Welfare is one of those words that
mean many different things to as many different people. The concept of welfare
can be viewed in a scientific manner, where the physiological and psychological
results of environmental stress, and the impact of it on an organism, is
measured and a scale produced with 'very good' at one end and 'very poor' at the
other but, even when a technical directory of measurement, cause and effect is
to hand, the basic question remains unanswered, and that is the why of it rather
than the what.
The importance of providing good
welfare is an ethical or moral issue; it has no real existence in the physical
world; it is subjective and entirely open to definition.
The task is made easier by the fact
that more and more official bodies are producing welfare codes, from the
European Community to the Fedaracion Equestre Internationale .
As a working model the F.E.I
is probably a logical choice:
all equestrian sports the horse must be considered paramount.
well being of the horse shall be above the demands of breeders, trainers,
riders, owners, dealers, organizers, sponsors or officials.
handling and veterinary treatment must ensure the health and welfare of the
highest standards of nutrition, health, sanitation and safety shall be
encouraged and maintained at all times.
provision must be made for ventilation, feeding, watering and maintaining a
healthy environment during transportation.
should be placed on increasing education in training and equestrian practices
and on promoting scientific studies in equine health.
the interests of the horse, the fitness and the competence of the rider shall be
regarded as essential.
riding and training methods must take account of the horse as a living entity
and must not include any technique considered by the FEI to be abusive.
Federations should establish adequate controls in order that all persons and
bodies under their jurisdiction respect the welfare of the horse.
national and international Rules and Regulations in eqestrian sport regarding
the health and welfare of the horse must be adhered to not only during national
and international events, but also in training. Competition Rules and
Regulations shall be continually reviewed to ensure such welfare.
Of all the elements of the code,
the most wide ranging and open to debate is the second, which is repeated below:
"The well being of the horse
shall be above the demands of breeders, trainers, riders, owners, dealers,
organisers, sponsors or officials."
Before going any further, we are
going to have to look for a definition of just what 'well-being' means,
particularly since its use is often interchangeable with 'welfare'. In some
cultures there is only one word, which does the job of both but, since it is a
conceptual term and therefore varies in its usage from culture to culture, this
should not surprise us. According to the concise English dictionary 'well-being'
is defined as: Happiness and good health'. Well-being is also said to have a
"stronger connotation of subjective feeling in its use. It is used to refer
more to the individual’s perception of its state itself. Well-being can be
used to mean the feelings which an individual has about both its environment and
the consequences of interactions with it." (1.)
So, with this in mind, if we wanted
to play with this element a bit we could put up the following propositions:
1. Being kept in solitary isolation
is most likely to make a horse unhappy and is therefore against the code.
2. Being stabled is liable to cause
high levels of stress and behavioural stereotypes, which occur as a result of
sensory deprivation, and is therefore counter to the horse’s well being.
3. Forced weaning is extremely
emotionally stressful for both foal and dam, and is therefore counter to the
horse’s well being.
4. Deprivation of natural social
contact and play produces psychologically unhealthy horses and is therefore
counter to the code.
5. Equipment such as spurs, bits
and whips, plus any and all items of harness that operate on the basis of
physical force, pain and discomfort have an impact contrary to well-being, and
are therefore contrary to the code.
6. Training methods that feature
psychological coercion, and produce symptoms such as learned helplessness and
post traumatic stress syndrome are contrary to well-being, and are therefore
contrary to the code.
We could go on increasing the size
of the list until it is equal to the code itself, but the point has been made.
However, each of those elements is being put into practice around the world
thousands of times per day, which begs the question: was this what was intended
when the code was drafted?
If it was, then there would seem to
be many management methods that need to be changed in order for the code to have
If it wasn’t, then just what
should the Code be taken to mean? What it actually says is that the horse comes
first and that there are no excuses. So, if horses can't be kept in such a way
that their well-being is assured because, say, there is insufficient space or
money has to be earned, then they should not be kept at all! Tough stuff!
In fact, radical stuff since, for
the first time in 6000 years, it suggests that the needs of the horse come
first, over and above those of human partners. Of course, for this to have any
meaning, the code would have to be applied and enforced. At present, there seems
to be little chance of anything but downright cruelty being acted against and,
such is the level of ignorance of the horse's nature, it seems doubtful that its
'happiness' is going to be protected in any real sense. So why bother to have
such an element in the Code at all?
A cynical person might suggest that
the only purpose it serves is to mollify those who decry the use of animals in
sport - that it is nothing more than paying lip service. It would be difficult
to assure such a person that this was not the case, and that is a great shame,
for the majority of horse owners and riders do have an affectionate attachment
to their horses, and try to do their best, as they see it, for them. If a person
is unaware that, let's say, a horse kept by itself is unlikely to spend the same
amount of time lying down as one in a group, and that this means they are unable
to spend time dreaming, and that this means in turn that, as with people, their
psychological well-being is adversely affected, then they cannot possibly be
blamed for breaking the code. If they do know, then it becomes a different
matter. Ignorance, so they say, is bliss.
