Examining Modern Perceptions of Horse Welfare and Use

Examining Modern Perceptions of Horse Welfare and Use

“It is critical to recognize the seriousness with which these perceptions and concerns resonate and the reality that they often resonate with those farthest away from the daily care of horses and other large farm animals,” said Bump.

Photo: Photos.com

Horse industry members are in an ironic position: Concern for large farm animal welfare is at its highest, while general familiarity with these animals is at its lowest. In other words, the general population is crying out for improved farm animal welfare, while fewer and fewer people own these creatures or know much about them.

“It is critical to recognize the seriousness with which these perceptions (of animal cruelty) and concerns resonate and the reality that they often resonate with those farthest away from the daily care of horses and other large farm animals,” said Karin D. Bump, PAS, PhD, professor of equine business management at Cazenovia College and director of the National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics. She spoke and presented a poster on the topic at the 2013 International Society for Equitation Science conference, held July 17-19 at the University of Delaware, in Newark.

This doesn’t mean people are wrong about animal cruelty, or that starving, neglecting, and beating horses isn’t cruel, Bump said. But it’s important that we, as horse handlers, communicate with non-horse people to “broaden the scope of conversation on horse care and use,” she said. “(We also need) to consider how to address perceptions to create more open dialogue and understanding about what it means to own and care for a horse in a responsible manner centered on animal husbandry.”

She believes this dialogue will help educate the general public about horse care needs, while also helping prevent situations in which well-meaning people adopt or buy horses or ponies without understanding how to care for them properly.

Sociologists use the term legitimacy to explain how people acquire and accept certain ideas and to show how concepts and beliefs—such as using horses for work or leisure—become “legitimate” within a culture, Bump said. There are three levels of legitimacy, she added, that apply to horse ownership and care:

  1. The pragmatic level: “We need horses in our culture.”
  2. The cognitive level: “Of course we have horses, just like we have air to breathe.”
  3. The moral level: “It’s socially and ethically okay to own and use horses.”

Before cars and the industrial revolution, society had pragmatic and cognitive levels of legitimacy with regard to horse ownership, Bump said. There was no moral level because people didn’t even ask themselves whether it was right or wrong. They needed horses in order to survive, and in order to survive they had to take care of their horses and keep them healthy.

Today, however, our society is focused mostly on the moral level, Bump said. Without the pragmatic and cognitive levels, we find ourselves with a legitimacy gap: Those that don’t know much about horses are making moral judgments about horse care or even proposing laws about horse care, she said. Likewise, even people who own and work with horses live in a society that no longer has a culture of pragmatic or cognitive legitimacy for them, and this can affect their understanding as well, Bump said. Internet forums, for example, are flooded with owner criticisms of other owners' horse care practices, she explained.

Primary themes of the kind of judgment and law proposals mentioned above include whether it’s right to keep horses for “trivial” purposes; whether humans are preventing horses from achieving their natural genetic capacities or carrying out all their innate behaviors; and how our training and housing practices limit or possibly go against the horse's “telos” (the essential philosophical purpose), Bump said.

The key, then, is communication, she said. “Discussing perceptions—particularly negative perception—increases dialogue and advances our understanding of horse care and welfare as well as advances our understanding of concerns that others may have about horse care and welfare. The end result? Horses benefit.”

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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