Horse Behavior and Welfare Conference

A recent gathering of equine behavior and welfare specialists in Holar, Northern Iceland, gave scientists from around the world the opportunity to present their work and review the science underpinning management practices on the horse. The workshop, which featured expertise spanning five decades of research, was sponsored by the Dorothy Russell Havemeyer Foundation, and was co-organized by Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Daniel Mills, DVM, of the University of Lincoln, in the United Kingdom.

The workshop began with scientific poster presentations on the latest research ranging from the effects of different handling and training techniques to data on conflicting physiological measures used to assess stress in the horse. The first session of invited papers was chaired by George Waring, PhD, of Southern Illinois University, and focused on the foundations of equine behavior. Presentations examined current theories on the horse's domestication, behavioral genetics, and development. State-of-the-art reviews on equine communication and the behavioral ecology of the horse highlighted the horse's normal adaptive range and the extent to which this is challenged in domestic situations.

Hans Klingel, PhD, of Germany, chaired the second session, which focused on specific behavior patterns in the horse and how we can use this information to improve our management of domestic horses. The importance of diet and feeding practices, play, and sexual behaviors were especially emphasized. The third session, chaired by Frank Odberg, PhD, of Belgium, examined management practices and the problems that commonly arise as a result--specifically riding horse problems, training and behavioral rehabilitation, and recent advances in treating equine stereotypies (stable vices).

Equine welfare was the focus of the final session, chaired by Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, of Cornell. Information on the techniques and approaches used to assess welfare was followed by presentations on practical welfare issues in a range of countries from Australia to Iceland. The issues facing various cultures with different socio-economic pressures and where horses are used very differently was also highlighted. Practical welfare issues ranging from ethologically sound (beneficial based on behavioral research) housing to training techniques and the assessment of pain were also discussed in greater depth.

Throughout the workshop, concern was expressed about the harm that could be done by caregivers with good intentions, but not always humane techniques. Examination of many popular practices revealed that there was still insufficient evidence for many beneficial claims made, and real harm could even occur (such as with improper methods of imprint training). Education of the public is key to improving equine welfare, but this must be based on sound science rather than opinion. However, funding for researching these matters is limited. Participants developed this consensus statement on the importance of collective responsibility for equine welfare and the relationship between scientists and the media for improved welfare:

"The group proposes that the welfare of the captive horses is both an individual and societal responsibility. Research is required into both the fundamental and applied aspects of equine behavior to facilitate the development and dissemination of soundly based scientific knowledge to help provide optimal welfare in practice. In order to achieve this, it is important that good research is widely communicated and not misrepresented in public interpretations of the work."

A new text on developing and managing horse behavior will be produced next year by Cambridge University Press. Meanwhile, readers can see abstracts from the conference at:

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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