A RETHINK ON EQUINE WELFARE
Historically, equine welfare has been based around physical health. Our care of horses – and farm animals in general – has been guided by the Five Freedoms, which were established in 1965 in the UK by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. The Five Freedoms are freedom from thirst and hunger; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom from fear and distress; and freedom to express natural behaviours. All very important aspects of horse welfare, but as Dr Owers explains, in this day and age we need to be taking more into consideration.
The majority of the Five Freedoms focus on what a horse shouldn’t put up with – rather than what they should have. “They (the Five Freedoms) have run their course,” says Dr Owers. “They are almost all about reducing negative aspects of life, but not promoting the positive.”
Instead, Dr Owers believes we should be looking at the Five Domains: nutrition, health, environment, behaviour… and how they all link back to and impact mental state. It’s about providing positive experiences, rather than just looking to eliminate the negative. A horse’s mental health should be considered alongside physical health.
Animal welfare expert Professor David Mellor once said, “…the overall objective is to provide opportunities for animals to thrive, not simply survive”, and Dr Owers believes this notion is something we should all keep in mind when caring for our horses.
Dr Owers explains that welfare starts with breeding, and careful consideration needs to be given around the market for the numbers being bred. Although this is where racing comes under scrutiny, it is still the case across all breeds. We must also be cautious not to create the same issue as dog breeders, where welfare is compromised to breed genetic freaks; while it’s not a widespread issue yet, Dr Owers believes the horse industry could be in danger of it.
Freedom, forage and friends have all proven to have an impact on a horse’s health and mental wellbeing; in the wild, horses graze for up to 17 hours per day and live in a herd. However, there are many domestic horses that are considered to be well cared for, who don’t necessarily have open access to these three F’s. Stable and yard confinement, reduced access to pasture and keeping horses in individual enclosures all have impact, and Dr Owers explains that we need to begin to rethink how horses are kept.
“We’re always learning and evolving what we should be doing – the horse world is quite conservative and we need to be more open minded. Just because we’ve done something for decades, doesn’t make it right,” says Dr Owers.
In the sport horse sector, training is of course important. Just as we need to focus on the horse’s positive experiences (rather than just the elimination of negative ones), we also need to consider rethinking training practices where a correct response is rewarded by the removal of a negative aid, rather than being encouraged by positive reinforcement.
Dr Owers does not assert that applying pressure and releasing for a correct response is cruel or even incorrect; he merely raises the idea that there are other ways to train in some instances. For example, clicker training has been successfully used with horses by a number of trainers — could it be used more widely?
Dr Owers touched on tight nosebands, explaining that while it’s important not to have a noseband done up too tightly it’s not the main issue. “Real pressure points are around a horse’s poll and cheeks where the major nerve supply is. Yes, the noseband is important, but the focus should be around bridle fit, not just noseband fit. We talk a lot about saddle fit but not enough about bridle fit.”
And what about the use of bits? Well, as Dr Owers explains, it’s not a one size fits all answer; horses are different and suit different equipment. He doesn’t believe bitless bridles are necessary good or bad; like other bridles, they can still be fitted incorrectly! They are simply a different option that might suit some horses.
Lifetime tracing and end of life experiences
There has been much said on the importance of having a national traceability register for all horses in Australia. Responsible use of horses in sport is a lifetime commitment; in the public eye, it’s a case of “once a racehorse always a racehorse” and the same can be said for horses in the equestrian sector. Dr Owers believes that equine ID is fundamental to protect health and welfare as it’s the only way to make people accountable and ensure that horses are looked after throughout each phase of their life, from elite competition, to amateur competition, pleasure riding, work as a therapy animal or companion, and their end of life experience.
That final phase is one that Dr Owers identifies as a big welfare issue. He explains that horses are quite unique in that they can fulfil multiple roles in their lifetime, from those mentioned above, to even slaughter for food at the end of the line. Dr Owers is not against slaughter, providing it is done in a humane manner at every step along the way. He is very clear that quality of life needs to come ahead of quantity of life, and we need to make sure that at each point new owners have the competence to look after the animal and we’re not “getting rid of the problem” to a new owner. It’s about taking responsibility.
Making an end of life decision and facilitating a “good death” is part of our responsibility as horse owners and it’s something we need to consider early on, not at the last minute when it becomes absolutely necessary — as this is more likely to lead to an unpleasant death. A horse’s end of life experience is not an easy topic to think about, however, as a responsible horse owner it’s something that cannot be ignored.
WE ALL HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY
Everyone involved in equestrian sports has a role to play in equine welfare and subsequently the sport’s “social licence”.
Dr Owers believes that it begins with more research: we need a better understanding of how to improve horse welfare, and also the public perception of our sport. Improving horse welfare means looking at practices that have become ingrained over time, and through research determining whether or not there is a better way. Furthermore, if we better understand what the public thinks, it lets us tell the story of our partnership with horses in a more effective way. The use of ambassadors — role models in the sport — is an important place to start, however, the buck doesn’t stop with them… we all have a role to play.
Horse sports need public support to have a future, and that public support is very dependent on the welfare of the horse being put first, and being seen to be put first. While many of us genuinely feel that our horses love being ridden, this feeling — while quite possibly true — is often based on arbitrary anecdotes rather than sound scientific justification. We know that our horses generally like being around us and enjoy their role, however, we need to better understand the true benefits of horse sports to horses — and how we can communicate that message to the world. EQ
Watch Dr Owers’ complete seminar here, courtesy of Equestrian Victoria.