We’ll be starting some videos on various topics around equine welfare and well-being so make sure you subscribe to EBSI’s YouTube channel to catch our new content… videos coming soon!
We’ll be starting some videos on various topics around equine welfare and well-being so make sure you subscribe to EBSI’s YouTube channel to catch our new content… videos coming soon!
Equine housing and the implications of confinement on horse welfare has come into strong focus over the last few years, especially among horse owners that are looking for alternative husbandry practices. The interest in more extensive-type solutions is growing; people are opting for this as opposed to the traditional fixed stabling and limited turnout that is common in intensive management systems.
Many horses are predominately still housed in fixed stalls with little to no social contact with other horses and turnout that is limited to a few hours of controlled exercise per day. Many stabling facilities and riding schools also prescribe to this method of housing simply because it is the norm and has been the standard for many years.
There are numerous reasons for housing horses in this way; the primary reason being to protect the horse from injury caused by interacting with other horses. Owners also prefer this housing style as a way of preventing marking from superficial wounds and scratches that could impact scores in competition. Intensive housing makes management and care easier as the horse is less likely to become dirty in its stable and can easily be tacked up or turned out for training and competition. Less space is required in an intensive system as the need for multiple paddocks and turnout areas is not a necessity.
While all of these reasons are beneficial to the organisation or the person, what about what’s good for the horse and its welfare? Scientific research and studies exploring equine behaviour and ethological needs have clearly identified that horses require the ability to move, to socialise with other horses, and to forage in order to maintain physical and mental well-being. These innate needs are rarely, if at all, satisfied within an intensive management housing system.
Furthermore, studies exploring individual versus group housing have clearly demonstrated that the latter shows improved welfare and overall well-being if implemented correctly.
Here are five aspects that you should consider for welfare-friendly housing for your horse:
Horses are social and they require regular interaction with their own species on a daily basis. Studies have found that social isolation in horses leads to a negative affective state akin to depression in humans. This can lead to the development of behavioural problems and more severe issues such as self-mutilation and actual health problems.
The onset of this depressive state can occur within a short period therefore it is especially important to ensure that your horse has the opportunity to frequently interact with other horses and perform normal social behaviours.
Brief periods of isolation, such as for veterinary procedures, travelling or schooling, are unavoidable but whenever possible alternative solutions should be explored. Sharing boxes with other horses when travelling longer distances, alternating some of your schooling to include group sessions or training in an area where other horses are nearby and visible are some effective ways of alleviating possible anxiety issues that could stem from social isolation.
Horse owners often believe that their (human) company serves as a replacement for equine friends but this is simply not the case. Horses require conspecific (same species as their own) interaction both psychologically and physiologically. Social behaviours utilise the equine senses across the spectrum – sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch – and horses require these ‘connections’ with their own kind in order to fully satisfy ethological needs.
There are of course substitutions in the form of other equids such as donkeys and mules which provide great companionship for horses in cases where owners only have one horse on the property. In this case other farm animals can also fulfill this need, such as goats for instance, however owners should note that while companionship may be provided by these other species, they don’t usually satisfy social behaviour needs specific to horses.
Questions to ask when evaluating your housing options:
Horses require near constant movement in order to biologically function at an optimal level. Most physiological functions require movement – circulatory and respiratory functions, digestive function, thermoregulation – even resting in horses is anatomically set up to take place mostly while standing.
It’s no wonder therefore that the majority of innate equine behaviours require some form of movement in order to take place. This is extremely important to account for when considering the amount of space your housing should provide for your horse.
Picture your horse doing a whole series of moves like horse yoga and evaluate whether the space provided allows for this. If the space can’t allow for rolling, turning around fully, rearing up, lying down fully or stretching out then it’s not of adequate size. Small spaces that don’t provide for innate behaviours to take place properly can often contribute to the development of locomotive stereotypies such as box walking and weaving.
Horses also have specific maintenance behaviours that need to take place in order for them to maintain homeostasis. These include basics such as elimination (urinating, defecating), ingestion of food and water, grooming etc. so any housing facility provided must allow for these behaviours to be performed comfortably. In a natural/outdoors setting horses will not graze near elimination areas so this is something you should keep in mind when evaluation housing.
Questions to ask when evaluating your housing options:
Horses are herbivorous trickle feeders, meaning that they eat small but frequent meals consisting of low nutritional quality matter such as grasses, leaves and various other plant materials.
What horses ingest and how they do it is all due to the anatomy of their digestive system. In order to protect the stomach from harsh stomach acids that could cause gastric ulcers and colic, horses eat nearly constantly and they eat fibrous materials such as grasses that take a long time to digest.
The manner in which horses seek out plant materials is called foraging and horses eat by grazing which means they take small bites at one spot and then move on to a different spot and so on. Horses are always moving about while grazing and in this way they are also ingesting a variety of different plant materials.
Researchers estimate that horses spend approximately 16-18 hours per day grazing and foraging which accounts for nearly 70% of their entire day.
Horses that are managed intensively are normally fed two large meals per day consisting of concentrate feed that is rich in starch and protein. Roughage such as grass and lucerne are often provided as an addition to these meals but due to the long hours of confinement and limited turnout, most horses within this type of management system run out of roughage quickly and are without food for long periods of time. They also have limited to no opportunity to forage and often suffer from gastro-intestinal problems such as colic and gastric ulcers.
Questions to ask when evaluating your housing options:
Horses are very simple when it comes to their needs so ‘comfort’ from an equine perspective is vastly different to the way humans perceive comfort.
When planning housing for your horses, you want to ensure that you provide an environment that is safe, dry, well ventilated, well-lit, not overly bright and not too warm or too cold. Basically, the more you simulate an outdoor environment the better. It’s easy to say that horses would be most comfortable outside but there are also many factors to consider in your outdoor environment in terms of comfort and safety should you want to have your horses turned out 24/7.
When it comes to comfort and safety you need to look at the macro and micro elements in order to provide a horse-friendly space.
