Lessons Learned about Equine Welfare

Lessons Learned about Equine Welfare

Several factors complicate the ability to find solutions to the unwanted horse and equine welfare issues, from urbanization to "the public's love affair with the horse," Lenz said.

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It's a statement that Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, has said before, and it's one he'll say again: "The more you know about unwanted horses, the more complicated the issue becomes."

That sentiment rings true for equine welfare in general, something Lenz said the public began taking interest in back in the early 2000s, when they learned that American processing plants were slaughtering so-called unwanted horses for human consumption in foreign countries. Following public outcry, U.S. horse processing was eventually shuttered.

But the public's interest in horse welfare didn't stop there. In fact, it's continued through to the present day and will likely remain in the future. So what have we learned about equine welfare since the issue first gained national attention? Lenz, senior director of equine veterinary services for Zoetis and former chairman of the Unwanted Horse Council, shared his thoughts on the lessons learned during a University of Kentucky Department of Veterinary Science Equine Diagnostic and Research Seminar.

Important Points to Remember

Before one can fully understand the equine welfare issues currently facing the horse industry, there are a few important points to remember. Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, shared the following terms and what they represent:

  • Welfare The physical and physiological state of an animal
  • Good welfare An animal's physiologic, psychologic, and safety needs have been satisfied 
  • Unwanted horse Any horse that is no longer wanted by its current owners because it's old, injured, sick, unmanageable, or simply fail to meet the owners' expectations
  • Rights An animal's rights are different from its welfare. The rights are defined as freedom from thirst, hunger, and malnutrition; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

Erica Larson

Why is Equine Welfare So Complicated?

"We're a pretty smart group of people," Lenz said of the veterinarians and other horse industry leaders who've worked to improve equine welfare throughout the years. "So what's so hard … about making good equine welfare decisions?

"Since 1971 we've been trying to stop soring. In rodeos, the (animal) injury rate per run is 0.004%, but every major city has protests when the rodeo comes to town. And carriage horses—most cities have very strict regulations regarding horse and medical care, and yet there's always an effort to get rid of them."

Lenz said several factors complicate our ability to find solutions to the unwanted horse and equine welfare issues, including:

  • Differences in opinion regarding whether we should consider horses livestock or companion animals (Lenz notes that many horse industry members consider horses livestock, as there are generally more funds available for research on disease control for livestock species as opposed to companion animal species);
  • The ongoing debate about whether horses should be processed for meat;
  • Aggressive campaigns by animal activist groups;
  • Urbanization (As urban populations rise, farm and rural populations decline, Lenz said; further, many urbanites don't have a good understanding about how to care for large animals); and
  • Possibly the most complicating factor, the American public's love affair with the horse (in other words, uninformed people with few to no ties to the equine industry care for horses and want to have a voice in how they are treated).

But, based on these complicating factors, Lenz said we've learned some things that could help lead to solutions in the future.

What We've Learned

Lenz said the primary take-away he's come home with is that each person's views on animal welfare are "conditioned by our personal knowledge base and life experiences."

For example, Lenz said he grew up in a situation where his family's horses lived outside all day, every day, unless they were foaling, sick, or injured. On the other hand, his wife, also a veterinarian, grew up with show horses that spent much of their time in well-maintained stalls. As a result, Lenz said he believes horses are healthier if they can spend as much time outside as possible, while his wife thinks horses have better welfare if they're housed in well-maintained stalls for part of the day, especially during the winter.

"We all look at this through different eyes," he said, "and there's not a right or wrong answer."

Lenz also said he's learned that it's crucial not to focus too closely on one single welfare criteria but, rather, to look at the whole picture.

He used chickens to illustrate this point:

  • While chickens housed in laying cages have more movement restrictions than house chickens or free-range chickens, he said, they also have easy access to food and water, are easily observed, don't get tangled up in aggressive interactions with other chickens, and have minimal disease.
  • Housed chickens, on the other hand, have more room to move and access to feed and water, but there's a higher incidence of aggression and cannibalism between birds; it's difficult to monitor individual chickens; and there's an increased disease risk compared to chickens housed in laying cages.
  • And finally, he said, while free-range chickens have large areas to roam and enclosures for sleeping and eating, they tend to be aggressive and cannibalistic; they're exposed to the elements, pests, and predators; and they have an increased disease risk because they're consuming whatever they can on the ground.

So, which group of chickens experience the best welfare?

"Overemphasizing a single criteria—such as how much room chickens have to move—can actually backfire and cause welfare problems in other areas, such as nutrition, disease control, etc.," Lenz said "The answer lies somewhere in the middle."

Lenz said he's also learned that animal welfare is genuinely important to people on all "sides" of the issue—everyone genuinely cares for animals.

People in animal-related businesses—such as veterinarians and farmers—care for their animals because it's how they make a living and tend to use facts to make decisions rather than emotions, Lenz said. These individuals deal with cost, production efficiencies, and profits and sometimes view their animals as instruments for human use, he said. The public sometimes interprets these factors to be cold or uncaring, he added.

The public also tends to view animals as companions rather than utilities, Lenz said. Their vision of animal welfare is similar to how they view their own welfare, he said, and they want to protect animals, but they're not always sure what that means or entails.

Animal-rights activists, Lenz said, are driven by a genuine desire to make sure animals are treated well, but many are not familiar with the industries and animal care practices.

And many public officials want to be re-elected and face the challenge of dealing with stakeholder influence when considering bills aimed at regulating animals and their care, he said. But these individuals also aren't always familiar with the animals and how they're cared for.

Finally, Lenz said, he's learned that the public view animal welfare as a moral and ethical issue rather than a scientific one.

In a Perfect World

"In a perfect world we'd base animal welfare decisions on science, health, biologic function, and normal behavior," Lenz said.

But because of the current wide-sweeping views on welfare as an ethical issue, this is difficult to achieve. So, Lenz said, it's important to look for common ground when trying to find solutions for equine welfare issues.

"Decisions regarding welfare must be made to balance science and ethics," he said. "Science informs people, but it can't make them decide. Emotions and misinformation will override science and fact."

He also said we must communicate with people who hold the opposite viewpoints, even if we don't agree with them.

"Peoples' viewpoints are valid, and we have to try to come to common ground, even if that doesn't match our own opinions," he said.

And finally, he said, we must continue working to improve our horses' use and well-being and be willing to make changes—even hard changes—when they're indicated.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, News Editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in three-day eventing with her OTTB, Dorado, and enjoys photography in her spare time.

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