Horse keeping is a compromise between horse biology and human requirements. In spite of good human intention, equine welfare can be compromised; sometimes in ways that aren’t even predicted. Yet all who have to do with horses are expected to comply with the Animal Welfare Act 2006 – to act in such a way that the horse is protected from any unnecessary suffering. This leaves us with quite a broad scope of things for consideration:
The fundamental question is: What is welfare?
In 1997, Professor Donald Broome considered it to be the following:
“The state of an individual as regards his attempts to cope with the environment”
Donald Broome and Andrew Fraser, Farm Animal Behaviour and Welfare, CABI 3rd Edition, 1997.
This is typical of the time. During the ‘90’s the predominant welfare science thinking was that if an animal was coping, e.g. they were healthy and behaving normally, then the environment had no negative effect on welfare. The Five Freedoms that had been in existence since the 1960s had catalysed this progress in thinking about about animal welfare; particularly the welfare of production animals in the (then) new industrial scale farming systems.
More adventurous thinkers, such as those who believed that animals are sentient beings, also inferred that the animal was also free from undue negative emotional experiences; so more than just freedom from physical detriment. It is worth noting that negative emotional experiences can be independent from negative physical effects e.g. experiencing chronic frustration and/or fear while otherwise appearing perfectly healthy.
Today scientists who study animal welfare have taken this thinking further, for example:
“Now, animal welfare is equivalent to what the animal experiences”
Prof. David Mellor, Animal Emotions, Behaviour and the Promotion of
Positive Welfare States. New Zealand Veterinary Journal – 2012
The main result of this thinking is the change in ideas about what a suitable living environment is. No longer just somewhere to keep an animal sheltered, fed, watered and free from injury and disease, e.g. a traditional stabling regime. It is also somewhere that the animal can carry out their natural behavioural repertoire, seeking for and gaining pleasure, and not simply being able to avoid negative outcomes:
“In the conscious, sentient animal, the drives to secure food, shelter, social contact, and mates are motivated by desire (appetitive behaviour) and reinforced by pleasure (consummative behaviour).”
Dr. Jonathon Balcombe, Animal pleasure and its moral significance. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 118 (2009) 208–216
It is not simply having all their requirements presented to them on a plate that provides pleasure, it is having the facility of an enriched environment to seek out and gain those requirements for themselves that makes life worth living.
What level of welfare is acceptable to you?
Freedom from negative effects on health?
The horse is able to avoid unpleasant emotional experiences?
The horse can freely engage in pleasurable emotional experiences?
Here is my “Rough Guide” to Equine Welfare:
I consider equine welfare in three ways:
Physical health: It goes without saying that poor health = poor welfare.
Emotional health: Welfare is a state that is experienced:
Horses have the same 7 basic neurological systems for emotion as other mammals including us (Panksepp & Biven, The Archaeology of Mind, 2012). Since they have these systems they are capable of experiencing both positive and negative emotional states. Being subject to unavoidable and inescapable negative emotional states, because of an unsuitable living environment and/or training regime, particularly for long periods of time causes chronic stress, and as such is a welfare concern.
Adaptive lifestyle: Biologically speaking, horses function best in the environment they evolved in. The closer the horse’s living conditions are to that, the greater facility they have for taking care of their selves as they are naturally driven to do. Provide this and the likelihood is you will also be providing for physical and emotional health.
Optimising a horse’s welfare is a careful balance of all of the above while minimising detriment. Anyone who is responsible for horses in their care can achieve this, even without the ideal 24/7 turnout lifestyle on perfect free draining land in a perfect year round climate! As well as scientific understanding of how free living horses use the natural environment, I have over a decade’s experience in creating environmental enrichment solutions in a variety of different yards.
I am also well versed in learning theory – the ‘science bit’ about how horses learn – and applying it to training in a humane manner, without causing pain or distress, and even in such a way that the horse becomes a happy participant!
Welfare consultancy services: I provide bespoke welfare consultancy from the behavioural perspective in all aspects of horse training and management for government and local authorities, charities, equine organisations, businesses and private individuals.
For example: yard/housing design; environmental enrichment; horse training strategies; staff training.
Please contact me to discuss your requirements.