Horse Welfare – What Should We Really Be Focusing On?

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In my role as President of the National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to equine welfare. There is a whole spectrum of ways in which horse welfare can be compromised from the intentional to the unavoidable, for example, horses impacted by natural disasters. For intentional abuse, the use of electric spurs, as Andrew Kocher the US showjumper is alleged to have used, immediately comes to mind.

Some might say there is no smoke without fire as this would not be the first time Kocher has been
accused of “animal-unfriendly” behaviour as one media source described it. However, there is also
legal abuse. In this category, I would include Tennessee Walking Horses. Although soring has been
banned (the process of using cruel methods to induce expressive gaits) https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/resources/Soring-Bookiet-March-2014.pdf, the training
and riding of young horses by often heavyweight men and “showing” continues, although it appears
to be waning in popularity.

But what of other activities that compromise horse welfare? We have just had firework night. My
poll of nearly 3000 people suggests that almost 1 in 5 horses are severely affected by fireworks and
that almost a third were moderately affected. These are activities that are generally outside the direct
control of horse owners. But what about the other end of the spectrum. Racing in very hot weather?
Competing horses on hard ground? Owners delaying calling a vet to an ill horse due to an inability to
pay or to ignorance? Many people would consider these welfare issues.

The problem with tackling poor welfare is where to start? Do we start with strangles? Or are
fractures in Thoroughbred training a higher priority? Or tendon injuries? Colic? Do we focus on
legislation, enforcement, penalisation or education? What is worse? A single horse suffering severely
and dying or 1000 horses suffering low grade pain for long periods of time?

I like to think that for the majority of horse owners any compromise to welfare is rare, and, if it
occurs is due to an error of judgement or ignorance rather than intentional and that most people are
also outraged at the more explicit and obvious cases of abuse.

So what has the greatest impact on improving welfare? I was interested to see the paper from
Australia on the outcome of whip versus whip free races, and particularly the involvement of a
member of the organisation Animal Aid in the study. On the face of it this could be seen as positive
but perhaps represents a change in Animal Aid’s tactics. On the face of it, Animal Aid appear to be
supporting moves to whip free racing. But this could be just the foot in the door and further their
aim of banning racing and all horse sports, and ultimately, riding of horses even for pleasure.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have education. But engaging those who compromise welfare
through ignorance and/or arrogance can be extremely challenging. I’ve learned the hard way that
presenting data, facts and evidence does not work with everyone. It’s why I’ve involved myself in
studies of behaviour – not just equine!

The real key to improving horse welfare is communication. Communicating with those who are
receptive to ensure they have the best knowledge and then hopefully they pass that knowledge on.
Unfortunately, the horse world tends to be quite traditional and conservative and new ideas take a
long time to be accepted … if ever! We started cooling horses with ice-water in 1993. 27 years later I
still have people who INSIST in the strongest possible way that it causes muscle cramps and causes
constriction of blood vessels causing the horse to overheat. It’s up there with turning out wet horses
in hot weather causes them to “boil”. Welcome to my world …

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About Author

Dr David Marlin is a physiologist and biochemist who has worked in academia, research and professional sport. He has worked in the equestrian and veterinary world and in human sport, healthcare, medicine and exercise science. In 1989 David obtained his PhD from the UK’s leading sports university, Loughborough University following a four-year study on the responses of Thoroughbred racehorses to exercise and training, undertaken at the renowned Animal Health Trust in Newmarket. You can read David's full biography in the Our Website section.