Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Horse Welfare

We had the Melbourne Cup in Australia today and a horse died directly after the race from possible heart attack or similar. Facebook is blowing up with opinions and fighting. The whole thing has made me think about horse welfare and what that means to me.

Good horse welfare to me is caring for horses in a species appropriate way according to the 5 freedoms. From the RSPCA website:
  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst: by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
  2. Freedom from discomfort: by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease: by prevention through rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress: by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
How often do we truly look at our husbandry practises with a focus on good welfare from the animal's point of view? Can we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, be honest with ourselves and assess if we really are providing our horses with everything they need?

We all love our horses very much, that is beyond doubt. But how much of their care is for us? How much is for them?

Let's take a closer look at what horses really need. Keep in mind these two words: species appropriate!

Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
The average horse requires 30-50 litres of water a day. It is generally accepted that horses should have free access to water at all times while not working. So that is pretty easy.

Diet on the other hand... oh boy. That is ne BIG subject! But basically - horses have evolved to be trickle feeders - their stomach produces digestive juices all day long, whether they are eating or not. Their stomachs also don't have a huge capacity compared to their size - 9 to 15 litres. They are designed to take a few small bites of grass and chew while they walk to the next patch. Bulk of the diet should be pasture or other roughage, with a small amount of concentrate to make up the difference on calories, vitamins and minerals. The bigger the feed, the quicker it moves through the digestive system. Feeding large feeds is actually wasteful.

Hardly anyone around here feeds hay, and we don't normally have any grass. Large meals once or twice a day are the norm. This is not species appropriate feeding guys!

Freedom from Discomfort
Horses evolved to travel up tp 80km a day in search of food, water and shelter. They like wide, open spaces (all the better to see predators with) and will rest while another horse stays awake and at least semi alert to keep watch. Horses can learn to be confined, but they are not born that way. Species appropriate environment is a paddock with friends, with shade trees and an open sides shelter.

Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease
I think, in general, horse owners like thos ein the blogging community excel in this area. We are not afraid of a vet bill and will involve whatever professional is required to keep our ponies healthy. But prevention is always better than cure - aside from freak accidents, can we really be sure that we are doing all we can to prevent injury, pain and disease in our horses? Are we feeding a diet high enough in appropriate forage to avoid colic or have we got our mineral balanced so that th ehorse doesn;t have a magnesium definciency causing mucle soreness? Do we all ride in a fitted saddle?? Do we ensure their feet are done every 5 weeks to ensure a long toe doesn;t contribute to navicular disease? So we warm up properly, cool down properly, and keep the training program paced appropriately for the fitness and current streanth of the horse? Do we never push the horse past what she is able to give us? Do we have safe fencing, compatible herd mates? So many variables in this one.

Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour
This is the I think we have the most to achieve, the most ground to cover, to get where we need to be. Normal behaviour in horses is varies and hotly contested. Can we all agree that horses need freedom to move, freedom to socialise, freedom to release stress in a healthy and normal way? Stress behaviours (cribbing, weaving, wind sucking, agressiveness, etc) are clear indicators that sometimes, we let the ball drop on this. I am rather against 24/7 stabling. I understand that inclement weather  or injury may necessitate stabling but we should get them out in a herd as soon as possible again.Would you agree? To me, stabling or intensive yarding next to a neighbour is not enough (probably because I am a barefoot person and their hooves go to shit when kept confined). Horses need to groom each other, follow each other, watch over each other. It is convenient for feeding to keep them seperate. But there is that word again - convenient. For the carer, not the horse.

Freedom from Fear and Distress
This is a hard one. Our horses often react to situations that are completely non threatening in an inappropriate way. Gracie is rather scared of traveling. Does this mean we should never put her on the float? Horses often display seperation anxiety. Does this mean I should never take Allie away from Gracie to ride? No. Training and fulfilling all other species requirements are key here. If my horse lives a stress reduced life, she will be more equiped to deal with stressful situations when they arise in an appropriate way. She won't overeact, she won't melt down. Avoiding mental suffering in their day to day lives is key here. Temporary fear or distress is fine. Daily fear or distress is not. Tick all the other boxes and this one can often fall into place.

So guys - what are your thoughts? What does horse welfare mean to you? Can you honestly say you provide the very best for your horse according to his needs? I know I can't. Allie is kept in a large yard without another horse in with her. I am not happy about this at all. There isn't any grass in there either, so a slow feeder hay net is required to be filled every couple of days - but this encourages her to stand in one place all day and eat, which doesn't fulful her exercise requirements. I'm pretty happy with her diet other than that and she is rather good at dealing with stress. I would love to move her to paddock turnout with a herd of horses, but I refuse to turn her out with shod horses. Hind shoes can kill, I have seen it. So that is my compromise, but I am not happy about it at all. How about you guys? What do you want ot change about your horse care? What do you think you do well?


OneHindResting said...

I think most of us try to provide the best, but you can only do what you can do. I wish sometimes I had more money so that my old horse could receive all the best supplements and therapies to keep him sound and happy as long as possible, but I just do what I can. He's still eager, sound and rideable at 23yo so I hope that continues.

Most of the time I've had horses, they've lived out with shod horses and I haven't had any issue (as far as I know), so I'm not as fussed about that. But I was unhappy with where my horses were previously (which is why I moved). I had issues with feeding as much hay as I wanted and felt that the companionship and environment wasn't as calm as I would like.

If I get right down to it, there are some things I think are essential. If am unable to provide those things to a horse, it makes me think I shouldn’t keep it. I hope in those circumstances that I would re-home/sell or humanely kill the horse.
Those things are:
- Food and water. Enough to look well and happy. I would prefer to feed a large portion of diet as grass or hay/chaff/other fibre source, to encourage digestive health.
- Treatment for injury or illness. Enough to have a life where they are content and bright (or will be, where a serious illness or injury is healing).
- Suitable companionship. Preferably another horse they enjoy being with, in the same paddock / yard. If they don’t get on with anyone and need to be kept alone, I should evaluate whether they still appear to be content and bright in their life.
- Consideration for their individual needs. Hoof care, fly protection, protection from the weather or whatever management practice that is needed for them to have a life where they are content and bright.
- Somewhere calm to live. Preferably with some trees or other provision for shade. Preferably big enough that you need to go looking for a lost flymask.
- Positive regard. If I don’t like them or don’t smile when I see them, they deserve to get another shot at finding someone who enjoys them (and that they enjoy).
- A job. Something interesting to do, that they appear to enjoy. It’s okay to get assistance from others to help me achieve this.

I'm sure I've missed or forgotten something, because horses are complex creatures but that's all I got for the minute :)

Lisa said...

"Preferably big enough that you need to go looking for a lost flymask."

Love that description!