OPINION: What’s in it for the horse, asks scientist

OPINION: What's in it for the horse, asks scientist

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated 20 February 2013

Source: Horse Talk

Are we justified in asking a horse to do something it doesn’t enjoy? The question has been posed by the chief scientist with the RSPCA in Australia, Dr Bidda Jones.

Dr Jones, in a presentation to the fifth Equitation Science Annual Conference at the University of Sydney, pondered whether riders had ever stopped to wonder whether horses shared their rider’s enjoyment of sporting and recreational activities.

Dr Jones argued that much more objective measures of welfare were needed and much more sophisticated ethical framework than current laws or codes provide.

Horses are the basis of a multibillion-dollar industry. In Australia, their use in racing alone generates around $A4 billion a year and is inextricably linked with gambling and through taxation revenue to government funding. What other sport commands its own Ministerial portfolio?

But ultimately, with the possible exception of police work, the things we make horses do – racing, eventing, pony club, show jumping, trail riding, polocrosse, rodeo, endurance riding, reining and driving – are all carried out for the same reason.

Horse riding is not a productive, educational, scientific, or useful activity. It is something people do, directly or indirectly, for entertainment, pleasure, or fun.

There are some obvious benefits to horses from their domestication and use by humans: the provision of food and shelter, protection from predators, disease prevention and care during illness and injury.

But there is little evidence that horses benefit in any other significant way from our use of them, despite what we might like to think in our more romantic moments.

Doing something for pleasure or fun is not an inherently bad thing, but it doesn’t provide much moral justification for an activity.

“That wouldn’t matter, if it wasn’t for the fact that the horse has to share the experience,” she said.

So if that experience is not a good one, it raises the question of whether we should be making them do it at all.

Dr Jones said if elite competition was to be ethically sustainable, it required clear action to ensure that welfare impacts were minimised.

Public concern over the use of horses often focused on their performance in competitive events, she said, especially when there was a catastrophe in which horses were injured, died or had to be killed in front of an audience, citing jumps racing as an example.

Death as an end-point is the most extreme example of what is in it for the horse, when it comes to equitation. But there are other, non-lethal, activities that also attract public concern  the use of whips in racing currently being the most prominent.

However, most horse use in Australia was much less visible than racing, she said.

Given that around 1% of the Australian population are horse owners, yet there are no restrictions on experience, age or training for recreational horse ownership, the potential for poor welfare due to ignorance or neglect is huge.

But when horses are properly cared for, recreational horses that are left to their own devices for most of the time, may be the best off of all. From a behavioral and physiological perspective, it may be the elite, high performance horses that should attract more concern.

Many of the activities embedded in traditional training, riding or competing can have serious adverse impacts on horse welfare.

Issues raised with the RSPCA included:

Unnecessary invasive interventions.
Training and riding techniques that involve punishment or extreme control.
Use of specific types of tack that have a high potential to cause pain or distress, including   double bridles, lever bits and cranked nosebands.
Use of artificial aids, such as spurs and whips.
Extreme challenges in competition which cause acute or chronic injury.
Repeated transport, long-distance transport.
Housing in single stalls, inappropriate feeding.
Lack of long-term responsibility for horses, leading to multiple ownership and wastage.

Many of these issues are not about physical injury or exertion, but about the mental state of the horse. They can’t all be solved merely by having a vet present.

Some of the issues raised were specific to a particular discipline, she said.

For instance, in the outwardly sedate sport of dressage  or what I call ballet for horses  elite international competition rules, which set the stage for all lower levels, require the use of double bridles and spurs.

These rules also encourage activities such as riding deep (through hyperflexion) or using tight nosebands to prevent the mouth gaping during competition.

All of this in the quest for the outward appearance of precise control over the horse.

Other issues cut across riding disciplines, such as housing horses in single stalls, she said.

Given that there are clear indications that when we use horses, the experience for the horse can be a very poor one, it is worth investigating what the legal protections are which might help prevent this from happening.

I am often asked how it is that horses can be subjected to a sport like jumps racingwhere there is a high risk of being killed, or are allowed to be repeatedly struck with a whip? Surely the RSPCA can do something?

Well, no, we can’t.

There is currently no specific legislation to protect the welfare of horses in Australia apart from the general provisions of animal welfare laws, which contain only one or two specific references to horses. The situation is little different in other countries.

Animal welfare legislation makes it possible to prosecute people who carry out acts that are considered to be cruel to animals but it doesn’t make it a legal requirement that all animals have good welfare.

Determining whether an activity is cruel relies on the test of what is ‘reasonable’ or ‘acceptable’, she said. If a traditional practice is not specifically banned it is generally considered to be reasonable.

It’s this interpretation that means whipping a thoroughbred up to 30 times as it closes in on the last stages of a race is considered legally ‘reasonable’. It happens on a daily basis.

And, although Australia is in the last stages of developing national animal welfare standards and guidelines for horses, it is unlikely that much will change in terms of what is currently regarded as reasonable.

Dr Jones raised the issue of industry codes, where in a particular discipline, be it show jumping or racing, competitors had to abide by specific rules or codes.

