Study: Owners Might be Missing Equine Welfare Issues

Study: Owners Might be Missing Equine Welfare Issues

The researchers determined that riding schools that assumed their horses exhibited the highest levels of stereotypies, in fact, had the lowest.


How’s your horse’s welfare? Does he look good? Are you sure? Go back and look again, a little longer and harder this time. French behavior researchers recently observed that many people are missing signs of poor welfare in their horses—or worse, they might even think those signs are normal.

“Humans are often not detecting welfare issues in their horses because they don’t know how to recognize them, or they’re not paying attention, or they don’t want to believe it; or, they have just gotten so used to seeing poor welfare that they’ve lowered their threshold of what they consider to be a suffering horse,” said Clémence Lesimple, PhD, researcher at the University of Rennes, in France.

In a recent study, Lesimple and Martine Hausberger, PhD, research director at the University of Rennes, investigated 373 riding horses of various breeds in 26 riding schools throughout France. The primary caretaker of each riding school completed a welfare questionnaire about each study horse in the facility. Lesimple and Hausberger then observed each horse for 18 hours (six hours, three days in a row) to check for signs of poor welfare—in particular, stereotypical or abnormal repetitive behavior (such as cribbing and weaving).

More than a third of the horses (37%) showed at least one kind of stereotypic behavior, and some of these exhibited as many as seven different behaviors, Lesimple said. However, caretakers had estimated that only 5% of the horses had any stereotypic behaviors and assumed that none of the horses had more than one.

Half of the caretakers also assumed that none of their participating horses exhibited stereotypies or abnormal behaviors. However the riding schools that assumed their horses exhibited the highest levels of stereotypies in fact had the lowest.

“In the facilities where welfare was a primary concern and management was mostly positive (frequent free-time in the paddocks, plenty of hay, reduced amounts of concentrated feeds, for example), the personnel more accurately estimated which horses had stereotypies,” Lesimple said. “So this is the positive side of this study. When we’re paying attention to our horse’s welfare and are more aware of it, we’re more likely to see the problems.”

As for the caretakers who aren’t seeing the signs, Lesimple said, the issue might just be that they’re not looking at what’s in front of their eyes.

“Most people don’t take the time to watch their horses,” she said. “When we pass quickly in front of the stalls, there are lots of things that we just don’t see. Or that we can’t see. Also, most horses that have stereotypical behaviors are probably going to stop doing them if they see someone coming by their stall, because that creates a distraction. So that person won’t even see this behavior.”

These caretakers might also simply no longer recognize what a “well” horse looks like, Lesimple added. “People who are always surrounded by horses with compromised welfare could become less sensitive to signs of poor well-being, which is a phenomenon already well-known among human health professionals,” she said.

Training programs—especially those that expose caretakers to healthy horses in a natural setting—can help people become better at recognizing welfare issues in their horses and ultimately lead to changes that will improve the horses’ welfare, Lesimple said.

The study, "How accurate are we at assessing others' well-being? The example of welfare assessment in horses," was published in Frontiers in Psycology

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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