Equine Welfare

Equine Welfare

What is good welfare? Discuss. This was the opening line from my lecturer in my first equine welfare lecture at university. The usual suggestions got put forward, about adequate food, water and shelter, the provision of veterinary treatment and not being beaten up. After a period of decent discussion, we were asked more questions and encouraged to really think and consider welfare not from our point of view but from that of the horse. Our study didn’t end after that one lecture though, we proceeded to explore, discuss and learn about welfare for several hours a week for a whole year and although at the end we knew a lot more than at the beginning, it also showed us how much we didn’t know. This exploration included the study of both live and dead horses, to see the impact that people have on them, physically and mentally. For example, if only more people could have the opportunity to dissect a horse’s head, then they would have a true understanding of the damage that can be done to the mouth, gums and skull from the riders hands.

One thing I learned is that welfare has a spectrum and even those horses with apparently good welfare could potentially have their lives improved if their owners and riders would just take the time to look, think, feel and learn. Poor or inadequate equine welfare is sadly rife, even in our very own community. From the people who have their horses shod a week or two later than necessary, to the lumpy, hard flocking in their saddle, the bit that doesn’t suit the conformation of the horse’s mouth, to the hard hands holding the reins at the other end, the list goes on and on as to how people can reduce the welfare of a horse, causing it mental and physical discomfort or pain. Horse owners often desire a quick fix to find a cure for a problem, rather than addressing the cause of the problem in the first place. If a horse is crib biting, the answer is not a cribbing collar. If a horse is weaving, the answer isn’t an anti-weave grill at the stable door. If the horse won’t go on the bit, the answer isn’t a new bit to apply pressure at the poll.

It is sad to hear about livery costing half what it costs to board a dog, it is impossible to adequately provide for a horse’s needs for such a low amount. There is no getting around the fact that horses are expensive to keep and trying to do it on the cheap often leads to reduced welfare. It is also disturbing that horses have been sold at market recently for as little as £15, which is cheaper than buying a rabbit from a pet shop. They are literally being considered worthless and disposable.

I can’t remember who taught me the saying ‘Love is not a substitute for knowledge’ but with horses, it is very true. It is pointless spending money on feed supplements to try and help a horse if the chosen supplement doesn’t provide what the horse actually needs at levels which are therapeutically beneficial. We also have to be careful that we don’t put our feelings on to the horse- wanting them to have tasty meals or toys to play with, when the time and money could be better spent on something that really matters to the horse; like its teeth being done, its saddle fitting properly or its field being maintained.

Each and every one of us has the ability to improve the welfare of the horses we own and ride- it is up to us to make the time and effort to do it. Open minds, horses first.

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Natalie has owned horses for over 30 years and owned East Devon Riding Academy near Sidmouth. She has previously lectured in Equine Science to degree level and produced research for preparing Great Britains' equestrian teams for the Olympics. Natalie provides consultations in all aspects of Equine Science, and has fitted saddles for competitors at Badminton International Horse Trials.