Macro elements definitely have an impact on comfort regardless of if it’s an outdoor or indoor space. Macro elements include items such as:
windows and doors or fencing, the layout and size of the space, the ventilation and temperature, the amount of protection offered from the elements and insects, the air quality, the level of noise or amount of environmental disruptions, the lighting…
The details matter too. Micro elements can easily be overlooked but can end up being the deciding factors. Consider elements such as:
the type of bedding used, whether you are feeding from raised feeders and nets or from floor level, the size of the gaps between fence rails, bars, posts etc., the stability of the ground and potential for holes or major elevation changes, the safety, stability and durability of other objects within the housing area, any potentially harmful branches or toxic plant materials, the type of flooring used and if it is non-slip, are you considering social dynamics if your housing in groups, if housing individually are you considering social behaviour as this is a primary source of comfort and safety for horses.
The list of details seems endless and it can be a daunting experience when planning housing. The key aspects you want to cover are whether your horse is able to perform inherent, normal behaviours without causing itself injury, pain, or discomfort. Bearing in mind that accidents do happen and we can’t possibly control all situations but only mitigate potential risks as much as possible.
Questions to ask when evaluating your housing options:
Enrichment refers to enhancing the quality or value of something, whether it’s an experience or a living space for example. To enrich an environment means that you would add elements into that space to make it more comfortable and more pleasant to be in.
Environmental enrichment has two levels – the macro and the micro.
The macro level considers basic comfort and evaluates the structure of the housing – are there windows in the horse stall, does the stall allow some contact between horses, what size is the housing, if it’s a paddock does it have shade and grass or is it a barren dust pit? These are all basic elements that can elevate the housing and make it far more pleasant for the horse to spend time in.
The micro level considers details specific to the species and normal horse behaviour, such as the type of bedding used and the thickness of that bedding, or what kind of view is outside of the window – is it of a concrete wall or is it of other horses or fields which are objects the horse would recognise and associate as pleasant.
Environmental enrichment is an important aspect of equine housing because it can greatly help elevate a space that may have some environmental challenges. Horses housed in groups with plenty of paddock space and turnout time have adequate opportunities to perform inherent behaviours and would spend most of their day grazing and moving about with other horses. These horses are less prone to becoming bored and developing problem behaviours associated with a poor housing environment.
A horse housed individually with limited turnout time may become bored due to the inability to fill its time with normal activities. The horse may succumb to ‘frustration’ behaviours which we tend to call stereotypies, such as door kicking, fence or box walking, and wood chewing. Down the line more serious behavioural problems may begin occurring due to a build-up of stress and anxiety.
Enriching the horses housing environment may stimulate mental and physical activity and engage the horse enough in order to encourage exploration behaviour. The easiest way to enrich the environment is to encourage foraging and to create opportunities for the horse to seek out its food, such as hiding it in various equine-safe toys or objects that encourage exploration. If the housing space allows for it, space the objects as far apart as possible to encourage movement. Hiding things under straw or creating mulch pathways, adding a sand pit or a water source can also enable the horse to experience materials similar to what would be available in a natural outdoor environment. These varying surfaces also encourage natural behaviours such as rolling and pawing.
Questions to ask:
Most horse owners lead a busy life with multiple commitments vying for their attention each day. Finding the time to interact with our horses can be challenging and usually means that when we make it to the stables we get straight to work.
While this may allow you to take advantage of your lunch break or those precious 90 minutes before you need to get home to make dinner, it could mean that you are skipping over important welfare indicators that could tell you a lot about how your horse is feeling mentally and physically.
If there’s anything we know about cutting corners it’s that in the long run it doesn’t pay off. Taking a few minutes off your training schedule to do this five-point welfare check can improve overall performance. A horse that feels good emotionally and physically will learn faster, respond better and be more engaged with you.
Your horse’s sleeping area is a huge repository of welfare indicators that tell you a lot about their affective state. A distressed animal will leave tell-tale signs of poor welfare. Heavily disturbed bedding can indicate box walking, untouched bedding except for a section by an opening could indicate weaving. Undisturbed bedding could also mean that your horse isn’t sleeping properly. Kick marks or any damages to walls and doors could indicate box kicking or casting. Damage to ledges on doors or windows may point to oral stereotypies such as crib biting or wood chewing.
A typical stable or sleep area should show signs of movement and lateral recumbent rest.
There should be signs that your horse has urinated and defecated. Checking faeces should be second nature to horse owners. The quality and quantity of fecal matter is a major health indicator.
You should also check for sharp or dangerous objects. Stables should be free of nails, glass or any items on the floor that can injure your horse. The walls, doors, windows and other openings should be safe, free of sharp ends. Any openings in the stable should be small enough to prevent your horse from getting their feet or head stuck..
If you are only able to arrive after the stable has been cleaned speak to the staff and make sure they are keeping an eye out for signs of problems.
No matter what work you do with your horse or at what level you engage with them, you will use some form of equipment. Your horse may also be shod or wear a fly mask or blanket. They should also be receiving daily grooming which calls for brushes, combs and hoof picks to name a few.
It is imperative that all the tools and equipment associated with your horse are clean, in good condition and used only on your horse to prevent the spreading of diseases. Any tack or equipment you will use on your horse should be all of the above but also be well fitted and suitable to your horse not only in size and comfort but also appropriate to their level of training, their physical ability and their development. All equipment and tools should only be used by a skilled person who is able to correctly and safely use them.
You should never use dirty, broken or unsafe/inappropriate equipment on your horse. Doing so can cause pain and discomfort and could injure not only your horse but anyone that works with them.
Horses primarily use body language to communicate. Humans are mostly vocal communicators so we tend to run into issues when it comes to interacting with ‘quieter’ species.
One of the ways to improve horse-human communication is to find a common language. Horses have learned to respond to vocal, visual and tactile cues from humans. It is only fair that humans learn to respond to these same cues from horses too. The best way to do this is to watch and observe your horse in it’s ‘natural’ setting i.e. a setting where they are interacting with the environment or other horses without any human interference, in their paddocks for example.
