Equine welfare and the government: Government hearings on horses give researchers, charities the microphone in United Kingdom, Australia

The statue of Richard the Lionhearted (by the Italian sculptor Carlo Marochetti in the 19th century) might get some extra scrutiny this week as equine welfare representatives plan a presentation to the House of Commons on the status of horse welfare in England and Wales. Are the horse’s feet too long? Why is his mouth open? Did he really need that severe bit? The statue has a colorful history: the horse’s tail broke off when it was erected and a German shell fell close by during the Blitzkreig bombing of World War II. Shrapnel left the poor horse with multiple battle scars. Photo courtesy of Fabrizio Morroia.

How does a nation prioritize what animal welfare issues are most pressing and most in need of government legislation, regulation or support? It is a tall order, since the issues brought forward by the public are not always the issues that affect the largest number of animals, or the easiest to approach by legislation.

Here in the United States, government officials might hear more complaints about the welfare of carriage horses in New York City than the welfare of tens of thousands of unseen feral horses in the western states. Many people are vocal with protests against sports like Thoroughbred racing, and work to help with rehoming Thoroughbred for second careers, but not much is heard about efforts to help second career Standardbred or Quarter horse racehorses. What streams feed the most horses into the river of unwanted horses in the United States?

In Australia last week, the state of New South Wales banned greyhound racing, citing animal welfare as the chief reason for the ban, which will begin a year from now. The government heard testimony from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), New South Wales chapter, about the high “wastage” of dogs that failed to be successful on the track and about the use of “live bait” to train racing dogs, as well as fatal musculoskeletal injuries suffered during races.

“RSPCA NSW called for the Special Commission of Inquiry, and worked closely with it, providing written and oral evidence,” said RSPCA NSW CEO Steve Coleman in a media release last week. “The decision of the NSW Government is a rational and forward-thinking decision that propels NSW to the forefront of animal welfare in this country.”

While the greyhound decision in a single state doesn’t seem to relate to horses, journalist Ray Thomas of The Telegraph sounded a cautionary note in his article this weekend. If welfare was the chief reason for banning greyhound racing, could the same thing happen to horses?

Thomas chronicled the efforts of Racing NSW to address some of the welfare concerns facing horse racing, including the “lost” foals who disappear from records, and the controversial over-whipping of horses during racing.

Right on cue, the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses issued a call for an inquiry into banning horse racing in the state, which has already banned jump racing.

A Parliament committee in South Australia, meanwhile, began investigating a ban on jump racing there in March. South Australia and Victoria are the only states in Australia that still allow jump racing.

South Australia Racing Minister Leon Bignell was quoted by ABC Online as saying that jumps racing was a relic of the past and should be phased out

Ray Thomas might have quoted Oakbank Racing Club Chairman John Glatz from South Australia, won said on ABC Online, “They’ve lost more horses in the Melbourne Cup in the last two years than we’ve lost in jumps racing in four years here in South Australia and Victoria.”

Horse racing is a billion dollar a year industry in Australia, with 30,000 horses in the racing pool, and a death rate (by 2014 statistics) of one death per 160 horses. Many critics feel that horse racing and greyhound racing are similar in their disregard for animal welfare. 

When the court of public opinion raises its voice, and the government committees call in the animal-protectionist charities to testify, the writing is on the wall, in most countries. 

An ambitious research project at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, funded by World Horse Welfare, interviewed veterinarians and farriers, among others, who see horses firsthand, and asked for help prioritizing what can and should be done on a national level through government legislation.

Together with providing an in-depth insight to the welfare challenges faced by the UK’s equines, the research will also make recommendations based on the findings to support improvements in welfare across the country.

At the same time, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Sub-Committee began an investigation into the welfare of domestic pets; dogs, cats and horses. Last week, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) testified. 

On July 12, the committee will hear from George Eustice MP, Minister of State for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in an oral evidence session.

Following that session, the authors and sponsors of the new research suggesting the welfare priorities of the UK’s 800,000 equines will be outlined at the House of Commons, where foxhunting was so famously banned in 2004. Prime minister David Cameron, who promised to overturn the ban during his term of office, has resigned his position in the face of the Brexit vote last month.

Lee Hackett, Director of Policy for the British Horse Society and Roly Owers, Chief Executive, World Horse Welfare, have already testified before the committee on May 10; they provided information on these issues under consideration by the committee:

  • breeding
  • horse passports and traceability
  • the sale of horses
  • issues surrounding enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (UK)

Speaking of the new research publication, World Horse Welfare Chief Executive, Roly Owers, said in a media release: “Basing our work on evidence as well as our experience is central to our whole approach, which is why this research is so important. It will provide a vital insight into the diverse welfare challenges facing the UK’s equines – setting out the welfare ‘landscape’ from many aspects of the equine sector.

“We look forward to presenting the findings and recommendations of this ground breaking report and the following discussions, which we hope will spark positive change to improve the lives of our 800,000 UK horses.”

World Horse Welfare is noted for its work with the horse sports community and organizations, including the FEI and races like Aintree’s Grant National steeplechase, to insure horse safety and welfare as much as possible and work toward improved conditions for horses in sport.

Dr Siobhan Mullan, Research Fellow in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law at the University of Bristol and one of the authors of the report, added: “At the start of the project relatively little was known about the welfare of horses in England and Wales. By identifying the most important welfare issues, future efforts to improve equine welfare can be strategic and targeted. The common goal shared by everyone who took part in the research is to improve the lives of horses.”

The findings of this unique research study will be previewed at an event at the House of Commons, by kind permission of World Horse Welfare Trustee Caroline Nokes MP, where key members of the equine welfare community can enjoy a champagne cream tea and tour of the House of Commons. 

There is no question that, wherever in the world you look, animal welfare organizations have learned that the road to reform is paved from inside Parliamentary or Congressional chambers. In the United Kingdom instance, the added clout of university research is a potentially game-changing weapon. The onus is on elected officials, and their constituents who care about animals, to be part of the decision-making committees and processes and to make informed decisions with input from as many points of view as possible.

Thanks to Fabrizio Morroia for the use of the top photo.





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