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How can we guarantee welfare for our horses?

Updated: May 10, 2023

I am (and I am sure you are, too) all for physiological and psychological health and happiness in horses - or welfare. Sounds simple but of course it’s much more complex in real life.

Everything starts with the definition of what welfare, health and happiness is, because people tend to have different views on things due to the very fabric of existence (we all have different experiences that shape our brains so we all do have in fact different world views, literally)

In the animal protection law, welfare is the absence of sickness, pain and suffering and the presence of experienced comfort.

Fair enough but still, that lies in the eye of the observer right?

Especially with animals, who can not talk and will hide weaknesses, it’s almost impossible to tell if an individual is experiencing stress or pain or comfort. Well, almost.

Since the last few decennia we have more and more evolved in our abilities and ethics to study and understand animals.

We do understand that welfare is more than just the basic absence of suffering. We do realise that an animal has to actively fulfill and satisfy its complex needs - just as we do.

And with ‘we’ I mean a broad variety of scientist, professionals and private people that are involved with theses topics. But it’s unfortunately not all and by far not the broad mass.

So there’s work to do.

To my surprise, during my studies of ethology, I found several welfare assessment protocols for horses (even one dutch made) with pretty good standards, that can be used to determine health and happiness in an objective and scientific way.

I am just doubting that they are being used - if not just for high prestige and profitable companies.

Because being in the industry and meeting and talking to a lot of people with a variety of backgrounds - these standards are seldom met. Even further, people seem rarely aware of the importance of welfare and how we affect it through management and training.

It’s like two worlds clashing - the scientistic studies and findings, written down, black on white and accepted by a professional community versus what is really going on in the minds and stables and what the daily life is like for so many horses.

And maybe that’s the problem, these two worlds are too far away from each other.

Studying ethology takes time - like a lot. It's dry matter chained to theories. Not everyone can and will be involved in the science community and spend years and money on studies.

So let me transport and translate some of it to the stables, because that’s were I am from as well.

I read papers with difficult words and smell like horse poop.

Here’s how you can determine the health and happiness of your horse.

First we can start to look at the horse and make assessments of his outward experience, then we check the living conditions under certain standards. After that we go for evaluating the behaviours and the human-horse relationship and lastly we use an assessment tool to check the emotional state.

The outward appearance
  1. Body Condition Score You may have heard of it, especially when your horse is a good keeper, to keep track of its weight and condition. We have 5 scores, ranking from significantly underweight to critically obese. The score is available everywhere on the internet.

  2. Hydration and the presence of good water sources. Of course every horse should have constant acces to fresh water in a clean state. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the horse drinks enough. Some horses prefer certain buckets or water qualities. You can check the state of hydration with pulling up the skin on the neck in a little wrinkle. The wrinkle should immediately disappear as soon as you let go. If it stays for a second or even longer, the horse is dehydrated.

  3. Bedding or the possibility to sleep Horses can slumber standing, but nonetheless they need to lie down flat to go into deep sleep. Management should provide that by areas that are big enough, calm, soft and dry so the horses will lie down fully. That includes the size of the box or the management of a paddock. The size of a box depends on the height of the horse, for a warmblood around 160 cm to the withers the box should have at least 10m2 which means roughly 3 by 3 meters. Horses that don’t lie down to deep sleep will eventually be sleep deprived with all its consequences.

  4. Next we look at hairless patches, skin lesions, wounds or swelling on the whole body, starting from the muzzles all over to the hooves. Alterations bigger than 1 by 2cm or 4cm in length should be noted. More than 20 alterations per area or alterations bigger than the palm of your hand are point of concern, same as swollen joints.

  5. The hair and coat condition can tell us a lot as well, especially during changing seasons. The coat should be smooth and shiny.

  6. Let’s also have a look at discharges from the nostrils, eyes, genitals and the quality of poop. The presence of discharge can be a sign of diseases, like yellow, thick discharge in the nose or eyes, or watery discharge before, during or after pooping. Healthy manure is structured, dry and darker in color, while abnormal manure is watery, loose, smells strongly or is too dry and causes obstructions.

  7. Heavy breathing or coughing are always a reason for concern.

  8. Now we check the horses movements, if we can see any patterns or lameness. How good can the horse stand up, lie down, lameness on hard even surface in walk and trot.

  9. Quality of the hooves are important for this as well. Hooves that are too long or show any kind of deformation need to be addressed by a professional and any additional strain like riding should be quit until the horse is sound again.

Lastly for this long list is the checking for pain face. The Horse Grimace Scale is a great tool that is available on the internet. You can also check out my earlier articles on posts on that topic.

Let’s get to the behaviours.

  1. Social behaviours should be overall possible for all horses, ranking as the best is turnout in a group and the lowest is visual contact. Solitary keeping is in no way ethical or species appropriate.

  2. Look for stereotypical behaviours, like weaving, cribbing, nodding. In a healthy and happy horse none should be present.

  3. Curiosity and fear, or emotional regulation. A horse should be naturally curious and confident enough to approach unknown objects. It should also be able to regulate its fear after sudden movements and sounds. Tests with presenting objects can be done ,while we consider a maximum of 5 minutes to approach and re-approach objects that can trigger fear.

  4. The human-horse relationship can be evaluated by approaching a horse slowly with a slightly raised arm like you want to make contact (hand to nostrils). If avoidance behaviours like moving away, pinning the ears, raising the head are displayed, stop te approach. A good relationship does not include avoidance behaviour but should include curiosity and relaxation.

To determine the emotional state, we can also make use of the Qualitative Behaviour Assessment (QBA) which uses adjectives to describe behaviour in a certain context and period of time.

This assessment however asks for a good knowledge of the horse ethogram, quite the skilled eye to asses behaviours in real life and self-reflection to rule out anthropomorphism.

Adjectives that can be used to describe the quality of a behaviour are:

Aggressive, alarmed, annoyed, apathetic, at ease, curious, friendly, fearful, happy, looking for contact, relaxed, pushy and uneasy.

We can distinguish these adjectives by intensity and duration and make an overal evaluation of the emotional state of the horse after having it observed in various situation on various moments.

To use these assessments reliable and objective much more knowledge and training is needed to give professional advice. But for you at home it can be a good starting point to look for welfare in your own stable and circle of influence.

Because that’s where we need to start to guarantee welfare for horses.

Lets sum up what welfare should look like:

Your horse as an

appropriate nutrition ad hydration,

comfort for rest and sleep,

moves easily,

has no injuries or disease, no pain and chronic stress,

it can express social behaviours,

curiosity and emotional regulation,

shows no stereotypical behaviours and lastly

feels comfortable and relaxed around humans.

Of course there are nuances to all of these criteria and you can better place it on a scale than view it with an all or nothing mindset. A lot of things are also a process and can and will change over time.

If you want to dive deeper into the matter or just check my sources for creditability:

The AWIN welfare assessment protocol for horses, Dalla Costa et al., 2015

The QBA Qualitative Behaviour Assessment, Wemelsfelder, 2007

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