Observe the way your horse responds to stimuli and situations so that you can build a repository of behaviours that have specific meanings. Soon you will be able to build your own horse ‘language’ and learn to read and accurately interpret their responses to you and your cues.
Our instinct may be to immediately rush into the paddock and get on with our schedule. But it is rewarding to spend a few minutes watching your horse before you interact with them.
You will quickly be able to determine how they are feeling, what mood they’re in, whether they are passive and less energetic or if they are really active and full of energy. These are not only indicators of welfare and affective state but they are also indicative of the type of interaction you can expect to have with your horse.
If you were planning to have a quiet, relaxed trail ride and your horse is racing around the paddock, bucking and squealing away, it may be better that you choose an activity that is more suitable to your horse’s current mood and energy levels to avoid conflict or possible safety issues. Maybe your horse is currently resting but you wanted a jumping session; it would be more appropriate to choose a more relaxing activity or to come back later when they are more active.
This goes against the grain for many people. Horses should fit into our schedules rather than the other way around. Besides the obvious welfare considerations and basic animal rights issues, working with a willing and cooperative animal makes for a safer and more productive session. An engaged horse that is cooperative will learn faster, respond better to cues and will be much safer and more pleasant to handle.
Most human conversations start off with some basic pleasantries and small talk. Great weather, lots of traffic, busy weekend, office politics… Most human-human engagements allow for a few minutes of small talk before going into the main purpose of the engagement. We seem to skip this step when it comes to human-horse engagements.
Humans are purpose and goal oriented and run on schedules that are driven by these goals and aspirations. Horses have no aspirations or goals other than surviving and following natural daily cycles in order to achieve this. Hunger means grazing time, lack of energy signals rest, excessive energy results in running or playing and external threats mean flight or fight.
When going to the stables most horse owners have a purpose in mind. Whether it’s to ride, train or simply spend time with their horse there is a defined goal. There are actions attached to this goal and most involve fetching the horse from the paddock or stable.
Here’s a typical scenario: horse owner arrives at the stables, grabs the halter and lead, goes to the paddock and calls for their horse or goes up to them. A quick rub and treat is quickly followed by the horse being haltered and off marches the owner with horse in tow. No small talk.
Imagine being yanked away instantly no matter what you’re doing… you wouldn’t like that much would you?
Take some time to say hello, to let your horse finish off whatever activity they are busy with. Before haltering your horse walk around a bit with them and spend some time just enjoying some small talk.
If your horse is hesitant to leave you need to evaluate why. Are they not done with what they were doing, is it the wrong time of day, are they injured or not looking well? Many horses become difficult to catch and begin avoiding their owners in the paddock if they are consistently ignored and dragged out no matter how much they resist. Any resistance should be a cue to you to read your horse better and try to understand what they are saying. It may mean having to readjust your goals for the day or change your schedule.
Being a prey species, horses are more inclined to hide pain and physical issues rather than openly share them. This makes it challenging to spot issues such as mild lameness, pain or illness while speeding through the day.
Taking just a few minutes to perform a quick physical exam to check vital signs can quickly highlight problem areas. The horse’s body posture and overall demeanour will quickly indicate if there are any issues you should be worried about.
Doing a full body rubdown is a key part of this physical exam. The point is not to use a brush, towel or gloves as you want to be able to feel any lumps, bumps, cuts or dried dirt and debris. Placing tack over dirt or existing injuries can cause further injuries, pain and discomfort for your horse and may cause problem behaviour during training.
Check your horse’s feet before any kind of work. Stones and debris can easily get stuck while walking to the training arena so always check the feet before beginning any work. Make sure to check them again after training before you stable or turnout your horse.
Following that, watch your horse for subtle signs of pain as you run your hands over their body. A tail swish, eye wrinkling, tightening of the nostrils, head tossing are all signs of pain or discomfort. Attempts to bite or move you away are much louder signs and could be indicative of stronger pain or discomfort.
Most of the time these behaviours are chalked down to a naughty horse or a horse that doesn’t stand still. Even worse is owners who misread these signs as an eager horse who can’t wait to get to work. These are not signs of eagerness or willingness or joy. They are usually signs of pain or discomfort so don’t ignore or misrepresent them.
Humans are creatures of habit. While at first it may be challenging to incorporate this checklist into your normal routine, the good news is that if you stick it out it will soon become your normal routine. Spending these extra ten or fifteen minutes before your ride, lesson or regular day with your horse can really make a difference between a pleasant or unpleasant interaction. At the end of the day any activity that improves your horse’s welfare, their performance and human safety should be worth all the time in the world.
I rarely take the time to really reflect on my journey with EBSI and how I got on the path that has eventually led up to today; but my recent interview with Equine Adventuresses has reminded me of how this all started, and what, or who, led me there.
A big thank you to Equine Adventuresses for so beautifully and simply encompassing the exact reason of why EBSI exists: to better understand horses and with that understanding, to help make a difference in their lives.
Make sure you check out my interview and have a look at the other inspiring stories on the Equine Adventuresses website.
Ethologist Lucy Rees discusses stereotypic behaviours such as cribbing, weaving etc. and why they are indicators of bad welfare.
Stereotypic behaviours are often described as coping mechanisms and are often ignored by horse owners as they appear to be ‘good’ for the horse. But saying this is like saying a drug addict is coping by using drugs. Stereotypic behaviours are performed as a response to high levels of stress – normal behaviour brings the horse comfort, being able to move around freely, graze and socialise with other horses. When the horse isn’t able to achieve this, they seek comfort elsewhere and begin displaying abnormal versions of their normal behaviours.
Stereotypic behaviours bring about health problems such as colic because chronic stress reduces immunity, disrupts digestion, and reduces healing time. They can also become so comulsive and addictive that they overtake normal responses in horses and reduce productivity or performance. When I filmed the herd behaviour documentary in 2015, you can clearly see a horse that is so addicted to the stereotypic behaviour that, when confronted by a stressful situation, instead of responding normally like the other horses by running, he stands and just crib bites the entire time.
