Play your part: how to help keep competition horses happy *H&H Plus*

  • How can we ensure competition horses enjoy their side of the partnership, asks Professor Madeleine Campbell MRCVS

    Famous examples of horse-human partnerships have filled the pages of Horse & Hound this year. All of us involved in the equestrian world feel an intuitive “bond” between ourselves and our horses, which is very difficult to define but undoubtedly special. The reality is that however strongly we feel that bond, the partnership between a horse and a human is always, unavoidably, an unequal one.

    Domesticated horses are dependent upon humans: both in a legal sense, because they are our property, and in an everyday sense in that they rely upon us for food, shelter, exercise and health care. We have it within our power to make horses’ lives miserable or enjoyable, and that power brings with it an enormous responsibility – a responsibility not only to treat horses as well as possible, but also to strive to understand better what horses need, in order to improve our treatment of them.

    Behavioural clues

    The recent World Horse Welfare conference was based around the question: “The horse-human partnership – what’s in it for the horses?” Set against the background of increasing societal interest in animal ethics, welfare and equestrian sport, this is a particularly timely question in relation to competition horses.

    So, what’s in it for the competition horse? The simple answer is that well looked-after equine athletes benefit from outstanding veterinary care, careful management and – very often – a happy retirement.

    If the majority of competition horses can and do enjoy those benefits, then, in theory, all of them could. Every responsible person working within the equine industry holds that ambition, and those who do not deliver upon it should be dealt with appropriately by regulators and the law.

    But we need to extend the way in which we think about welfare, beyond solely considering how we meet veterinary and everyday needs. We should be asking ourselves: “How we can more holistically improve the welfare of horses in training and in competition, both through minimising negative welfare impacts and maximising positive impacts?”

    We need to be able to understand, for example, which of two possible training methods is better for the welfare of the horse, and what the comparative effects of alternative items of tack and equipment are. To do that, we need some understanding of how the horse feels.

    Fortunately, over the past decade, this has become a lot easier thanks to the developments in the field of equine ethology and of various equine welfare assessment tools.

    Ethology is the study of animal behaviour. A major development in the past decade has been the systematic investigation of equine facial expressions as a reflection of a horse’s emotional state.

    Several studies have elucidated the facial expressions of horses that are associated with pain – including stiffly backwards ears and strained nostrils – and have developed an objective horse grimace scale.

    More recently, and very relevant to the fact that we are trying to maximise positive welfare states as well as minimise negative ones, objective studies have demonstrated equine facial expressions associated with positive emotions.
    As an example, eye wrinkle expression can indicate both negative and positive, with the angle between the line through the eyeball and the highest skin wrinkle above the eye decreasing during positive states.

    Proof positive

    It is unlikely that this news will come as a surprise to those of us who spend our lives around horses. The value of having the evidence base proved in this way, however, is twofold, enabling us to promote good equine welfare through increasing our own awareness and educating those for whom such behavioural indicators are not perhaps so obvious. It also provides us with objective criteria with which to test the effect of actions on our equine partners.

    Research has shown that it is not only facial expressions that are relevant to understanding and safeguarding the welfare of horses being used for competition, but a whole range of other behaviours.

    We now have access to a ridden horse ethogram which relates 24 ridden behaviours to pain. Once we understand and can interpret facial expressions and general behaviours, we can use that knowledge to understand how equipment and training techniques may have a negative or positive welfare impact.

    The potential of equine ethology to improve the welfare of competition horses is complemented by recent developments of equine welfare assessment tools. These provide an objective means of assessing the welfare impacts of management methods.

    One such work has established how we can use a welfare model known as the five domains to assess the impact of transportation. This will help us answer at an individual horse level questions such as whether it is better to travel a horse home immediately after a competition so he can rest in his own stable that night, or to stay overnight at the venue and travel the next day.

    Another interesting area of work is the development of an animal welfare assessment grid (AWAG), a cloud-based technological tool which can be used by anyone in the field. Previously, this has been used to assess the welfare of zoo animals kept in an unnatural environment.

    Work to adapt the AWAG specifically for use in horses is ongoing and is the subject of current grant applications.

    Finding a balance

    Oour partnership with competition horses is unavoidably unequal. Nonetheless, this relationship can be mutually advantageous and enjoyable if we strive constantly to provide welfare-enhancing experiences and minimise negative ones.

    By applying the research into equine ethology, equine welfare assessment tools and equine cognition, those responsible for competition horses can do this, by making objective, evidence-based decisions about equipment, methods and management.

    Going into 2021 and beyond, as members of the equine industry we must strive not only to apply our current knowledge to enhance welfare, but also to work together to assess aspects of horses’ lives which we may not previously have considered.

    Facing facts

    An area of research which is of direct relevance to the welfare of competition horses relates to our understanding of equine cognition, which is the ability to learn from experience – specifically, the effect our own emotional state can have upon that of our horses.

    Evidence suggests that horses can read and remember human emotions. Research has shown that not only can a horse identify between an angry human face and a happy one, but also that he may recall the previous facial expression of a person when he meets them again – and adapt his behaviour accordingly.

    Horses tend to view negative events with their left eye, processing this potentially threatening stimuli in the right hemisphere of the brain. In studies led by Professor Karen McComb and Dr Leanne Proops, horses spent more time studying a person’s face with their left eye if they had previously seen a photo of them looking angry (pictured). Ideally, such findings will make us all think more carefully about what we project when we interact with horses in our care.

    Further reading

    To find out more, search for these researchers and others:

    Horse grimace scale: E Dalla Costa; K Bech Gleerup
    Eye wrinkle expression: S Hintze
    AWAG: S Wolfensohn
    Equine behaviour: C Hall; C Heleski
    Ridden horse ethogram: S Dyson
    Five domains: P McGreevy

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 31 December 2020

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