Fresh calls to put equine welfare over human convenience in UK horse management *H&H Plus*

  • Research undertaken by the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies has found similar welfare concerns are currently facing horses in the UK as those highlighted by previous research released in 2016. H&H speaks to experts to find out what needs to change...

    Delayed euthanasia and lack of biosecurity remain the biggest welfare concerns affecting UK horses, according to experts, as calls are made for owners to reconsider how they manage their horses.

    Researchers from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies asked experts including vets, charities including World Horse Welfare and the British Horse Society (BHS), and trainers, to rank what they thought were the most prevalent equine welfare concerns.

    From their responses, 84 concerns were identified, then reduced and ranked into two top-10 lists; concerns affecting the UK horse population, and concerns affecting individual horses.

    Lack of biosecurity and disease surveillance was ranked as the top concern affecting the UK horse population. Delayed euthanasia was ranked most concerning for individual horses, and second on the population list. Other issues in both lists included obesity, worm burdens, lack of owner understanding of horse welfare needs, and lack of recognition of pain.

    Horse population
    1 Lack of biosecurity and disease surveillance
    2 Delayed euthanasia decisions
    3 Lack of understanding of horse welfare needs by owner/carer
    4 Fear/stress/frustration from use in work, sport or entertainment
    5 Obesity
    6 Indiscriminate/inappropriate breeding
    7 Poorly fitting and restrictive tack
    8 Unstable social groups
    9 Unsuitable diets for equine feeding behaviour
    10 Poor weaning methods

    Individual horses
    1 Delayed euthanasia decisions
    2 Lack of recognition of pain behaviour
    3 Large worm burdens
    4 Obesity
    5 Unsuitable diets for equine feeding behaviour
    6 Hunger
    7 Inability to perform normal social interactions
    8 Negative affective states
    9 Overworking
    10 Overweight riders

    Researcher Cathy Dwyer told H&H the findings reflected issues identified in previous work.

    “The results made us think how tradition might affect how we manage horses and how little we’ve thought about the horse itself in management,” she said.

    “If you were to design a management system that is horse-focused rather than human-focused, would it look anything like the way we often manage our horses?

    “You see yards where horses are kept individually and don’t get to mix with others very much – or situations where horses are kept in a way that suits human needs, where people want to keep their horse clean and dry in a box so they’re ready to ride after work.

    “But the horse standing in a box all day is probably bored, unfit because it’s not been moving and frustrated because it’s not been able to communicate with other horses. Matching what the horse might want, and how we think the horse should be managed, those two things we’re not putting together very well.”

    World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers told H&H there were significant similarities between the issues raised in the study, and those named as the most pressing welfare concerns facing UK horses identified in the charity-funded 2016 Horses in Our Hands research by the University of Bristol – adding this is not surprising as the issues raised are “systemic and chronic” challenges.

    “We are not seeing obvious improvements with any of them, although hopefully there is a greater awareness of at least some. However, with issues such as worm burdens and anthelmintic resistance, the problem is deteriorating,” he said.

    “These findings are explicit in that owner education remains the number one challenge – not just welfare but basic horse care and management. We know it is not as simple as telling an owner their horse is overweight. To make a positive difference we need to change people’s behaviour.”

    Lucy Grieve, chair of the British Equine Veterinary Association’s ethics and welfare committee, told H&H that by misjudging the needs of horses, owners may be inadvertently causing suffering without realising.

    “There is a plethora of incorrect information and beliefs among the equestrian world, often accompanied by claims of proof, which turn out to be poor quality research. Scientists and vets can help owners by identifying and deciphering the latest evidence-based information into practical take-home messages,” she said.

    BHS welfare education manager Emmeline Hannelly told H&H the society urges owners to use trusted sources of information, adding that human behaviour change needs to be considered.

    “The phrase ‘we’ve always done it this way’ is very problematic when the impact of the action is having a negative effect on the horse,” she said.

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