Research: Perceptions, awareness and understanding of show horse welfare at stock-horse events

How much do exhibitors understand about equine welfare? How much do they care? Researcher Melissa Voigt documented the difference between how riders and researchers evaluate equine welfare situations at shows
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Sometimes, following the progress of equine research is like waiting for the next novel in a good mystery series. An interesting case in point is the doctoral research of Melissa Voigt, MS, PhD, at Iowa State University. The purpose of her research, according to Voigt, was to expound on the welfare of stock-type (i.e., Quarter Horse, Paint Horse, Appaloosa, etc.) show horses through the perspective of those directly involved; she wanted to gauge the understanding of welfare, the value placed on it, and the ethical and moral decisions that impact the welfare of stock-type show horses. 

In a previous paper, she surveyed the attitudes of horse show judges and officials. In another she looks at the legitimacy of exhibiting horses at all. 

Voigt's latest paper involves the perceptions and concerns of the riders’ themselves. She was interested if their perception of welfare would parallel that of the researchers who evaluate equine welfare at an academic level. She also wanted to know who influenced the riders in their perception of welfare and abuse. 

A questionnaire was distributed to exhibitors of stock-type horses within the United States. The questions related to 1) interest in and general understanding of horse welfare; 2) welfare concerns of the horse show industry and specifically stock-type horses; 3) decision-making influences; and 4) level of empathetic characteristics of the exhibitors. 

There was a high level of interest in the topic of show horse care and treatment among respondents, and almost 95% of them indicated that the physical metrics of the horse should be a factor when assessing the welfare of horses. However, only 85% of respondents agreed that the horse's mental metrics should be a factor and only 74% agreed that behavioral metrics should be a factor when evaluating horse welfare. 

In the scientific community, it has been commonly accepted that the assessment of horse welfare should encompass all three metrics: physical, mental and behavior. 

The empathy levels of most respondents were moderate to high, and they showed a particular concern for certain sectors of the horse show industry, with 44% of the respondents indicating concern for the saddle-type sector, compared to only 22% indicating the same level of concern for the welfare of horses at open shows. 

Respondents indicated that the specific practices that they considered inhumane at stock-type shows were excessive jerking on the reins, excessive spurring, induced excessive movement, excessive repetition of a movement or practice and excessive pressure on the bit. 

Voigt specifically asked the riders about different abusive practices, and asked both whether the rider believed that practice existed in stock-horse showing, and whether the rider had personally observed that practice.

The authors suggest that when these practices are observed, the situation should be reported to the governing authority. 

Interestingly, it was found that the judge’s placings and the observations and opinions of other exhibitors at shows were only slightly to moderately influential in the opinion of stock-type horse exhibitors’ behaviors, but hired trainers and riding instructors were very influential on the decisions relating to the care and treatment of their horses. 

The results of this study suggest that it would be advisable to focus educational efforts for improving the welfare of stock-type horses towards these hired professionals, since they can influence so many people around them. 

Voigt's paper on horse show officials revealed that these authorities had an incomplete understanding of animal welfare, and a high level of concern regarding the public's perception of show horse welfare. 

Voigt’s findings showed that the most frequently observed compromises to show horse welfare, according to the officials, were attributed to a) novices', amateurs', and young trainers' lack of experience or expertise and b) trainers' and owners' unrealistic expectations and prioritization of winning over horse welfare. The officials emphasized a need for distribution of responsibility among associations, officials, and individuals within the industry.

Voigt also developed an e-learning course and a model for understanding and influencing behaviors related to the care and treatment of show horses that should be very instrumental for breed and sport officials, as well as 4H advisors and anyone involved with teaching riding and horsecare to children and adults.

After completing her PhD at Purdue University last year, Melissa moved to Iowa where she works for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Research citation:
Voigt MA, Hiney K, Richardson JC et al (2016) Show horse welfare: Horse show competitors’ understanding, awareness, and perceptions of equine welfare. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 19(4):335-352

Other papers in Voigt’s series include: 
Show Horse Welfare: The Viewpoints of Judges, Stewards, and Show Managers (Journal of Applied Animal Welfare, 2016);
Show Horse Welfare: Evaluating Stock-Type Show Horse Industry Legitimacy (Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 2015); and
Exhibitors’ perception of management, training, and competition practices effects on horse welfare (Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 2015).

The complete thesis title is Horse Show Welfare, and it may be downloaded through university or public libraries with access to the Proquest archive of online theses.

Thanks to RSPCA Australia Animal Welfare Science Update for contributing to the first part of this summary.

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