Equine practitioners have a key role to play in reducing the numbers of surplus horses and ponies that end up at rescue centres or abattoirs, according to Scotland’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Sheila Voas.
Speaking at the World Horse Welfare online conference on 12 November, she said vets should try to discourage clients from choosing to breed from their own mares when there is little prospect of a market for the resulting foals.
Sheila Voas felt that the equine overpopulation problem in the UK was mainly driven by casual breeders rather than the large breeding yards, as the latter generally put more thought into breeding decisions. In contrast, ordinary horse owners will often have their mare mated when they cannot think of any other use for it. There was a strong likelihood that any health or behavioural problems present in the dam will also emerge in its offspring. “If the mare’s conformation or temperament is not suitable, then vets should be telling owners – ‘Do you really think this is a good idea?’” she said.
She was part of an expert panel at the meeting that was asked if the right balance has been reached between quantity and quality in horse breeding. As the Paris-based equine journalist Christa Leste-Lasserre pointed out, there are problems with excess numbers of horses in every major country and all branches of the industry. “So, given the hundreds of thousands of former riding horses sent for slaughter worldwide each year, the answer to the question is unequivocally – no,” she said.
Considerable efforts will often go into finding a second career for sporting horses that can longer perform at the highest level but there was no guarantee that these will be successful, she said. In many cases an animal bred for athletic performance may not easily adapt to the different demands of a leisure rider. The change in employment may also create further welfare problems as thoroughbred racehorses are trained to perform while carrying a jockey who will weigh far less than most adults in the UK, pointed out fellow panellist Caroline Nokes MP.
Australian equine scientist Andrew McLean highlighted another welfare issue resulting from a worldwide surplus of sports and leisure horses. This has meant that prices have dropped significantly, tempting people who have never previously owned an animal to buy one without thinking about the long-term costs and responsibilities.
Christa Leste-Lassere wondered if tighter regulations on horse ownership might provide a solution. In Switzerland, for example, anyone keeping five or more horses must obtain a licence which is only issued after the owner has undertaken appropriate training.
Caroline Nokes agreed that curbing the number of horses kept on a premises may seem sensible, given that the worst welfare problems usually occur when the population grows out of control. But she was sceptical that legislation was the answer; she felt that this approach ran counter to the country’s largely libertarian instincts and raised questions about how the regulations could be enforced.
Sheila Voas agreed, pointing out that education rather than new regulations was the answer to most welfare problems: “If we do have to legislate, then to some extent then we have already failed. It is quite a crude measure and we should be able to achieve our goals in other ways.”
Gaining a better understanding of how horses see and experience the world is key to addressing many of the welfare problems facing the equine industry, suggested Andrew McLean. He felt that several methods used in the management of horses today will be rejected over the next decade.
Certainly, the use of the whip to “encourage” racehorses will no longer be considered acceptable. When the whip is used with excessive force, it will cause pain that the horse cannot escape because it is already running as fast as it can. “If an animal is subjected to inescapable pain that will cause stress, which will make them more difficult, unstable and possibly more dangerous. If we improve the way they are treated, we will have a bigger pool of horses that can be used in other activities,” he said.
Those responsible for managing horses must also appreciate that these are social animals that are not intended to lead solitary lives. McLean said he has been working with the Greater Manchester Police on improving the welfare of its horses. One important change has been stopping them being stabled alone, without contact with their equine colleagues. This has not only reduced the incidence of stereotypic behaviours in the stable but has also improved the performance of the police horses when out on patrol, he said.