Swedish harness horse trainers generally welcome required welfare inspections – study

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Many trainers who responded to an online survey said that they would like to see inspecMany trainers who responded to an online survey said that they would like to see inspections more regularly.tions more regularly.
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Amateur and professional harness racing trainers in Sweden, required to undergo occasional horse welfare inspections, have a generally positive view of the visits, research has shown.

Harness racing is the most common form of horse racing in Sweden, with 8200 races annually and about 16,000 horses trained under license by around 400 professional trainers and 3300 amateur trainers.

All horses in Sweden are protected under national legislation, with the County Administrative Boards are responsible for monitoring compliance. However, because of the relatively low frequency of county inspections and a need to improve audits made by local licensing committees at racetracks, the Swedish Trotting Association introduced a private standard on animal welfare.

The aim of the association’s Trotter Health Standard is to ensure horse welfare, to demonstrate and assure the quality of the sport and management of the horses, and to increase trotting horse trainers’ knowledge and awareness of welfare.

All trainers must comply with this standard in order to keep their license. Under the standard, inspectors must make inspections on each trainer’s horse premises, normally every four years, to check for compliance.

Researchers in the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences study set out to investigate trainers’ perceptions of these two different inspections using a digital questionnaire.

Of the 2896 trainers who received a link to the questionnaire, 396 responded to some extent. Of these, 248 submitted complete answers – that is, answered all intended questions. Trainers from all 21 counties in Sweden took part.

Most respondents (63%) were aged over 50, and most were amateur trainers rather than professionals. Three-quarters trained only their own horses, while 23% trained both their own and others’ horses, and 2% trained only others’ horses.

Most said they had their trotting horse business mainly as a hobby (64%), while 10% said it was their only income.

Of the 396 responding trainers, a majority reported quite positive experiences with both inspections. However, most perceived the Swedish Trotting Association inspections to be more valuable and the association’s inspectors to be more competent than the county inspectors.

The outcome of the inspections – that is, non-compliance or not – did not affect trainers’ perceptions of the inspections. However, the inspectors’ knowledge, manner, and responsiveness had a strong effect. Overall, the competence and manner of the inspector had a stronger association with trainers’ perceptions of an inspection than the results.

“While trainers were generally satisfied with the control system, they would like better coordination between the different inspections,” Frida Lundmark Hedman and her fellow researchers reported in the journal Animals.

Many trainers also said that they would like to see inspections at more regular intervals. Most agreed that receiving an inspection at least every three years from either body was reasonable.

Respondents, when asked about elements of good welfare beyond good health, feed, and water, cited prompt treatment of sick or injured horses, daily exercise in outdoor paddocks, and good care and management.

In general, 63% of surveyed trainers were satisfied with the Swedish animal welfare legislation, and 83% were satisfied with the Trotter Health Standard. “Most trainers reported that it is easy to know what is expected in order to comply with the legislation and the Trotting Health Standard,” the study team reported.

On the other hand, 12 percent of respondents believed the welfare legislation had complicated requirements that could be difficult to meet, while 8% had a similar view of the Trotting Health Standard.

The main reasons given by trainers for complying with the regulations were that they wanted their horses to be well, they wanted to contribute to the trustworthiness of Swedish harness racing, and they believed that a serious business must comply with the regulations.

An overwhelming majority, 95%, agreed on the importance of good animal welfare for the reputation of Swedish trotting, with 92% responding that trainers who constantly violated the animal welfare legislation destroyed trust in the trotting-horse business.

A majority said they were not worried at all before an inspection. Few trainers prepared themselves or their stables beforehand. The minority of trainers who reported preparing for an inspection said that, for example, they refreshed themselves on the standards required, looked up previous results, or fixed things that they thought would be included in the inspection.

Discussing their findings, the study team said it was interesting that the perceptions of an inspection were not dependent on whether there was non-compliance or not.

“In our study, inspector traits were of greater importance for how the inspection was perceived and were almost always significantly correlated to the perception.”

They noted that several other studies had emphasized the importance of communication between the inspector and inspected farmers. “The results in our survey emphasized the importance of the inspector’s knowledge, manner, behavior, and responsiveness.”

The full study team comprised Frida Lundmark Hedman, Jenny Frössling and Charlotte Berg, all affiliated with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; and Ivana Rodriguez Ewerlöf, with the National Veterinary Institute in Uppsala.

Lundmark Hedman, F.; Rodriguez Ewerlöf, I.; Frössling, J.; Berg, C. Swedish Trotting Horse Trainers’ Perceptions of Animal Welfare Inspections from Public and Private Actors. Animals 2022, 12, 1441. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12111441

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

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