Rees mentions that the way to manage stereotypies is to allow horses to move about freely (liberty), to have social contact with other horses, and to graze. Even if horses appear to recover and no longer perform stereotypic behaviours, high stress situations can trigger a recurrence.
Don’t ignore stereotypic behaviours if you see them at your yard or if your horse performs them. They are an indication that your horse is struggling and not coping in their environment. Your horse is lacking the ability to express normal behaviour.
The 2019 World Horse Conference took place on the 13th November and was streamed live on YouTube. The opening intro to the conference generated a powerful message to go with this years’ theme of ‘Who is responsible for equine welfare?’. Watch the intro video here.
A fascinating presentation by Dr. Andrew Hemmings, Head of School – Equine Management & Science, Royal Agricultural University, at the 27th National Equine Forum 2019, investigating brain function in relation to two common stereotypic behaviours; crib-biting and weaving.
Dr. Hemmings mentions what he believes are the top 3 causal factors for stereotypies, which directly supports modern research and is aligned to the ethological needs of horses:
Some key messages from the presentation:
In her 2003 article, Focus on animal welfare, Caroline Hewson stated, “…whatever we decide (about animal welfare) as a profession or as individuals, we must be knowledgeable” (Hewson, 2003).
This statement is of paramount significance as it highlights one of the reasons why good animal welfare standards can be challenging for many practitioners to achieve. When horse owners and practitioners lack the skills, experience and knowledge to identify good animal welfare practices, let alone implement and maintain them, the horses under their care may exhibit mental and physical states that are indicative of low welfare standards. If you’d like to learn more about common barriers to implementing good animal welfare, click here to read our previous article.
Being knowledgeable on how to recognise good and poor horse welfare and how to implement an effective horse welfare strategy is of utmost importance to anyone that is involved in the management, training and husbandry of horses. Equally important however is acquiring a broad understanding of animal welfare and what aspects of an animal’s being are included in the definition of ‘animal welfare’.
Sentience and species-specific needs
There are two important elements that need to be acknowledged in order for animal welfare to be relevant and applicable, and that is that (1) animals are sentient beings, and (2) animals have species-specific needs that don’t always correlate with human needs or human perception of animal needs.
The European Union officially recognised animals as ‘sentient beings’ in 1997 (World Animal Net, n.d.), declaring that animals are capable of experiencing emotions and physical feelings such as pain, that they have environmental and self-awareness and are capable of learning from experiences, and that they are aware of the relationship they have with other animals and are able to distinguish between animals, objects etc. This was a monumental step for animal welfare as prior to this the general belief was the opposite – animals were genuinely regarded as incapable of feeling pain, fear, distress, and incapable of learning or forming relationships. This perception contributed to the poor treatment and welfare conditions for animals and the lack of regard for their physical and mental health.
While humans may now acknowledge animals as sentient, anthropomorphism (giving human characteristics to something non-human) takes this to the extreme in that it creates the perception that what applies to humans can be applied to animals, and this isn’t always the case. The importance of recognising that animals have needs specific to their species is especially relevant for animals that are used in a domestic context, such as horses.
As a species, the horse has needs that may conflict with human needs and implementing a management system that disregards the horse’s needs can negatively impact the animal’s welfare. The conflicting needs are referred to as ‘created needs’, meaning that instead of acknowledging the horse’s species-specific needs, the owner has created needs that fits their perception of what is best for the horse but is in actual fact impeding the horse’s welfare. There are many examples of created needs within the managed equine environment; such as using blankets and rugs, housing horses in individual fixed stalls and paddocks, feeding high concentrate diets, and using toys and treats to control undesired behaviour.
While created needs may temporarily alleviate management and training challenges, as with most short cuts, they backfire in the end and may result in the horse sustaining injuries and health problems, developing behavioural problems or abnormal behaviour, a reduction in performance, and injury to humans.
The components of welfare
In today’s veterinary and animal science practices, it is widely accepted that ‘animal welfare’ incorporates the animal’s physical state (physical health and being disease-free, reproductive health, body condition, an overall healthy appearance such as a shiny coat) as well as the animal’s mental state (emotional state, stress, anxiety, fear, behavioural problems), however in the past, animal welfare was only viewed in context of the animal’s physical state (Hewson, 2003).
The limitation of only looking at the physical state for signs of poor animal welfare is that a horse may appear to be physically healthy and coping well within its environment, but may simultaneously be suffering from severe anxiety due to a poor housing system for example. While physically healthy at present, chronic exposure to severe anxiety will eventually lead to health problems and a deterioration of the physical state. Even if you take into consideration physiological indicators of stress such as elevated cortisol levels and heart rate, these indicators could be misleading as they can also be attributed to a variety of circumstances that may not necessarily be linked to poor welfare, but could be due to excitement or arousal from being exposed to food, mares in heat, novel stimuli etc.
Taking the mental state component even further is the feelings-based approach to welfare which explores the way an animal feels based on its willingness to engage in the situation, so a horse that is willing to jump can be interpreted as enjoying jumping, and is based on the premise that an animal will feel best when it is able to express its natural behaviours and desires (Hewson, 2003).
While the feelings-based approach has many merits, its limitation is that physical and mental suffering is acceptable as long as it falls into the spectrum of normal behaviour, so for example discomfort from cold weather or fear from a perceived threat (Hewson, 2003). This may seem logical as a horse in its natural environment would certainly experience mental and physical suffering and many standard husbandry procedures such as vaccinations may cause stress and suffering but are ultimately performed for the animals well-being. However in a managed environment, this could also become an excuse for engaging in poor animal welfare practice and providing a lower quality of care. This approach also creates an opportunity for anthropomorphism and created needs as owners may have a skewed perception of what they believe their horse is feeling, such as enjoying to jump, when in actual fact the horse is experiencing anxiety or pain and is reacting in fear or submission.