There is also another alternative,
and that is to dismiss such knowledge as mumbo-jumbo and seek to destroy the
credibility of those who work to widen the knowledge base by making malicious
personal attacks. Knowledge is like the biblical seed, it has to fall on fertile
soil to germinate. So, if you don’t want to be tied down by a Code, you have
only to refuse to see any reason why what you do might not be the best method
and carry on as before, and for you the Code changes nothing at all.
For the Code to have any impact it
must be enforced, but who is going to enforce it and on the basis of what
accepted facts or consensus? The probable answer is that this is a hot potato
that is going to be dropped and allowed to roll out of sight where it can be
happily and conveniently ignored. A simple admonition to "do what you think
is best for the horses in your charge" would then be both more honest and
of more real value.
Looking for a moment at just why
such a Code was formulated, we can list some of the events during which horses
were injured and which caused a public outcry at the time. Four separate
incidents occurred in 1992, which led to a wave of adverse publicity in the
media against what was seen as lack of consideration for the welfare of the
competition horse. Three fatal falls happened during the cross-country phase of
the three-day event at Badminton, England; NBC news coverage of the Barcelona
Olympics produced expressions of outrage by both media and public; a horse
suffered a broken back during show jumping at Wembley Stadium arena in London
and, lastly, "Mr Brooks" broke a leg during the Breeders cup in
Florida, USA. (2.)
We are probably all aware of the
liking that T.V. producers have for cutting together sensational falls and
"stunts gone wrong", whether human or equine. It produces cheap,
re-cycleable programming, satisfies the ghoulish, and truth or objectivity come
a distant second to ratings. Other, more reputable sources, such as 'Animals
International', the publication of the World Society for the Protection of
Animals, are also quite capable of linking, on the same double-page spread,
photographs of Arctic seals being clubbed to death, bear-baiting using Bull
Terriers, and a horse falling in the Barcelona Olympics, with an accompanying
caption reading "Cross-Country Cruelty at the Olympics". (3.)
Such items in the media, whether
true or not, produce the perception in the public mind that equestrian sport is
inhumane, and it is that perception which has to be dealt with. Responsible
organisations are trying to improve the welfare of competition horses, and
groups such as the International League for the Protection of Horses are doing
their utmost to promote good welfare for horses all over the world but, for many
people, their attempts do not go nearly far enough and are, of necessity,
focused at a level that a majority of people will be willing to support. Show a
picture of a horse suffering from malnutrition and most will be prepared to
condemn the owner, but show a picture of a well-fleshed horse suffering the
anguish of social isolation and few will respond.
Element 6 of the code refers to the
promotion of education, but that also only goes so far. If part of that
education highlights the poor welfare that results from current, widespread,
intensive horse keeping and associated management practices, then don’t expect
the FEI, or any other body for that matter, to take it on with any sort of
enthusiasm. Truth, as it is said, is relative, and often makes an unwelcome
guest! Is the FEI going to step in and monitor the incidence of stomach ulcers
in top level international dressage horses? Does it keep records of stallions
euthanased because their solitary existence has turned them into psychopathic
killers? Is it prepared to acknowledge that use of bits is directly linked to
the development of head-shaker syndrome? No, no and no. And never mind these
hard questions, how about just a small shift, such as the FEI being prepared to
allow riders to compete in dressage without bits – again no! So just where is
the evidence that the FEI is honestly prepared to put its own code into
practice? And if they are not should we view it as the result of a distinct lack
of critical reasoning – or, and perhaps far more realistically, an
unwillingness to actually come to grips with difficult issues?
For those who truly wish to do what
is best, hard though that may well be, there needs to be some kind of measuring
system to decide just what will best support the well-being of the horse, and
the following statement is an attempt to formulate an over-riding principle for
the creation of such a system.
"Horses should be kept in such
a way that they are able to freely express those behaviours that are a natural
part of their physical and psychological character."
The logical outcomes of accepting
such a proposition are reasonably obvious; the willingness to espouse such logic
is another matter altogether and will, no doubt, remain a matter of personal
inclinations or opinions. I, for one, would not wish "thought police"
on anyone, but the era of political correctness is upon us and "he who is
lost will be he who has stalled" (4.)
This is probably a good point at
which to leave the rarefied atmosphere of ethical debate, and move on into some
other, more practical, areas that are of concern.
The racing industry is one of the
largest users and producers of horses. It is a strange fact that many people who
are interested and drawn to horses will not have anything to do with racing.
