Equine Welfare Monitoring System Under Evaluation

Equine Welfare Monitoring System Under Evaluation

Riding school horses were more prone to have back problems and mouth lesions compared to competition, recreation, and leisure horses, Neijenhuis said.

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As equine welfare becomes a topic of greater interest to equine professionals and horse enthusiasts alike, one European country is developing an easy-to-use, repeatable monitoring system that will allow owners and farm managers to evaluate their own horses' welfare.

In The Netherlands, this new equine welfare monitoring system is now in its testing phase with equitation scientists Kathalijne Visser, PhD, and Francesca Neijenhuis, PhD, researchers in the livestock research department of Wageningen University and Research Center in Lelystad. Visser, Neijenhuis, and colleagues tested the system recently on 3,000 horses at 150 volunteering horse farms and found that it yields similar results from one tester to another--an indispensible criteria for having a reliable system, Neijenhuis said. The team's research is being funded by the Dutch government, several equestrian federations, and the Dutch Society for Protection of Animals.

"The evaluation includes 22 animal-based measurements in compliance with 12 different criteria developed from scientific literature and welfare knowledge," Neijenhuis said during the presentation of their study at the 2011 International Society for Equitation Science Conference, held Oct. 26-29 in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands. "Each measure must be clear enough that a trained assessor can perform the assessment quickly, safely, and accurately, and the measures should be repeatable with similar results with different assessors."

During the presentation Neijenhuis focused on four primary areas for testing: the horse's gait, back, gums, and mouth. The animals were tested for lameness, soreness, or sensitivity in the back, and wounds or hard spots on the gums, lips, and corners of the mouth. Scores were given from 0 to 2, with 2 representing a severe condition.

At all 150 horse farms included in the study, Neijenhuis and her colleagues had the horses evaluated not only by trained assessors but also by the trainers at the sites. The researchers then compared the scores of each horse from one trainer to another and also between trainers and the trained assessors to determine similarities in the results. The more similar the results, the more reliable the test, she said.

Overall the results varied little, averaging approximately 90% the same in most cases, Neijenhuis said. The results were most similar with gait and back evaluations, but they differed more with mouth evaluations, probably because horses are simply more reluctant to have their mouths investigated, she added. "It's not easy to look into the mouth of a horse, so some injuries could be missed," she said.

Neijenhuis' research team also evaluated risk factors that made certain welfare issues more likely. For example, they found that riding school horses were more prone to have back problems and mouth lesions compared to competition, recreation, and leisure horses, she said. Older horses were generally at greater risk of poor welfare, and horses in private holdings appeared to have a reduced risk compared to boarding stables.

"This welfare monitoring system for horses may be a valuable tool for horse owners to improve horse welfare," Neijenhuis said "first of all by increasing awareness about welfare and getting more insight in areas where improvement is possible for both health and behavior, and secondly by upgrading the knowledge in the field in the future so as to benchmark horse farms."

The system was based on the Welfare Quality framework, which a European project team designed to assess welfare on livestock farms.

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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