The modern standard for animal welfare as set out by World Animal Protection; formerly WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals) encompasses three ‘Concepts of Animal Welfare’ – the physical state, the mental state and the natural state (World Animal Net, n.d.):
The physical approach recognises a poor state of welfare if the animal is physiologically (biologically) in such poor health that its ability to reproduce and survive is compromised, and it can physically no longer cope in its environment. We must acknowledge however that animals can be in poor health and unable to reproduce outside of the parameters of animal welfare. There are many genetic conditions that can impact the reproductive health in horses, and accidents and disease can impact even the best managed environments.
The mental approach recognises a poor state of welfare if the animal is expressing feelings of anxiety, stress, discomfort or fear within a given context. Abnormal behaviour is generally the best way of identifying a poor mental state and is indicative of an inability to cope in the environment. Abnormal behaviours include those that cause the animal harm, such as self-mutilation, or impair its physical health, such as cribbing and box-walking. The horse’s body language and general demeanour can also be used as an indicator of mental health, especially sudden onsets of behaviours that are abnormal for the individual such as human-directed aggression, as well as a lack of motivation and energy (depressive state) towards tasks that previously appeared pleasurable.
The natural approach recognises a poor state of welfare if the animal is unable to express normal, innate behaviours as it would have in a natural environment. This can also be considered an ethological approach to welfare and encompasses species-specific behaviours rather than just looking at the individual. Horses have species-specific needs that are part of their genetic make-up and need to be expressed regardless of the environment in order for the horse to maintain homeostasis (a state of physiological balance in the body). This primarily includes social behaviours (mutual grooming, play etc.), movement related behaviours (stretching, rolling etc.), and ingestion behaviours (foraging, grazing etc.).
Setting the standard for good animal welfare
While animal welfare is still undergoing continuous research so that we can better understand how to apply it in a managed context , there are two widely accepted animal welfare frameworks in use currently that encompass a variety of animal categories, such as farm/work animals, wild animals, animals used in research, and companion animals. Horses are considered a companion animal but can also fall into the category of farm and research animals depending on how they are used by humans.
The first framework is the ‘five freedoms’ which was first developed by the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC). There are five aspects within this framework that must be fulfilled in order to maintain a good standard of animal welfare:
The five freedoms may seem to be logical applications for keeping animals, however in many cases even providing appropriate nutrition can be challenging to owners as they may lack the knowledge of what is appropriate for their horse. It is always imperative to establish good welfare practices that begin with the most basic activities and practices as this ensures a strong foundation for more complex situations.
The second framework is the ‘five domains’ model developed in 1994 by Professor David Mellor and Dr. Cam Reid as an adaptation of the five freedoms that looks more closely at the mental approach to animal welfare and really sets the standard for what constitutes ‘good’ welfare (RSPCA, 2019). The five domains in the assessment model include:
Domains 1-4 represent the physical aspects of welfare while Domain 5 represents an overarching mental aspect. The five domains model works on the premise that with each physical impact on welfare there’s a corresponding mental impact, and that to promote good welfare you need to do more than just fix the physical problem as there may be adverse mental welfare impacts that remain even after the physical problems have been remedied (RSPCA, 2019).
This model represents a shift in the direction of animal welfare towards a more reward-based system where animals are encouraged to have positive and rewarding experiences that promote positive mental states rather than simply just avoiding negative ones. The difference here is the emphasis on positive engagement and experiences, and how they can be used to not only improve the animal’s welfare, but also their quality of life.
Applying this to your horse
Research would be irrelevant without the ability to apply it. Knowing what the physical and mental impacts would be on a horse within a specific context is crucial to promoting good welfare.
A group of horse welfare specialists and professionals recently published a study using an adaptation of the five domains model assessment of welfare (nutrition, environment, behaviour, health, mental state) which aimed to assess the adverse impacts of common practices on domestic horses across a variety of equine care and training contexts. The study included 116 common equine care and training practices (interventions) across the below 14 contexts (Table 1) (McGreevy, et al., 2018).
Table 1: Contexts
The findings from this study are extensive with multiple impacts and insights on equine husbandry practices, veterinary practices and training practices. Practices for each of the 14 contexts were identified that have the most severe impact on mental welfare; these are highlighted in Table 2 below (McGreevy, et al., 2018).
Table 2: Common equine practices with the highest severity of impact on the mental state
The published study provided harm vs. benefit assessment for each of the high severity impact practices in order to determine the harm to the horse in relation to the owner benefit. This type of finding and assessment enables owners to identify practices which may have an adverse impact on their horse’s mental welfare with no actual benefit to the horse or owner, and adjust their strategies accordingly.
For example, housing horses in isolation was identified as having substantial harm and no benefit to the horse and only a ‘sometimes necessary’ benefit to the owner, and abrupt weaning involving forced physical separation of the foal and dam also had substantial harm and no benefit to the horse and was avoidable for the owner (McGreevy, et al., 2018).
This clearly indicates that there are alternative practices that can be implemented in these contexts that won’t cause harm to the horse and adversely impact their mental and physical welfare, with little to no negative impact for the owner. This type of research is invaluable in providing practical information for horse owners to use when assessing their own management and training strategies for their horses.
In follow-up articles we will discuss the specific contexts of equine management and training and the various mental impacts of some common equine practices as identified in the above study, as well as practical ways to improve welfare standards within these contexts.
Responsible horse owners must ensure that they keep updated with current welfare best practice and that they periodically review and assess their own training and management practices to ensure that they are providing an environment for their horses that promotes good welfare and contributes positively toward good physical and mental equine well-being.
Additional resources for extra reading and learning
[McGreevy, P.; Berger, J.; De Brauwere, N.; Doherty, O.; Harrison, A.; Fiedler, J.; Jones, C.; McDonnell, S.; McLean, A.; Nakonechny, L.; Nicol, C.; Preshaw, L.; Thomson, P.; Tzioumis, V.; Webster, J.; Wolfensohn, S.; Yeates, J.; Jones, B. Using the Five Domains Model to Assess the Adverse Impacts of Husbandry, Veterinary, and Equitation Interventions on Horse Welfare. Animals 2018, 8, 41]
Hewson, C. J., 2003. What is animal welfare? Common definitions and their practical consequences. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 44(6), pp. 496-499.