Most often, the reasons given for this are those to do with the way in which
race horses are kept and trained, most particularly the fact that they are put
into work at such an early age. There is ample evidence to suggest that no horse
should be ridden until it reaches three years of age, and that to do so can
cause physical damage to the musculo-skeletal system resulting in a very short
career ending in a trip to the meat-works.
In equestrian events, we expect a
horse to come into its full potential at around nine to twelve years of age, and
such great horses as Charisma have beaten the rest of the world at the age of
We know that early weaning is
stressful and traumatic, and that isolation causes stereotypical behaviour and
further stress. So why are these practices continued? Trainers need owners in
order to make a living, and a hard and stressful living it is! And finally, the
whole racing industry needs punters to attend races and place their bets.
In most consumer industries the
belief is that the customer is right and must be given what they want, and if
changing racing industry practices would result in more people going to the
track and having an interest in racing why does the industry not look at what
changes it could make? We hear often enough that racing is having a hard time
but there has not been a major change in years which is, to say the least, a
little hard to understand. Not only does racing have a hard time attracting
punters and owners, it also has an increasingly hard time finding stable staff.
Having been involved in the process of training young people to work in the
industry myself, it is very clear that many who have the potential to be very
good at working with horses are put off by the way in which those horses are
treated. As society's attitude towards the ethics of animal use change, racing
is going to be forced to reassess its methods or go into extinction as a
dinosaur of the past.
What is the problem with starting
horses out as three-year-olds? Initially, there would be horses bred that would
have to be kept on by breeders an extra year or so but, by staggering the change
over four or five seasons, only twenty percent need to be held back each year -
perhaps those that come from families known to mature later. Since governments
make such a huge amount from the racing industry, we might even look to them to
help breeders out during the transition with tax breaks and so on - after all it
would be protecting the golden goose.
If, by waiting the extra time,
owners are presented with an ‘investment’ that is likely to be more durable,
not to break down after a couple of seasons racing, and to have a residual value
at the end of its career on the track, wouldn’t it become a more attractive
proposition? Breeders in New Zealand, and no doubt elsewhere, have been finding
it difficult in many cases to cover their costs when selling yearlings, and part
of the reason is surely that at such a young age it is extremely difficult to
judge exactly what kind of horse the buyer will end up with when it matures. And
if more horse-lovers are brought into racing as a spectacle in which the power
and beauty of galloping horses can be witnessed in the firm knowledge that the
horses involved are being treated as living entities rather than as mere
commodities, would not the whole industry benefit? The industry will have to
change; growing awareness of animal welfare will force it, is slowly forcing it,
so why not make changes willingly and thereby support the jobs and income that
are derived, rather than have to be dragged screaming and kicking into the
It is, as is usual, the few who
abuse horses who spoil it for everyone, and there certainly are stable staff
whose response to the frustration of a horse not doing what they want is to wade
in with kicks and sticks, and for them my only suggestion is "get some
anger management counselling, and, if that doesn’t cure you, get another
Over the past five years, horse
breeding in New Zealand, to take just one example, has become less financially
sustainable - after all, why should a buyer be expected to pay a good price for
a purpose-bred sport horse when they can easily pick up the rejects from
thoroughbred racing virtually for free? The high profile international success
of N.Z event riders on N.Z thoroughbred sport horses led towards what seemed to
be a bright future for horse exports, so much so that the Department of Trade
got involved in order to support the industry. Now we have reached the point
where such a large percentage of the horses foreign buyers are offered fail
veterinary inspection for soundness, and there are so many to choose from, that
the prices realised have tumbled.
The general public see the rare T.V
item documenting yearling sales where fabulous money is paid for progeny from a
very select few studs, and believe that all is well. What they don't see or hear
about are the high numbers of yearlings which fail to make even the price needed
to pay the service fee of the stallion used. If the N.Z government were really
interested in supporting the horse-breeding industry as a whole, surely
something should be done about this.
It wasn't that long ago that a
research grant of several hundred thousand dollars was given to a N.Z university
for the study of causes of leg problems and breakdown of racehorses. Having
received the money, a spokesman then declared that they were pretty sure they
knew what the causes were already - as, of course, do many in the horse world.
Ordering a few copies of equine specialist Dr James Rooney book 'The Lame Horse
- Causes, Symptoms & Treatment would have saved a lot of time and money!
Most research funding for studies
of the horse comes from the racing industries of the various countries, which
might be seen as a good thing - racing repaying its debt to the horse. But is
that really the whole story? There is nothing quite so pernicious as 'vested
interest' and, since all other industries (and governments come to that) tend to
massage fact to suit the present status quo, why should the racing industry be
I challenge the racing industry to
take on board the overwhelming scientific information regarding the potential
damage done to horses by such practices as working them at too early an age -
and to change! Perhaps then the problems of finding staff, attracting the public
to the races, and maintaining some reasonable residual value for horses retiring
from racing, will decrease and, with them, the problems of financial viability
faced by non-racing breeders.
