Researchers Developing Equine Welfare Assessment Protocol

Do you know how to recognize equine welfare issues? While some signs of poor welfare are obvious, others are more subtle and possibly evident right in your own stable. According to Swedish researchers, there's a great need for research-based welfare assessments that take the guesswork out of judging equine well-being. And they've been busy developing a new, user-friendly protocol that does just that.

"Assessing horse welfare is challenging and requires a mix of animal-based and resource-based measures, but we don't often see a lot of animal-based measures in current protocols," said Sofie Viksten, MSc, a PhD student at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. A resource-based measure looks at the condition of resources available to the horse, such as how clean their water is, she said. Animal-based measures are based on evaluations of the state of the animal, such as hoof and body condition, or the presence of sores on the mouth from bits and bridles.

"Current legislation (in most European countries that have animal welfare legislation, including Sweden) is not always research-based," she said. "Legislation also has a lot of gray areas, like mental health, natural behaviors, and how the horse is used and how that can affect its individual welfare." Viksten presented on the topic at the 2012 International Society for Equitation Science conference.

Viksten's new protocol would call for regular assessments of horses in private holdings and in riding clubs and boarding stables that would allow owners to be alerted of possible welfare issues with their horses at an early stage, she said. Owners would then be advised on how to alter management of the horse in order to improve the welfare.

Inspired by "Welfare Quality" framework--designed by a European project team to assess welfare on livestock farms--Viksten's protocol has four major focus areas: good feeding, good housing, good health, and appropriate behavior. Similar work has already been undertaken by Dutch equitation scientists, but Viksten aims to further develop the Dutch protocol by adding measures and making it even more user-friendly and accessible to common owners instead of just professionals, she said.

Viksten ran an initial pilot test of the new protocol on 43 horses in two Swedish riding schools. It revealed sometimes "unexpected" welfare issues in reputable stables where horses had good health and body condition, she said. This included aggressive behavior, marks from bits, skin chafing from equipment, mild lameness, insufficient barn ventilation, and dirty water, among others.

"Many of the owners were unaware that there were welfare issues," said Viksten. "It might come down to failing to recognize the early signs of welfare issues or a lack of routines in daily assessments. This just underlines the need for a good welfare feedback system."

The final version of the protocol, expected tentatively in 2014, could also be beneficial for official legislation, insurance companies, and a welfare certification system for stables and riding schools, she said.

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