For the most part these fail to acknowledge the welfare impacts of the discipline itself, and can actually reinforce practices that have adverse impacts by requiring them in competition.
The FEI does have a Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse – but this is a two and a half page document containing very brief motherhood statements about the need to acknowledge and accept that at all times – the welfare of the horse is paramount.

Hyperflexion in dressage is the only event-specific welfare issue so far addressed by the FEI, and even an entire workshop dedicated to this one topic failed to recommend any changes.

In reality, it is human interest that is paramount when it comes to setting the rules of riding. It could be argued that leaving the FEI to set rules for horse welfare is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

Legislation, codes and guidelines, then, are clearly not enough to protect horses from bad outcomes.

Public concern for horses is likely to remain focused on the most visible issues such as serious injury and death.

Frankly, the media are unlikely to get excited about the intricacies of dressage. But these details ARE important to the welfare of the horse  and they are becoming increasingly important to many people on the inside of the sport  and in many cases you have to be on the inside to know what the issues are.

So what approach should be taken to determine what is acceptable to do to a horse for fun?

We need objective measures of welfare and a much more sophisticated ethical framework than legislation or codes currently provide.

Dr Jones said different uses of animals had different ethical justifications and attracted different levels of concern. What society considers acceptable to do to animals varies according to the reason, or the justification for doing it.

We are also capable of holding conflicting views about how we should treat different sentient animals when the justification is the same.

For example, our society accepts that pest animals, such as foxes and cane toads can be killed because they cause serious damage to agricultural and environmental assets, but the view is often different if the pest animal is a feral horse.

Dr Jones cited a 1994 model developed by David Mellor and colleagues from New Zealand’s Massey University that translated into five domains of welfare impact:

Thirst, hunger and malnutrition
Environmental challenge
Disease, injury, functional impairment
Restriction of behaviour or social interaction

These four measures, she said, fed into the fifth domain which represented the overall mental state of the animal.

The model uses an impact scale against each of these domains, which ranges from no impact to the most severe impact.

The score from each domain feeds into the score for domain five (since the mental state of the animal is affected by the status of the other domains), producing an overall impact grade.

Applying this kind of ethical framework to the use of horses can help us establish exactly what’s in it for the horse. It would provide an objective means of assessing the relative impact of different activities, identify ways to improve welfare, and help to draw the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable, Dr Jones said.

However, objective data that measured the impact of a given horse activity would be needed, she said.

Some of this information is already available, but there is a need for continuing research on the impact of different training and riding activities.

The idea of minimising welfare impacts or costs sounds like a good approach, until it comes to considering equestrian competitions.

Competition is the area where there is the most difficulty in applying the principles of utilitarian ethics, because the nature of competition is to increase the level of challenge or difficulty, which comes into direct conflict with the concept of minimising suffering.

But the one advantage of competition over many other aspects of horse use, is that competition requires rules  and with sufficient motivation, rules can be changed to reduce or avoid adverse impacts on horses.

We need to ensure that increasing competition difficulty doesn’t mean increasing impact.

The challenge is to keep up level of difficulty without compromising the welfare of the horse for example, relying more on the skill of the trainer and rider than making it harder for the horse.

This, she said, required changing both the way in which people train and ride as well as the way in which events are judged.

And, she added, closing the door on those activities that, despite repeated attempts to reduce welfare risk, have proved too challenging.

With the emergence of equitation science, we are understanding more and more about the impact of our activities on horses, so it should become easier for us to act to reduce these impacts.

Dr Jones said major equestrian bodies needed to take an active role in promoting horse welfare, adopting improved techniques, and setting clear limits on what is acceptable and what is not.

If elite competition is to be ethical and sustainable then it needs to be demonstrated that impacts are being recognised, and minimised.

To do this they need to:

Ensure that the costs and benefits of the activities in the discipline are assessed.
Support and monitor the results of equitation science and other horse welfare research and ensure that new findings are fed into the assessment process.
Act to ensure the most humane approach is being used: which means changing competition rules to remove requirements that have poor welfare outcomes and ensuring increased competition doesn’t mean increased welfare challenge.

Riders and trainers also have a crucial role in improving welfare, bases around two key principles:

Users of horses are ethically responsible for all the activities and actions they conduct on horses.

It is not enough to assume because others do it, it is acceptable, or because the law allows it, it is acceptable  as a trainer or rider, you have to understand the impact of your actions and be prepared to justify them yourself.

They are ethically bound to minimise the impact on horses of their activities. This involves taking active steps to modify activities to reduce their impact  or finding a better way to do something. It should also include avoiding activities that are known to have a serious adverse impact.

We need always to bear in mind that it’s the tractability of horses that makes them a pleasure for us to work with  but it also makes them especially vulnerable to abuse.

We must not take horses for granted and must strive to understand better our impacts on them, and continually strive to reduce them. Which means reassessing what’s good, what’s normal, and what’s plain bad.

Dr Bidda Jones joined the RSPCA as its first national scientist in 1996. She has an honours degree in Zoology and a PhD in animal behaviour. Bidda began her career in animal welfare at RSPCA UK working to improve the welfare of laboratory primates. She now oversees a team of five scientists at RSPCA Australia.

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