Assessing Equine Welfare Objectively

Photo: iStock

By Siraya Chunekamrai, DVM, PhD
WEVA Regional Ambassador—Thailand
The Horseptial Equine Surgery, Nakornratchasima, Thailand
Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation
Cambodia Pony Welfare Organization

There are an estimated 100 million working equids in the world that are sources of financial stability for many families in developing countries. It is not beyond reason for a working horse owner to say that when “something happens to my horse or pony, then something happens to me.”

Today many agrarian societies are moving toward rapid development, and the horse, in this case, is often used in the tourism sector. The animal is contributing not only to a family’s income, but also to a community, township, or region’s identity and attraction. In either case, animal welfare is innately linked to human welfare.

People residing in developed countries often visit such places briefly and are sometimes quick to pass judgement on what is right or wrong. In fact, compassion often turns to personal or social campaigns against the use of animals believed to have poor welfare in these communities. But in banning such practices, what happens to the human welfare aspect?

Influencing change

Field veterinarians are required to be welfare scientists. But questions can abound for these practitioners:

  • How do I know if a horse has bad welfare?
  • What tools do I have to assess welfare?
  • Is there an objective way to do this?
  • And, in the end, if the purpose is to improve welfare, how can we make welfare assessment become a means to that end?

Photo: Courtesy Dr. Siraya Chunekamrai

An example: It’s obvious that the pony in the top left image has a poor body condition. The owner confessed to not feeding her much because she was “not working.” She was "only used as a broodmare."

Photo: Courtesy Dr. Siraya Chunekamrai

The difficult part here is not assessing the horse’s welfare, but creating a positive outcome. In this case, simple communication about the horse’s needs led to what looks like a different horse (bottom left).

Veterinarians can use an objective welfare assessment to generate a clearer picture of an animal’s welfare status. At present, there is no established method for assessing animal welfare, but various frameworks have been suggested. Their application requires knowledge of animal health and production and species-typical behavior. There is a large, but incomplete, body of data on farm and laboratory animal welfare, but fewer data are available on companion animals and fewer still on equine welfare.

Such a tool should be practical, robust, and, ideally, able to influence change.

How can we create objectivity?

There is a difference between the terms welfare science and welfare ethics. Welfare science measures the effects that different situations and environments have on animals, from the animal’s point of view, whereas welfare ethics concern how humans should treat animals.

An objective welfare assessment approach should be based on science. We can approach it by looking at three aspects: physical, mental, and naturalness. When placed into a framework of analyzing “input” factors (such as management, environment, and genetics) and “output” factors (such as clinical signs and behavior), these three aspects can help veterinarians score animals’ welfare state objectively.

Also, it’s important not to overlook a few specific situations that might be easy to miss:

  • Safe Enclosures: Barbed wire fencing is poor welfare input for horses. We might not score this if we don’t look for it. Veterinarians might only see an animal that’s sustained an injury (due to barbed wire, whether the owner informs the vet or not), but hasn’t had the opportunity to evaluate the horse’s paddock. Our assessment is, therefore, limited to veterinary treatment and will not influence change.
  • Behavior: A behavior assessment should also be part of the evaluation. It’s important to not just focus on negative aspects, but also look for positive emotions, such as positive interactions with humans, allo-grooming, and a sense of safety (horses lying down, for instance).

Look for positive emotions when assessing equine welfare, such as allo-grooming.

Photo: iStock

How can an assessment tool influence change?

We must remember there is always compromise, as horses are kept to serve a function in human society. But, though it’s in the owner’s best interest to ensure good welfare for their horse so he or she functions well, often this does not happen. If we used an assessment tool to “police” owners through regulatory methods or creating legislation, would this influence change? If being audited, evaluated, and judged does not change human behavior, what about “self-evaluation”?

The veterinary community has long used self-assessment tools. A good example are animal hospital standards and accreditation schemes whereby practice owners willingly subject their practice to evaluations and accreditation.

Possible applications

Veterinarians could use assessment score charts to generate accreditation schemes for pony carts in tourist destinations. Further, there could be incentives for communities and stakeholders under government-run programs. Additionally, equestrian federations can use these assessment tools to honor riding clubs as “welfare-accredited” establishments.

We all interpret horse welfare differently, depending on our ideas as well as the social context in which the horse is living. The key point in welfare assessment is not to point out what is right or wrong, but how we can influence change for the welfare of horses and humans alike.

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