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Animal welfare is becoming increasingly more important and both management and training strategies are being scrutinised in terms of how ‘welfare-friendly’ they are. The fact remains that people no longer want to stand by methods and practices that are seen as abusive, harsh or harmful to the animal. Whilst it may seem that practicing good welfare should be the norm, in reality that isn’t always the case.
Most people, aside from those with criminal intentions or those that are deeply disturbed, have good intentions toward their animals and want to see them thrive both physically and mentally. Yes, many people want to see performance and productivity whether it’s obedience to signals, successful competing, relaxed trail ride etc. but they generally won’t intentionally apply practices at the expense of their horse’s health and well-being. So why is it that so many horses display behaviours that are indicative of poor welfare? The simple answer is that good welfare has a number of barriers that make it challenging to achieve and maintain, inaccessibility and a lack of consequences being the most common issues.
Inaccessibility in this case refers to people’s inability to identify and apply information related to appropriate welfare-oriented practices, so they remain blissfully ignorant while their horses suffer, even though they believe they are doing the right thing. The internet contains a multitude of information on horse training and management from peer reviewed and evidence-based sources, but there is an equal if not larger amount of information that is harmful, inappropriate, and based on outdated information and practices. The challenge that most people have is that it can be difficult to distinguish the good from the bad – clever marketing and advertising, along with using appealing anthropomorphic terms such as ‘leadership’, ‘ partnership’, ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ in relation to the human-horse relationship can make a very rotten apple seem delectable. A lack of knowledge and skills means that many people don’t know what to apply when it comes to their own horse nor are they able to filter out poor information so they end up causing more problems than what they started with.
Once poor welfare conditions are established, the general lack of regulation and consequence means that the situation rarely improves until there is significant psychological and in many cases physical damage to the horse. Severe behavioural problems are generally the trigger for change and asking for help but by the time these behavioural issues come to light, the damage to the horse can be extensive, resulting in wastage. Some countries have less stringent animal welfare regulations and policies, or in many cases the law is there but the ability and willingness to enforce it isn’t. Many animal welfare organisations are overburdened and underfunded and therefore cannot attend to the large majority of welfare cases. Professional associations should play a supporting role by ensuring that their members abide by their codes of conduct which normally include elements pertaining to animal welfare, but what happens in the leisure environment where there is no code of conduct or regulation?
In a 2013 European Commission Health and Consumers Directorate-General Audit carried out in South Africa in order to evaluate the health controls in place in relation to export of equidae to the EU with particular reference to African Horse Sickness, the equine population in South Africa was estimated to be around 300 000 horses, with around 20% that are registered purebred horses and about 20 000 registered Thoroughbred racehorses* . Assuming that the studs keeping record of the 60 000 (20%) registered horses have codes of conduct in place and monitor the welfare of the horses once sold and no longer housed at the stud (may not be likely), and that the racing association has good welfare practices in place for the 20 000 horses they are responsible for (once again questionable), that still leaves more than 200 000 horses that are potentially unregistered with any professional associations and are more than likely not monitored and unregulated in terms of their welfare and well-being. These are the areas where the majority of unintentional poor welfare conditions occur – people simply don’t know any better and there’s no one qualified or experienced in proper welfare to assist them in implementing best practice.
In a perfect world, any organisation that houses, trains and breeds horses should be registered with a professional association relevant to their trade, and official welfare organisations should audit and monitor professional associations, riding schools, studs, and livery environments, and assess them in relation to the welfare of their animals. This scenario is rarely a reality unfortunately, therefore it is up to the horse owner to empower themselves and build up their knowledge of animal welfare so that they are able to not only implement best practice for their own horses, but are able to educate and share knowledge with others and assist organisations in improving their environments and management if necessary. Professional and public establishments can hardly ignore criticism and pressure from their clients if they are perceived as displaying poor welfare conditions, and trainers and practitioners that aren’t implementing best practice will lose clients and could face consequences from their professional associations (assuming they are registered which in most cases they aren’t).
Instead of feeling disempowered by the equine industry, owners should take the initiative and empower themselves to set the standard for how they want their horses to be managed, handled and trained. Support businesses, livery yards and trainers that are registered, qualified and apply best practice when it comes to animal welfare – they may seem more expensive but if you consider the consequences of allowing a horse’s welfare to deteriorate, owners face far greater costs in terms of veterinary and medical costs, remedial training, loss of performance and productivity, and human safety issues (legal issues, injuries, time off work etc.).
Good animal welfare should be the norm, not the exception. Ultimately it’s up to welfare practitioners to ensure that the public has access to readily available and easily applicable information so that people can be empowered to make the right choices for their horses and their welfare. Horse owners equally share the responsibility of taking the initiative and using the information and knowledge to better their horse’s lives and not settle for ignorance.
Imagine a four year-old child fed on a diet high in starchy and sugary foods – lots and lots of excitable energy right? Now, imagine that same child is housed in a 3 meter by 4 meter playpen outside. The playpen has no toys, not much shade nor grass. There are not many friends around, and those that are there aren’t reachable as they are in separate playpens.
What do you think will inevitably develop in terms of this child’s behaviour? The child will get bored of going around and around the playpen and will begin to become frustrated. The heat and lack of shade will begin to escalate that frustration and the child will become angry. Tiredness from a lack of comfortable areas to rest will escalate the anger even further and the child will ultimately begin to cry, scream, bang on the doors and display multiple forms of undesirable behaviours.
In much the same way, a horse placed in a 3 x 4 paddock with only a bucket of water and a hay net, no shade, grass or other horses to interact with, will also quickly become bored, frustrated and will begin to display undesirable behaviours.