The racing industry is easy to pick
on, but there are plenty of other areas that could use some cleaning up.
Kentucky walking horses are subjected to abuse by various methods, such as the
application of abrasives and false boots in order to secure the exaggerated
gait, and it seems only fair to say that if someone can't be satisfied with a
horse for what it is, then they should stick to machines instead. To a lesser
extent, but along the same path, what about the sport of harness racing where,
again, all kinds of paraphernalia are required in order to make horses trot or
pace at a speed which is quite unnatural and at which they would normally be
cantering? Are horses not sufficiently beautiful moving in natural gaits that
they have to be subjected to working in hobbles and overchecks in order to
conform to some arbitrary standard of movement? Would the trainers of harness
horses be prepared to fit a harness to their children in order to make them
swing their arm on the same side as the leg moving forward? No, that would be
entirely too silly wouldn’t it? We love our children for who and what they
are, don’t we? But it's all right to do it to horses because we wish them to
move as we dictate rather than as nature intended.
Then, of course, there is that
super-macho spectacle, the Rodeo. A pastime where the brutish can really show
their mettle. But, in a world where human beings seem to find the greatest of
difficulty in merely being kind to each other, I suppose nothing should come as
much of a surprise.
Some religions have a happy knack
of declaring animals to be on this planet solely for our use, so that must make
it OK to treat them as we see fit. And, by that measure, the imprisonment and
forced immobilisation of mares in stalls for the collection of Pregnant Mare
Urine is fine also, and it makes money, and can be used to manufacture human
pharmaceuticals too. So all is well there! And if people find it entertaining to
watch horses or mules forced, by electric prods, up steep ramps onto high-dive
platforms from which they will be made to 'dive' into tanks of water, then we
certainly must not stand in the way of their having their fun!
It really is all a matter of
degree, each act of cruelty or abuse becoming merely an understatement of the
next and succeeding ultimately in desensitising society - to the detriment of us
Having, no doubt, upset a few
people with the preceding paragraphs, good manners probably dictate that an
apology should be offered. Well sorry, but I'm not going to give one. I shall
just have to content myself with knowing that in this world there are people
whom it is truly a privilege and a duty to upset, and declare my right to say
what I believe to be true. What each individual is prepared to do is a matter
for their conscience, if they have one, but they should not be too surprised if
others lobby for legislation that makes the abuse of another species illegal.
For those who wish to spend either
their leisure or working hours with these most noble and glorious of creatures,
and to be free to do so without being subjected to the condemnation of the
media, it must be acknowledged that it is human nature to judge things by the
worst rather than by the best and that, as equestrians, they have a duty to
themselves to attempt to control the excesses of the few in order to protect the
rights of the majority.
All types of cross country, jumping
or race courses can be designed to protect the safety of the horse while
allowing for a true test of skill and athleticism; indeed, that is what the best
designers do, but there will always be accidents in which injury occurs to
either horse or rider. Such is the nature of sport. For those who would do away
with equestrian sport altogether, there is the question of what would then
happen to all those horses that would become surplus to requirements. Would it
be better that they were all consigned to an early death in order to feed
domestic pets or the people who find the eating of horsemeat acceptable?
The fate of humans and the horse
are inextricably linked, for better or worse. Our treatment of the horse allows
us to express a sense of dignity and compassion and, as such, the relationship
can become one of real and enduring beauty, spiritual in its intensity and
glorious in its achievement. And, who knows, by understanding and learning to
communicate with members of another species, we may come to better understand
ourselves and the environment in which both species must survive.
Finally, we might consider the
potential for damage to our own species by our treatment of other creatures. The
development of empathy is crucial to our safety as individuals, for it is this
that prevents the perpetration of acts of violence and cruelty to others. Each
time we suspend empathy, for whatever reason, we invite harm. Once we start
excusing ourselves from an obligation to treat other living creatures with
respect and compassion because they are of a different species we also invite
further suspensions of empathy, perhaps because of a difference in culture, or
religion or sexual preference. Once one exception is made the door is thrown
open to others. Will you be attacked on the street by someone who, by virtue of
your having more than they do, or being a different colour, suspends empathy
towards you? So, are you prepared to suspend your empathy by keeping a horse in
isolation? Will you use spurs to enforce your will, even if by doing so you
cause pain? If you can only compete in your chosen discipline if you use
equipment that causes pain – will you continue to do so?
"The day may come when the
rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been
witheld from them but by the hand of tyranny...a full-grown horse or dog is
beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an
infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old. But suppose the case were
otherwise, What would it avail? The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can
they talk? But can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any
sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over
anything that breathes..."