Study: Biosecurity, Delayed Euthanasia Top Equine Welfare Issues

More than 80 different serious welfare issues in the horse world—all considered top priority depending on with whom you speak. How can anyone effectively tackle such a large list of welfare concerns?

U.K. researchers recently decided to prioritize those issues using what’s known as a “Delphi technique”—a scientific method that formalizes various expert opinions and condenses them into something more manageable. By better defining the top priorities for equine welfare in 2020, scientists and charities alike can focus their efforts in more streamlined—and useful—ways, said the Scottish scientists who worked on the study.

“For academics, charities, and funders of research, it can be a bit overwhelming to decide where efforts should be focused to have the biggest impact on horse welfare,” said Cathy Dwyer, PhD, of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. “Prioritizing can help them to hone in on strategies to tackle the different issues,” such as research, education, policy/legislative changes, etc., she said. “Otherwise, we might all focus on our own ‘pet projects,’ which might not have a big impact on horse welfare more broadly.”

Getting to Expert Consensus

The study created two lists:

  1. Issues affecting the whole horse population; and
  2. Issues causing the greatest suffering for individual horses.

To achieve a scientifically valid level of prioritization for the two welfare lists, Dwyer and her fellow researchers initially asked 19 equine welfare experts to list what they considered the U.K.’s main welfare concerns in an anonymous survey. With 84 resulting issues listed, the researchers then organized a two-day face-to-face workshop in Edinburgh where experts discussed the issues and arrived at a consensus in ranking the issues’ priorities, she said.

“Using the Delphi method, for the early parts we tried to be as unbiased as possible, as it was anonymous,” said Dwyer. “We tried to avoid very well-known or perhaps very opinionated people skewing the results, as everyone’s comments were equally valid and weighted equally. For this reason, we also tried to get a balance of experts, including those working with horses in practice, so we were not too focused on one aspect of welfare.”

Delayed Euthanasia: A Double Top Concern

Of the 84 equine welfare issues, lack of biosecurity and disease surveillance topped Dwyer’s expert list of most prevalent issues affecting the whole horse population, she said. The next four included delayed euthanasia decisions; lack of owner understanding of horse welfare needs; fear/stress/frustration from use in work, sport, or entertainment; and obesity.

Delayed euthanasia decisions topped the issues causing the greatest suffering for individual horses list, she said. Others included lack of recognition of pain behavior; large internal parasite burdens; obesity; and unsuitable diets for equine feeding behavior.

2020: The Modern Age of Behavior and Welfare

In previous decades, top concerns included stereotypic behavior (crib-biting and weaving), horse transport, and health-related issues (such as lack of veterinary care), said Dwyer. Current priorities, however, highlight the importance of owner education and solid equitation and behavior science.

“I wonder if owners might be surprised that so many of the issues relate to them—their behavior and knowledge—and less to veterinary issues,” she said. “I think this is starting to become an increasing concern in equitation science—that many of our accepted practices with horses have arisen out of tradition and may have very little scientific backing, including training methods, horse management, understanding horse behavior, and so on.”

Other owner-directed issues making the Top 10 list of population issues included indiscriminate breeding, unstable social groups, and poorly fitted tack, said Dwyer. As far as individual issues were concerned, inability to have normal social interactions, overwork, and overweight riders ranked in the Top 10.

To view the full Top 10 list, you can refer to Table 3 of the study, published online in Animals.

Owner Responsibility: Risk Factors and Welfare Outcomes

The study results describe several issues stemming from owners’ ability to understand or recognize pain behavior. Scientists call this “risk factors for poor welfare,” said Dwyer. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that the horses in people’s care are suffering—only that they are at higher risk compared to a more knowledgeable owner,” she explained.

Many others are considered “welfare outcomes” in which “there are actual welfare problems or suffering,” Dwyer explained. These include fear and stress, delayed euthanasia, and poorly fitting or restrictive tack, for example. “Of course, this could stem from various problems, including lack of owner knowledge,” she said.

“It would be great if more owners were taught to understand horse behavior and horse learning, as I think this might improve the quality of our relationships with our horses, as well as help in horse training, because the horses might be better able to understand what we want from them.”