Cognitively, an adult horse is not much different than a four year-old child in terms of their ability to process information and interact with their environment. Horses as far as we know don’t have the ability to reason therefore they are unable to take their poor situation and know that in a few hours’ time their owner will be coming and moving them out of the uncomfortable situation. All they know is that at present, their environment doesn’t satisfy their basic needs and is therefore boring, uncomfortable and lonely. Without the ability of foresight, the horse’s behaviour will progressively become more and more maladaptive as their needs remain unmet.
Precocial species (born with a high degree of independence), such as horses, are well adapted to quickly processing information from their environment as they would not survive very long after birth if this wasn’t the case. Horses learn from interacting with their environment, from experimenting with various stimuli to ascertain the outcome (trial and error), and from social interactions with other horses, their dam at first, and then other herd members. This means that horses are constantly processing information either as internal (from the body) or external (from the environment) stimuli and are either reacting to the stimulus in the form of a behavioural response which could be voluntary or involuntary, or they are ignoring the stimulus from prior learning, such as what occurs during habituation.
Involuntary responses are reflex behaviours, generally biological in their function, which the body performs automatically independent of the brain i.e. the horse doesn’t think about doing it, it happens automatically. Breathing, urinating, drinking, mating – these are all responses to biological needs. Voluntary responses are behavioural responses that are performed voluntarily by the horse for a specific reason and involve the brain; the horse is behaving due to previous experience and learned (memorised) behaviour, or is learning through interactions with its environment (trial and error learning). Eating a toxic plant will have negative consequences for the horse which will quickly be committed to memory and learned, so that when encountering the same type of plant in the future, the horse will know to avoid it.
Horses are a social species meaning that they rely on conspecifics (members of the same species) to learn, develop, grow, reproduce and ultimately survive in their environment. Majority of natural horse behaviours are facilitated by social functions i.e. mutual grooming, grazing, resting, sexual behaviour, play, learning etc. Socialisation is therefore one of the most important basic needs, together with foraging and grazing, and movement.
Foraging and grazing serve many important purposes, key of which are to: (1) supply the body with energy and nourishment, (2) facilitate other bodily functions that require energy (digestive system, thermoregulation, muscular system etc.), and (3) provide a mentally stimulating activity for nearly 70% of the day*.
In a natural environment, the nutritional quality of the available plants and grasses may be low, however the variety of different plants, grasses, bushes and small trees will supply the horse with ample hours of stimulating and engaging activity. Trees and bushes will also provide natural shelters from the sun and rain, and act as natural windbreaks. Movement and natural behaviours go hand-in-hand – the horse requires movement for almost all of its daily activities. Even resting is performed while standing thanks to the stay apparatus**.
Movement facilitates nearly all other equine basic and biological needs. It also facilitates learning through exploration and investigation, and facilitates social activities through play, mutual grooming, hierarchy structures and fighting. Movement is essential to survival and activates two vital tools of survival – the flight or fight response, the former which allows the horse to automatically and swiftly flee from a threat or attack, while the latter enables the horse to use specific agonistic responses to attack or defend itself from predators and other opponents; and the startle response which is a series of behavioural reactions to frightening stimuli that are less intense than fight or flight responses and are essential to the learning process and maintaining balance in the environment.
Startle responses serve to habituate the horse to initially frightening environmental stimuli which will gradually become neutral and the horse will stop responding to them. Imagine if this wasn’t the case, the horse would be exhausted if it jumped and bolted at every creaking branch or rustling bush. The horse’s highly evolved sensory organs become accustomed to recognising when a stimulus is a viable threat and requires the flight response, or when it is a normal environmental stimulus that can be ignored.
*Horses in the wild have been noted to graze and forage for 16 or more hours per day, which is at a minimum 67% of their daily time budget (McGreevy, 2004).
**Due to a series of muscle contractions just above the patella (kneecap) activated when the hind foot is placed on the ground, the stifle joint in the hindquarters locks in place, allowing the horse to remain balanced while standing upright during resting or sleeping. This locking action of the stifle joint is referred to as the stay apparatus (Sellnow, 2006).
It is clear therefore that the ability to satisfy basic equine needs is a key factor in maintaining healthy cognitive functioning in horses, and that the environmental context of where these behaviours occur is just as important as the act of satisfying them. To elaborate, let’s use the same example of the horse housed in a sparse, 3 x 4 paddock. Within its current environment the horse is certainly able to satisfy most basic needs – it can eat, drink, move around, rest, urinate etc. It may even be able to see other horses nearby and vocalise to them or have limited contact. But if you fast forward a few hours and add in heat or wind and slowly the horse will want to find some shade or will have built up excess energy and want to run around. Very quickly the adequate environment becomes inadequate and boredom and frustration sets in.
One of the biggest impacts you can make in terms of enrichment is through socialisation and increasing the social contact your horse has throughout the day with other horses.
Keeping horses in groups during turnout as well as stabling is not as complicated as it may seem. Here are some tips for group housing:
Don’t be alarmed or immediately split your horses up at the first sign of fighting – remember that agonistic behaviours among horses are natural and they almost always look ‘louder’ and more frightening than what they actual are. Most ‘fights’ between domestic horses are actually more play-based rather than aggressive and normally revolve around personal space and resources. Pair bonded horses will often be seen displaying agonistic behaviours with one another as they tend to share much more personal space and therefore also resources with one another than other herd members and therefore get in each other’s way more. Think of it in the same way as siblings sharing a room, yes you’re going to get fights and arguments but ultimately the relationship is strong.
When should you split groups up?
The only time you would split your group up is when there are serious injuries occurring or other health problems, such as resource guarding, where one or more horses are preventing others from reaching water or feed sources which could impact on health and well being. In these instances, an increase in space and resources can be effective at calming the group, but if this isn’t possible due to space or other restrictions then splitting the group up into smaller groups or pairs will be necessary. Adding a simple barrier such as light fencing to contain each group, while still allowing visual and limited tactile contact, can be enough to maintain harmony.
