What does equine welfare really mean?
A survey of Canadian horse owners about equine housing practices reveals a disconnect between perceptions of “equine welfare” and “standard of care.”
Researchers at Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island visited horse farms and conducted a questionnaire with 76 local horse owners who care for a total of 212 horses. In addition to collecting basic demographic information, the survey explored perceptions about how horses are housed (outdoors, indoors, alone or in groups) and how that might affect various aspects of their well-being.
Survey of horse owners
The data showed that nearly all the horses owned by study participants had outdoor access for at least part of the day, with 79 percent kept outdoors full-time in herds, and 15 percent spending part of their time in individual stalls and the rest of the day turned out in herds.
“We asked owners to rate their level of agreement with statements about four different horse welfare attributes—physical health, mental well-being, ability to live a natural life and standard of care—in different housing systems,” says graduate student Megan Ross. The data showed that most of the owners agreed that keeping horses outdoors and in groups was better for their welfare.
Standard of care
There was less agreement, however, when it came to standard of care. “This suggests that owners may perceive the ‘standard of care’ for horses as being separate from or encompassing a broader meaning than solely physical health, mental well-being and natural living,” says Ross. “This is one of the most important findings of the study and highlights the importance of developing a holistic/cohesive understanding of good quality standard of care between knowledge users like horse owners, veterinarians and researchers. Currently, there’s not a lot within different facets of equine welfare that standardizes good quality care. I believe future research in this area is imperative to improve horse welfare.”
Indoors or outdoors?
Interestingly, the data suggest that how a respondent housed their own horses was related to their opinions about the type of care that is best for horses. “The owners who agreed less with the statement that the ‘standard of care’ for horses was better when kept outdoors were more likely to keep their own horses indoors part-time.”
Owners also answered questions about the benefits and challenges of their current management arrangements. “In the open-ended responses owners discussed the convenience of having their horses outdoors, which included not having to clean stalls, less wear and tear on the barn, their horses get more exercise, and are less prone to injuries,” says Ross. Many owners identified individualized feeding for horses keep in groups as a challenge.
A common misconception
Finally, Ross says, the study’s findings underscore the need to address the common belief among horse owners that keeping horses indoors somehow facilitates a better standard of care than does turning them out. “I think it’s important to recognize that, generally, more intensive indoor management does not mean better welfare for the horse. When horses are confined and isolated, research suggests their welfare is reduced and this can lead to a plethora of issues for the horse and the owner who is responsible for their care. I think proper outdoor, group living—for instance, assuming there is enough space, appropriate herd mates, appropriate fencing and pasture management—is the best preventative care we can provide our horses.”
Reference: “Horse housing on Prince Edward Island, Canada: Attitudes and experiences related to keeping horses outdoors and in groups,” Animals, January 2023