ needs are met, including protection from ‘pain, suffering, injury and disease’.”

Nevertheless, rules, they noted, can be rendered ineffective due to weak and/or sporadic enforcement.

Holmes, T.Q.; Brown, A.F. Champing at the Bit for Improvements: A Review of Equine Welfare in Equestrian Sports in the United Kingdom. Animals 2022, 12, 1186.

The review, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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