Periods of discord will naturally arise when new horses are introduced into the group or if the group’s environment changes in a major way. In these cases you should just monitor the group for a few days and watch their behaviour until it stabilises – intense agonistic behaviours should calm down and become fairly infrequent.
If you’ve decided to split your group up then keeping pair bonded horses together is a must – splitting pair bonds up can have detrimental impact on welfare and should only be done if horses are being moved to different locations.
A dusty, barren paddock with more sand than grass is most certainly an inadequate and unhealthy environment for a horse to be kept in for any amount of time throughout the day, and can contribute not only to psychological and behavioural problems, but to health issues such as colic and respiratory problems as well. It would only be acceptable to use such paddocks as temporary holding pens to contain a horse for routine procedures or between training, provided that fresh water and adequate grass hay is given during confinement.
An ideal paddock should allow for ample foraging and grazing, and consist of a variety of plant materials such as mixed grasses, bushes, herbs, medicinal plants and small trees, all of which must be safe and non-toxic for horses to ingest and interact with.
Wild grass fields make for the best paddocks as they closely mimic the low nutritional quality pastures that horses would naturally have grazed on, and what their digestive systems are optimally designed for. Horses also love to nibble on trees, dig for roots, and scrape off bark from trees. Ensuring that your paddock allows for these natural behaviours to occur is certainly the best option, but it’s not always possible as we are often limited by space and resources.
What if my paddock is small and sparsely vegetated?
If you have a small paddock with a limited variety of plants and grasses or one made entirely of concrete, a good way to mimic natural grazing and encourage foraging and movement is to spread your horse’s feed across multiple locations and introduce various grasses and plant materials. Use containers that are as low to the ground as possible to also mimic the natural grazing positions.
How can I protect my one paddock from over-grazing?
If you have all your horses on one larger paddock it can quickly become over-grazed and barren. To protect your paddock and limit grazing try creating a track system which still promotes movement and the act of foraging but limits the area covered by your horses and can turn one large space into multiple areas that can be used throughout the year. Track systems can also help you keep multiple groups separate in one large field. If you’re interested in learning more about track systems, here is a good place to start.
Beware the nutritional quality of the grass and pasture you provide during stabling and turnout – too much lush, green grass can cause weight issues and can lead to more serious problems such as laminitis. You should always monitor your horse’s body condition and score them frequently to ensure they are maintaining an ideal body score.
Horses are inherently curious animals and they learn by interacting with stimuli within their environment. One of the best ways to enrich a space and prevent boredom and frustration is to ensure that the environment is full of investigative stimuli for your horse to explore and interact with.
You can use either artificial items that aren’t naturally available in the paddock or emphasise natural existing objects already available. Here is a list of some artificial items you can use as investigative stimuli in your paddock, no matter the size:
There are an assortment of equine toys available that can also stimulate exploration and investigation, especially those linked to food rewards.
Always make sure that any items you add are made from non-toxic materials and are safe for your horse to interact with – anything that can break into sharp pieces or small pieces should be avoided as this can cause damage and injury to you horse. Ropes, nets and materials should also carefully be monitored and avoided if possible as these can get caught around the legs and cause injury.
Make sure that you introduce new objects carefully and slowly to your horse to avoid causing fear and potentially causing harm. Don’t overload the environment with objects, stick to three items at a time and introduce new items individually.
Natural elements not only provide the best stimuli but can also promote other natural behaviours and contribute to the amount of movement a horse performs throughout the day. This in turns contributes to overall physical health as well as maintaining cognitive stimulation through the day. The below elements make for effective natural enhancers to paddocks:
Shallow water sources such as streams or ponds can be great play areas, spots to cool off in, or additional drinking sources. You could also build your own shallow pool if your paddock doesn’t have an existing water source.
Creating varied terrains through the use of tracks and natural corridors of vegetation, or banking up some sections to create rises, mimics a natural, dynamic landscape and promotes movement and exploration. Adding texture to the terrain by using various footings such as dirt, gravel, grass, bark or wood chip etc. can promote physical development and create multiple areas within one space. Adding sand patches can promote rolling and resting especially if placed in shady areas.
Large trees, logs or stumps are great natural scratching posts while clumps of trees and bushes are good places for horses to rest as the sheltered space promotes a feeling of safety and also provides protection from the sun, wind or rain. Sticks and fallen branches can be great oral stimulants and promote foraging and movement. Artificial objects such as tires, drums and poles can be added if there is a lack of vegetation as they will also stimulate oral and tactile exploration. If natural shade is sparse then you will need to provide a shelter or shaded area in your paddock that can protect your horse from the elements during turnout.
Horses will eventually habituate to any artificial items and will stop interacting with them. To maintain a level of interest and exploration, make sure that you periodically change up the objects in the paddock either by changing their angles, their orientation or position, or swapping them out for other objects. It’s best to keep at least three objects in the paddock at a time and then swap them out every week or so. This will of course depend on the size of your paddock and herd. Larger groups of horses will benefit most from social interactions therefore environmental stimuli will be less important and larger paddocks allow for more natural stimuli, reducing the need for too many artificial objects. In cases where you have smaller enclosures and horses that are housed individually, artificial objects become more necessary.
Whilst most domestic environments strive to provide horses with safe and mostly comfortable facilities, they generally fail to account for the horse’s active mind and cognitive needs, and this is actually what primarily leads to the development of problematic behaviours associated with housing in stables and paddocks such as cribbing, wood chewing, box walking and damaging property by kicking at fences or doors (commonly referred to as stereotypies, these are seemingly pointless behaviours that the horse performs repetitively and almost compulsively for no obvious reason).
The development of stereotypies is generally viewed as a welfare concern and a sign of a poor, inadequate environment, therefore anytime that a horse shows signs of stereotypic behaviour, the easiest and swiftest way of managing and halting the behaviour is to assess the environment and look at ways of enriching it not only to improve the physical well being of the horse but to improve cognitive well being as well.
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