Unlike other livestock, horses may be raised for meat, sport, therapy or pleasure riding, making it hard to assess welfare concerns
Horses are used for many different purposes so it is difficult to assess their welfare, even though a code of practice for humane care was released in 2013.
Cordelie DuBois, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph in Ontario, is working on a project to gain insights on the perception of welfare in the Canadian equine sector.
The results of the on-farm welfare assessments on 26 southern Ontario horse operations were discussed at the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies annual meeting held in Calgary April 21-24.
“The Canadian equine industry is very large and very diverse,” she said.
There are about a million horses in Canada and unlike other livestock, they may be raised for meat, sport, therapy, pleasure riding or other purposes.
“There are a lot of players involved in actual ownership and management of horses,” she said.
People may own or rent the horse facilities and they may or may not own the horses.
She developed an on-farm assessment tool to evaluate horse welfare and address potential issues like appropriate resources, training practices, feed, water, drug abuse or overpopulation.
An assessment can be an educational opportunity or may challenge the way people do things, she said.
On-farm welfare assessments are becoming more important and prevalent in other parts of the livestock sector where records are more commonly maintained. This is not the case for horses.
“It is not common to have an auditor or inspector show up at a farm who can provide feedback,” she said.
The assessment included a self-assessment that covered animal husbandry, training and qualifications of staff and volunteers, turnout and stabling, access to feed and water, housing, body condition scores, lameness and safety.
In the self-assessment, many under estimated their structural problems and may not have been aware of things like correct door sizes, alley widths or ceiling heights. Most were good at assessing the resources available for the horse in terms of feed, water and shelter.
Many did not have an emergency plan or safety features like a fire extinguisher.
Independent assessors noted all barns were well lit, had dry stalls and provided water indoors.
Afterward, many participants offered further suggestions like assessing training methods and use of appropriate tack.
Many agreed if a welfare certification program existed, it could be used to inform potential boarders about the quality of the facility and give credibility to farm owners.
Change can be challenging.
“Not all farm managers own their facilities and not all farm managers own the horses. They are very much at the mercy of the owner of the horse in respect to what they would like done,” DuBois said.
Horse owners or property owners may not want to pay extra for better structures or adopt other recommendations that may provide better horse care.
“Renters cannot make changes to their facilities even if they wanted to,” she said.
Others were concerned about receiving a negative rating when boarded horses with pre-existing conditions showed up at their facility.
Further evaluations of the horse welfare assessment showed only half of participants were aware of the code of practice at the start. Awareness did not mean they read it but one participant actually handed out copies of the document to clients.
DuBois found there is little pressure from the industry or public to do something about horse welfare.
“Most people don’t think about that backyard horse until he is doing so poorly we have to call the SPCA,” she said.
A past project showed there is wariness among horse owners in calling the SPCA because they feel the officials are not knowledgeable enough.
The code recommendations are minimum standards that were developed by a committee of 18 people. It includes a check list and suggestions for improvement.
The equine code of practice may be viewed at www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice/equine.