Lightbreed horses pulling tourist carts with axles and tire-coated wheels in the Yucatán area did not have excessive workloads or demands on their physical or mental health, said Pedro Geraldo González-Pech, PhD, of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the Autonomous University of Yucatán, in Mexico.
Even when working conditions included several hours in a row pulling up to 700 kg (1,520 pounds) in a hot, humid environment, the horses didn’t exceeded scientifically established limits for work or health parameters, González-Pech said.
“As veterinarians, we were not surprised by this result,” he explained. “The carts are easy to pull because the wheels and the Yucatán topography, which is flat with smooth asphalt, results in a low tensile strength (force needed to pull something). We even have videos where you can see that a kid can move a cart.”
GPS tracking of carriage horses’ workdays
González-Pech and his fellow researchers followed the paths of 33 criollo (mixed lightbreed Mexican horse) tourism horses pulling carts during 69 different trips. They used GPS technology to record distances and speeds, and they set up observation points at various areas to observe the horses, the carriage load, and the drivers’ behaviors. To calculate maximum loads for the horses, they referred to previous research led by Tamara Tadich, PhD, of the University of Chile in Santiago, defining welfare-safe working load limits based on physiological parameters.
They found that the horses were pulling loads at 78% their maximum weight, he said. They worked fewer than four hours at a time, and they made an average of four to six trips per day, for five to six days in a row, followed by days off. These workloads are consistent with various scientific studies determining how much work healthy horses can manage without compromising their welfare, said González-Pech.
Temperatures at certain periods of the study were high (around 36°C/95°F) with high humidity, he added. However, horses can adapt to these temperatures if they’re acclimated to it gradually, González-Pech said. The horses in this study benefited from regular breaks in shady areas as well as shade from parasols provided by the drivers, he said.
The owners/drivers also appeared to have positive, bonded relationships with their horses, which has a positive effect on both human and horse welfare, he said.
Despite these findings, however, González-Pech said he does see room for improvement with tourist carriage horses. For example, the custom is to let them eat and drink after they’re finished working. Their welfare could be improved by having the opportunity to drink regularly during working hours and receive hay or grass during breaks, he said.
While the study focused on carriage horses in the Yucatan, it underlines the fact that horses working in cities in the tourist industry can have good lives with positive welfare, despite common claims against the carriage industry, he said.
Horses can live side by side with humans in cities, just like other domestic animals can, which has humans and equine benefits, said González-Pech. “We have so many things to learn from interactions with horses, but not everybody can have and maintain a horse in their own backyard,” he said. “What we cannot allow is isolating ourselves from animals. What will the next species be? Domestic cats, because they prey on wild birds and rodents? Domestic dogs, because they can spread rabies and other zoonotic (passing to humans) diseases? Goldfish, because they’re potentially an invasive species?”
González-Pech called arguments in favor of banning horses from cities on welfare grounds unfounded. “I think that criticism toward equine tourism comes from ignorance of what a horse is and of the physical capacities of a horse, mixed with an anthropocentric (human-centered) point of view of nature and animals in general by city-dwelling people,” he said.
“Very recently, a neighborhood city of Mérida banished carriages and incorporated an electric carriage, without horses,” he added. “I have no idea of their success, but for me it’s like walking the dog but without the dog, only the leash.”
He said his team is currently investigating indicators that reveal whether horses “enjoy” their work.