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Report identifies main ‘welfare challenges’ to horses

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01 August 2016, at 1:00am

UNRESOLVED STRESS/PAIN behaviour, inappropriate nutrition, inappropriate stabling/turnout and delayed death have been identified in a report published by the University of Bristol as “the four priority challenges to equine welfare in England and Wales”.

The study aimed to understand the welfare status of horses in England and Wales, identify priority welfare issues and explore horse owner and industry experts’ perceptions of these issues.

The report includes a number of recommendations for dealing with the challenges: 

  1. In light of limitations on resources, equine welfare charities, governing bodies of equine sports, research funders and the wider equine industry should focus their attention on these priority welfare challenges.
  2. Industry leaders, including welfare charities, should lobby the Government to seek amendments to the existing EU passport legislation to allow horses that are currently banned from entering the human food chain, due to treatment with certain prohibited substances, to be slaughtered for human consumption after a suitable withdrawal period.
  3. Leaders in the equine industry, including the equine welfare charities, should actively promote the Codes of Practice and government guidance relating to equine welfare among those who own and care for horses; and should lobby Government to ensure that the Codes of Practice are maintained and regularly updated in the light of new information.
  4. Equine welfare charities, with the support of veterinary surgeons, BEVA and academics, should now develop and promote appropriate welfare assessment protocols to be used by horse owners.

The report also called on the equine industry to not lose sight of the fact that a further 58 separate welfare issues were identified in the study.

The report, “Horses in our hands: Equine welfare in England and Wales”, documents a three-year project carried out by a multi- disciplinary team of researchers at the Bristol veterinary school, including Sue Horseman, a PhD student; Dr Becky Whay, reader in animal welfare and behaviour; and Dr Siobhan Mullan, research fellow in animal welfare science, ethics and law.

They were supported by three professors: Toby Knowles (farming and food science), Alistair Barr (veterinary surgery) and Henry Buller (geography at Exeter University).

Speaking at the launch in the Houses of Parliament in London last month, Dr Whay said she hoped the whole equine world would gather around the findings of the report. “Our aim was to use good science to understand the breadth of the challenges we face.”

Funding was provided by World Horse Welfare, whose chief executive, Roly Owers, described the report as “a seminal work”. But, he said, “This is words; what counts are actions.”

He hopes a strategy will be developed to address each of the four priority issues and is aiming to have the report distributed at the BEVA congress in September, WHW’s own conference in November, and is seeking to have a debate on it in the House of Lords.

Solutions identified

The report includes a section headed “Future directions to improve equine welfare”, which reports on an “expert workshop” at the end of the research to discuss possible solutions to the four priority challenges.

Unresolved stress/ pain behaviour More academic research is needed to fully understand the links between behaviour, stress and pain and to develop objective measures of stress and pain in horses. Vets, riding instructors, the Pony Club, riding clubs and the equine press were all identified as having a role in educating horse caregivers about indicators of stress and pain and appropriate responses to these indicators. Academics and experts were also seen to have a role in tackling this issue through evaluating the effectiveness of intervention programmes. 

Inappropriate nutrition 

Vets have a key role in tackling the problems associated with inappropriate nutrition with a harmonised approach by all vets needed, otherwise horse owners would preferentially choose vets who didn’t challenge them about their horses’ nutrition. Feed companies also play an important role in tackling this issue,

although many experts felt that feed companies already offer appropriate nutrition for a range of horses and exercise situations. Better owner education, based on existing good research, was seen as a requirement to ensure the right nutritional choices were made for individual horses.

Inappropriate stabling/turnout 

The experts recognised that although all horse owners make choices relating to the amount and type of stabling and turnout experienced by their horses, livery yard owners could play a particular role in addressing this issue.

For example, livery owners have a role in the promotion of alternative approaches to management, including group housing and the use of all-weather turnout facilities.

Strengthening legislation was seen as another possible route to improvement but it was emphasised that a ‘one size fits all’ approach would be inappropriate. For example, it was felt by some experts that, for some horses, turn out to pasture may not always be appropriate.

Delayed death

Some experts felt that one route to improvement would be via pressure on the EU to make changes to the passport regulations.

In particular, they called for legislation changes that would enable horses who had received medications, including phenylbutazone, to be slaughtered to enter the human food chain after a six-month withdrawal period. In addition, challenging negative attitudes of horse owners towards timely euthanasia was seen to be important. 

  • The full report can be read on (or downloaded from) www.worldhorsewelfare.org/survey-equine-welfare-england-and-wales.