Focusing on welfare over animal rights will do more to improve horses’ lives

  • Why focusing on animals’ welfare over their rights will better ensure horses’ wellbeing was highlighted by a top professor to leading experts at a recent conference.

    Madeleine Campbell, an owner, breeder, vet and chair of Defra’s animal welfare committee, brought up the conversation surrounding public acceptance of horse sport, at the event, titled “Equine cognizance and mental maturity – what do we know?” on 24 May.

    She urged the equestrian world to be prepared to explain why we think it is ethically justifiable to keep involving horses in sport – and to do so, be prepared to educate themselves on the latest science and challenge their own behaviours.

    Dr Campbell added that being able to ethically justify involving horses in sport is “predicated on us providing them with good lives and protecting their welfare, […] from grassroots right up to elite level”.

    “My personal view is that we don’t need to move towards a rights position to safeguard the welfare of animals. And part of my reason for thinking that is that a strict rights position completely fails to take account of the positive aspects of welfare, which human animal interactions convey upon animals,” she said.

    “To my mind, if we’re thinking about trying to safeguard animal welfare, rather than advocating for animal rights, what we should be doing instead is asking the question, ‘Is it possible for an animal being used for purpose X to have a good life?’”

    She added that this relates to the five domains of animal welfare and said that justifying the ethical reasons for involving horses in sport does not mean dismissing anyone who challenges that view, but to engage and be prepared to challenge our thinking.

    “Society as a whole, the public, has lost its connection with animals – and we need to bring the conversation back. Rather than saying the solution to that is to ban things, we need to bring the conversation back to how we provide good lives for animals,” she said.

    She added that there are “lots of different ways in which we can provide good lives for horses”, and that if “one has a good life, they all can”.

    “That to me is what makes it ethically justifiable to continue using horses, and other animals for whom we can provide a good life, in sport,” she said.

    Equine vet and behaviour specialist Gemma Pearson highlighted the differences in the way people view the terms “welfare” and “quality of life” – tending to associate welfare as negative and quality of life as positive – and why it is important to be aware of these perceptions.

    “We know that if you identify as a horse person, if it’s part of your way of life, negative things feel very personal, you have an emotive response,” she said.

    “As soon as we feel threatened by what other people are saying, we start saying things like ‘Well, we need to educate them’, or, ‘We’re doing a great job, we just need to show this’. Actually, we really need to look at what we are doing and look at how we can promote positives, but also when there are negatives, look at where we can improve.”

    Dr Pearson gave examples of how qualitative behaviour assessments – scientific methods for assessing what animals feel in different situations – could be used for this purpose, alongside other measures.

    “It’s a privilege to have horses in sport. They shouldn’t just have a life worth living. We should be providing them with a good life,” she said.

    World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers said that “interrogating every rule, every procedure, every allowed and disallowed action and so on, from an ethical standpoint, should become a reflex for all those involved in equestrian sport.”

    “This is a collective challenge and a collective responsibility, but it also provides us with a collective opportunity. We have some great examples from across the sector where things are being done well. It’s up to us individually and organisationally, to up the pace and keep the whole of the equestrian sector moving in the right direction,” he said.

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