Equine Welfare Issues: An Overview (AAEP 2010)

One of the American Association of Equine Practitioners' (AAEP) ongoing goals is to address the welfare issues that many horses and their owners face. During a presentation at the 2010 AAEP Convention, held Dec. 4-8 in Baltimore, Midge Leitch, VMD, of Londonderry Equine Clinic in Pennsylvania, described the steps that the AAEP has taken--and continues to take--to improve equine welfare in the United States. Leitch is the immediate past chair of the AAEP Welfare Committee, which is dedicated to "protecting the ... welfare of the horse." She outlined three key welfare initiatives the AAEP has undertaken in the past decade in the United States.

The Unwanted Horse: The Beginning

She began by describing the phrase, "unwanted horse." The first time that many Americans heard this was in 2005, when the AAEP hosted the first Unwanted Horse Summit, a one-day conference at which presenters and attendees addressed apparent welfare issues in the industry.

The Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC) was borne out of the summit. According to the UHC website, the group "represents a broad alliance of equine organizations that have united under the auspices of American Horse Council to educate the horse industry about the unwanted horse issue."

The UHC has supported and continues to back the welfare mission through measures that include hosting low-cost gelding clinics, developing a welfare speaker series and launching/distributing a newsletter designed to educate readers about responsible ownership, including breeding practices and equine welfare.

Tennessee Walking Horse Issues

Next on Leitch's agenda were the steps taken by the AAEP to improve the welfare of Tennessee Walking Horses, which are often the victims of soring (the deliberate injury to a horse's legs to achieve an exaggerated "big lick" gait) and other illegal practices. She noted that many members of the Tennessee Walking Horse community have been operating in violation of the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970 by continuing to practice soring techniques on their horses.

The AAEP Welfare Committee convened a task force to evaluate the problem in December, 2007, she noted, and by July, 2008 the group had drafted a white paper addressing the issues and recommending steps to bring an end to these inhumane practices. As a direct result of the white paper, the USDA introduced thermography as a screening process for the detection of inflammation or irritation of the lower legs during pre-competition examinations. In 2009 the task force addressed the more recently utilized soring technique of pressure shoeing--a method that that makes a horse's forefeet tender and results in the same exaggerated gait known as the "big lick."

She added that the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), in its efforts to enforce the HPA by inspecting horses at competitions for any signs of soring or pressure shoeing, has most recently implemented a protocol that sets minimum uniform penalties for soring, using foreign substances on horses or failing to pass equipment and shoeing inspections.

"It is gratifying to see that both the USDA and elements of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry have been receptive to the recommendations of this task force," Leitch said.

Equine Welfare Committee

The final aspect of equine welfare that Leitch discussed was goal-setting for the AAEP Welfare Committee.

"The AAEP Welfare Committee is member-driven," Leitch said, explaining that the issues the committee explores are those that the membership considers top priority. A recent survey of the AAEP membership showed the top five concerns within the veterinary community to be unwanted horses, slaughter-related problems, racing issues (such as breakdowns, retirement and medication abuse), the soring of Tennessee Walking Horses and American Saddlebreds and wild horse management.

Leitch said that in May 2010 the Welfare Committee convened at a meeting to examine the responses to the membership survey. Stemming from the discussions that took place, the committee agreed to begin:

  • Drafting a position paper on principles of equine welfare;
  • Examining non-racing performance horse medication, procedures and treatments;
  • Expanding media assistance programs, crisis communications and emergency response;
  • Responding to the BLM's (Bureau of Land Management) request to review the care and handling of animals within the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program;
  • Pursuing federal legislation to strengthen the HPA (a task that was referred to the AAEP Public Policy Committee);
  • Providing education to AAEP members about abuse and neglect, rehabilitating malnourished horses and assisting rescue and retirement facilities;
  • Engaging the horse industry as a whole in recognizing and prohibiting abusive training and treatment procedures; and
  • Developing proactive programs for responding to current, as well as future (or new) welfare issues.

"It is our mission that all members recognize the importance of equine welfare in their daily personal and professional lives and advocate for its advancement throughout their careers," Leitch concluded. "Knowing the issues and understanding the facts, the perceptions and the actions provides all of us the ability to comment on and discuss the many concerns of our clients. If we--the collective horse world--do not lead, a poorly informed (non-equestrian) public will determine the outcome."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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