Welfare Concerns

Because protecting the health and welfare of the horse is one of the American Association of Equine Practitioner's (AAEP) core missions, the association has a standing committee of equine veterinarians dedicated to continuously monitoring issues affecting horse welfare.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association's position on animal welfare, animal welfare is a human responsibility that encompasses all aspects of animal well-being, including proper housing, management, disease prevention and treatment, responsible care, humane handling, and, when necessary, humane euthanasia.

As veterinarians, the members of the AAEP Equine Welfare Committee endorse the concept of human responsibility and use it as a guiding principle when evaluating the issues that have the most impact on the horse.

Some of the equine welfare issues important today are issues that are not new to the equine industry. The practice of soring is one of these.

The "soring" of gaited horses is an inhumane practice that, in most cases, involves the application of an irritating or blistering agent to the limb of a horse in order to force the horse to accentuate its gait. Burning or cutting the horse's limb, or using tacks, nails, or screws on the horse's limb, are additional forms of soring.

The Horse Protection Act of the United States strictly forbids soring, and the AAEP condemns the practice. Several organizations within the gaited horse community, particularly Tennessee Walking Horse groups, are dedicated to eliminating soring. The demand by horse owners themselves for an end to this practice is beginning to bring results. The USDA, with the full support of the AAEP, continues to inspect horses at shows around the country.

A relatively new welfare issue is the debate about legally defining a horse as livestock or a companion animal. Traditionally, and legally, horses have been considered livestock in the United States. However, some states are pursuing the possibility of changing this legal definition.

While there is no doubt that horses are very important companions to many of us, horses largely are still kept and raised on a farm or ranch, with many being used in a commercial enterprise. There are approximately 9.2 million horses in the United States, with approximately 2.7 million horses participating in shows and other competitions (American Horse Council Foundation's "The Economic Impact of the Horse Industry on the United States, 2005").

Changing the legal definition of horses to companion animals could have important equine welfare implications. The care and regulation of horses and horse-related activities come under the purview of the USDA on a national level.

In addition, the USDA provides valuable technical expertise and monetary support for such things as research into the prevention of equine diseases including equine viral arteritis, vesicular stomatitis virus, and Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis; the enforcement of the Horse Protection Act; and the enforcement of the regulations governing the humane transport of horses to a processing facility.

If livestock status is taken away from horses, there is a possibility of losing the already limited financial support equines receive from the USDA for research, regulation, and disaster relief.

As debate on this issue continues, horse owners and others should be mindful of the implications of such a change in legal status.

No other issue, however, has stirred as much passion and debate as the processing of horses. Federal legislation to end processing aside, the heart of the processing issue is truly the unwanted horse.

The AAEP has focused much effort on the plight of the unwanted horse. From the sponsorship of the nation's first-ever Unwanted Horse Summit to its continued involvement with the issue through the American Horse Council, the AAEP believes the equine industry must work to reduce the number of unwanted horses in our country.

This is a welfare issue that cannot be ignored, as horse owners and industry groups all bear responsibility.

About the Author

Tom Lenz, DVM, Dipl. ACT

Tom Lenz, DVM, Dipl. ACT, is chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of unwanted horses and to improving their welfare through education and the efforts of organizations committed to the health, safety, and responsible care and disposition of these horses. Lenz was the 49th president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and he has served on the American Horse Council's Animal Welfare Committee and the Research Committee of the American Quarter Horse Association.

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