Walking The Line

How do owners, equine veterinarians, and all others tasked with caring for the horse enter the welfare equation?

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By Midge Leitch, VMD, Dipl. ACVS

Those of us who enjoy horses outside of their natural habitat often encounter a dilemma: Is the discipline or use we’ve selected for them “what is good for the horse”? Equine deaths during the Calgary Stampede and the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Nevada wild horse roundup bring this quandary to mind. In the former, four horses died out of 700 participating in the chuckwagon races. These deaths shocked competitors and fans alike. Many individuals, veterinarians included, remarked on the excellent care such horses get (most of them Thoroughbreds that were unsuccessful as racehorses) before, during, and after the competitions, as well as their exemplary level of fitness. Veterinary examinations and drug testing are standard practice during the competition, so deaths such as these are puzzling.

The circumstances surrounding the BLM’s effort to drive dehydrated horses from a water-starved range by way of helicopter does as much to draw attention to the tragedy of the _ever-increasing number of unwanted horses in this country as any other recent event. Of the 1,224 horses gathered in the Tuscarora area this summer, 34 horses died or were humanely euthanized: 13 animals died due to water starvation/dehydration-related complications; 12 animals had pre-existing life-threatening injuries or conditions; four horses died or were euthanized as a result of gather-related injuries; and five animals died from assorted causes after transportation to the short-term holding facility. The management of 38,000 plus horses that continue to grow in exponential numbers on restricted land presents daunting welfare challenges.

Both science and society have a role in deciding what constitutes an appropriate level of animal welfare and the appropriate use of the horse. While science can determine what type or degree of animal welfare risk exists under specific circumstances, it cannot determine what type or degree of risk is acceptable–that is the question society answers

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