equine welfare

The Animal Welfare Indicators (AWIN) assessment protocol for horse farms, developed in 2015, is getting fine-tuned by researchers who are testing it in the field. And it’s already showing positive results.

“This new approach, featuring animal-based indicators, helps well-meaning owners detect welfare issues they might accidentally be overlooking in their farms, leading to constructive changes that improve their horses’ lives,” said Irena Czycholl, PhD, of the Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel Institute of Animal Breeding and Husbandry, in Germany.

Czycholl and her fellow researchers recently investigated a two-level approach to the AWIN horse protocol. The first level allows for a general overview of an entire farm based on quick evaluations of a sample of horses. The second level provides more specific details, with more in-depth evaluations of every horse on the farm.

The team set out to make sure the two levels were compatible. Essentially, they needed to be sure the simplified, faster first level gave enough reliable information to predict measurements in the more complex second level. To do so, they conducted assessments at 14 horse farms (each housing from 14 to 120 horses) eight times each over a nine-month span. Altogether, their trained assessor carried out 112 first-level assessments on 2,160 horses and 112 second-level assessments on 3,448 horses.

At the first-level the assessor evaluated or checked for:

  • Visual signs of pain in facial expressions (using the horse grimace scale, HGS) ;
  • Stereotypies (cribbing, weaving, etc.);
  • Any avoidance of or voluntary approach toward humans;
  • Body condition score;
  • Coat condition;
  • Abnormal health signs (i.e., unusual breathing, swelling, discharge);
  • Lesions;
  • Hoof health status; and
  • Manure consistency.

The second-level assessment included evaluating or checking all the aforementioned points, but with closer inspection and more contact. Additionally, the assessor evaluated each horse’s:

  • Behavior alone in the stall;
  • Behavior with a human in the stall;
  • Reaction to wither-scratching;
  • Level of soundness/lameness; and
  • Level of fearfulness.

Study Results

The length of time it took for the assessor to carry out evaluations was “feasible,” Czycholl said. It took a single day to perform both assessment levels, including the second level on every horse on a farm of 100 horses.

Additionally, their data indicated that a first-level assessment was very consistent with a second-level evaluation and provided a reliable overview, she said.

However, a few criteria in the first level were not reliable. These included the HGS test and tests of avoidance or voluntary approach with humans.

“It seems to be mostly a problem of testing the horses consistently since there were differences in individual horses within the same level of assessment,” Czycholl said. “So it’s possible that there’s a problem with interest reliability.”

Manure consistency results proved to have poor reliability between the two levels, as the first level might not have allowed enough in-depth evaluation, she said.

Examining the horses longer and more closely appears to reveal more critical information about their manure.

“Overall, the first-level assessment was in this study capable of providing a reliable overview of the welfare status, although some adjustment and revision will be necessary,” the researchers stated.

In the meantime, however, the two-level AWIN can be “very useful” for farm welfare evaluations, said Czycholl. “For the moment, people can probably just leave the HGS test out completely while we work on finding something better,” she said. “But the AWIN is certainly the best welfare evaluation system we’ve got. It can be useful for self-evaluations by owners, as well as for farm evaluations by veterinarians or officials to respect welfare legislation in certain countries.”

The study, “An Indication of Reliability of the Two-Level Approach of the AWIN Welfare Assessment Protocol for Horses,” was published in Animals.