By Mariette van den Berg B. AppSc. (hons), MSc., PhD (Equine Nutrition)
Horses are social animals – they have a natural desire for company and, as their carers and keepers, it's our responsibility to ensure that they have this. We therefore all recognise the importance of managing horses together or ensuring that they have companion horses close by for welfare reasons. In the same way companionship can also be provided through our own interactions with horses, although they should never be a substitute for horse-horse interactions.
Human–horse interactions (HHIs) are an important aspect of society, especially in our equine industry. HHIs come in various forms and can be focused on horses as an economic means, pleasure, or companionship for humans. As a result, the welfare of horses during these interactions, including their mental and physical health, is an important consideration(1).
Studies have demonstrated the detrimental effects of negative HHIs on horse and human welfare, that is, performance, companionship, health. Negative HHIs can impair horse welfare with negative consequences on the horse’s performance, health, and welfare, primarily through suppression and fear as an underlying mechanism(1-4). This also very important issue to the public and an extremely important ethical issue. Just take the recent public discussion on the interaction of humans with horses that took part in the latest Tokyo Olympic Modern pentathlon discipline. Or the recent focus on the poling training method (enticing a horse to lift its legs higher over a jump by hitting its front legs) in showjumping, or the use of roll-kur (extreme over-flexion of the horse’s neck) training method common in top level dressage. But many negative HHIs are often not as exposed as they are habitually engrained in various equine breeds or disciplines. For example, the way we apply breeding practices or starting horses at a very young age and asking peak performance, can have detrimental effects to the horse’s physical and mental state.
In comparison, the benefits of positive HHIs for horse welfare is poorly understood and appreciated but is receiving more scientific attention(1,4). This is much needed in light of the many negative focusses on our industries were horse-human interactions are being questioned. Studies have demonstrated that domestic animals, including horses often seek and enjoy interacting with humans, beyond depending on humans for food(1,5). At the core many owners and breeders genuinely want a positive relationship with their horses. In the same way horses may perceive interacting with humans per se as rewarding.
This highlights that social interactions with humans as well as other animals should be considered when we assess the overall well-being and health of our horses. It’s our duty of care to be well-informed and know when professional advice should be sought to assist with making decisions that affect social and human-horse related interactions whether this is the context of general handling, training, or breeding. However, finding the ‘right’ information is a minefield to navigate with many online resources and advertised horse experts. In addition, every expert/horse owner will have their own perception of what is acceptable often shaped by cultural tradition. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of the new developing science-based insights that can help us in determining if we are on the right track when it comes to our decisions and interactions with our horses. This is where the Five Domains model for animal welfare(6) comes in, which we can use as a guide for our overall assessment of horse welfare... To read the complete article you need to be a subscriber
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