Wel­fare check

How can the same horse­keep­ing sit­u­a­tion be un­ac­cept­able to one per­son but com­pletely fine to an­other? New re­search from Canada seeks to an­swer this ques­tion and oth­ers.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Christine Barakat

How can the same horse­keep­ing sit­u­a­tion be un­ac­cept­able to one per­son but com­pletely fine to an­other? New re­search from Canada seeks to an­swer this ques­tion and oth­ers.

Some ques­tions about equine wel­fare are easy to an­swer: Nearly ev­ery­one agrees on the need to help an ema­ci­ated horse con­fined to a bar­ren dirt pen piled high with ma­nure, for ex­am­ple. But far more com­mon are the gray ar­eas of the wel­fare dis­cus­sion: Does sta­bling a horse by him­self place him un­der se­vere psy­cho­log­i­cal stress? It is cruel to put an adult rider on a naughty pony? Is it a sub­tle form of abuse to re­quire a calm and com­pli­ant horse to spend hours in the les­son ring end­lessly cir­cling with be­gin­ner rid­ers aboard? In many cases, the an­swers aren’t so clear-cut.

When such debates crop up in tack rooms and barn aisles, ex­pe­ri­enced horse­keep­ers may never reach agree­ment. But when these ques­tions are part of an ef­fort to es­tab­lish wel­fare guide­lines and leg­is­la­tion, the search for an­swers takes on some­thing close to ur­gency, re­quir­ing a me­thod­i­cal, and when pos­si­ble, em­pir­i­cal ap­proach. That’s what a group of re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Guelph in On­tario, Canada, is at­tempt­ing to do.

Led by Cordelie DuBois as part of her doc­toral re­search, the Guelph team is sort­ing through the strong and var­ied opin­ions of equine pro­fes­sion­als to col­lect quan­tifi­able data to as­sist in un­der­stand­ing per­cep- tions of equine wel­fare is­sues.

Us­ing a multi-round sur­vey tech­nique, DuBois and her team de­vel­oped a se­ries of wel­fare-re­lated vi­gnettes that present hy­po­thet­i­cal horse­keep­ing sce­nar­ios in just a few sen­tences. These sce­nar­ios were based on the most press­ing wel­fare is­sues iden­ti­fied by equine pro­fes­sion­als in a pre­vi­ous por­tion of this sur­vey and re­flect sit­u­a­tions that may oc­cur both on and off the farm. The equine pro­fes­sion­als (14 in num­ber and con­sid­ered “ex­perts” for the pur­poses of the sur­vey) were re­cruited to par­tic­i­pate in this project, which ul­ti­mately cul­mi­nated in pre­sen­ta­tion of the vi­gnettes in the sur­vey’s third and fi­nal round.

Pro­fes­sion­als were sought for the project for a very spe­cific rea­son, says DuBois: “We were look­ing to ex­am­ine the per­spec­tive of peo­ple who are tra­di­tion­ally viewed as ex­perts in the com­mu­nity---the peo­ple horse own­ers and barn man­agers might turn to for ad­vice and guid­ance.” To be con­sid­ered a pro­fes­sional, the re­spon­dents had to hold some type of of­fi­cial ac­cred­i­ta­tion from a pro­fes­sional or­ga­ni­za­tion and have more than 10 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in their po­si­tion. The group in­cluded far­ri­ers, vet­eri­nar­i­ans, ac­cred­ited mas­sage ther­a­pists and equine den­tists, as well as law-en­force­ment hu­mane of­fi­cers with ex­pe­ri­ence in equine wel­fare cases.

For the study, the equine pro­fes­sion­als were asked to as­sign a rank to the level of wel­fare con­cern as­so­ci­ated with each vi­gnette based on a scale from 0 (mean­ing the horse’s wel­fare is not com­pro­mised) to 5 (mean­ing the horse is in dis­tress that re­quires im­me­di­ate in­ter­ven­tion). They were also asked to ex­plain their as­sess­ment and de­scribe what may have mo­ti­vated the ac­tions of the care­tak­ers in the sce­nar­ios.

The re­searchers then combed through those re­sponses, look­ing for com­mon phrases or ideas. “Our goal was to gain in­sight into how pro­fes­sion­als eval­u­ate horse wel­fare, which sit­u­a­tions were con­sid­ered the most ‘wel­fare-com­pro­mis­ing’ and what pro­fes­sion­als be­lieved were the un­der­ly­ing causes of those sit­u­a­tions. With that in­for­ma­tion, we can bet­ter iden­tify ar­eas in the in­dus­try that need at­ten­tion and, specif­i­cally, where more ed­u­ca­tion might be ben­e­fi­cial.”

But even when re­moved from the realm of academic re­search, data anal­y­sis and reg­u­la­tory goals, the vi­gnettes DuBois de­vel­oped can be the ba­sis for a mean­ing­ful ex­am­i­na­tion of what ex­actly we mean by equine wel­fare. Here is a sam­pling of the vi­gnettes used in the study. Please note that they are pre­sented in gen­der- and ge­og­ra­phy-neu­tral terms to re­duce vari­ables that may in­flu­ence a reader’s re­sponse.

Read and rank the vi­gnettes for your­self on the 0 to 5 scale (re­mem­ber 0 in­di­cates no wel­fare is­sue and 5 in­di­cates the horse is in dis­tress and needs im­me­di­ate in­ter­ven­tion). Then read how the ex­perts viewed them. How do your impression­s com­pare to a larger group? The vi­gnettes and the data they’ve gen­er­ated for this study pro­vide fer­tile ground for thought, dis­cus­sion and de­bate about the gray ar­eas of equine wel­fare.

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