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Perceptions and Reality of Horse CareBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · October 10, 2017

Do you ever look at your horses and wonder if they are as content as you are? Sure, they have deep-bedded stalls in a cozy barn, they nicker when they see you each morning, and they appear happy, but what if there was more you could do?

Thanks to modern science, several techniques currently exist to help owners and caregivers assess welfare and well-being in horses:

  • Simple visible indicators of physical well-being, such as hair discoloration (due to nutrient deficiencies, for example), skin lesions, lameness, and coat health;
  • Measuring blood cortisol, glucose, or creatine kinase levels;
  • Reviewing and addressing “the five freedoms” (freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress); and
  • Using a 5-point or 9-point body condition score (BCS) to estimate a horse’s fat reserve.

Despite having these strategies available, one group of behavior specialists recently suggested that the equine industry can do more to address welfare and quality of life.

“One important factor the behaviorists identified was that many horse enthusiasts indicated they were aware of issues that led to compromised welfare, but this awareness did not always result in the appropriate measures to improve welfare,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

One example provided in the article mentioned that owners and caretakers believed horses prefer group housing, but most of those people still housed their horses individually. In addition, most horse owners knew what stereotypic behaviors were, yet few owners addressed the underlying cause of the stereotypic behavior or intervened in any way.

Some important findings based on the survey conducted by the behaviorists included the following:

  • Seventy-five percent of respondents strongly agreed that improvements in equine welfare were needed;
  • The major welfare issues identified were dental and hoof problems, malnutrition, and inadequate protection from the weather;
  • Survey respondents indicated they had a tendency to learn by trial and error or from friends and make decisions based on traditional beliefs rather than evidence-based medicine and seeking assistance from their veterinarian;
  • Purchase of an unsuitable horse; and
  • Lack of financial resources and limited time spent caring for the horse.

“The survey authors also noted that inadequate owner experience impacts welfare, meaning that simply having an affinity for horses does not automatically translate into optimal caregiving,” summarized Crandell.

Regardless of horsemanship experience, it was agreed that additional education would benefit horse owners and caretakers. Education needs to be tailored to the geographical region in which the horses reside.

“Diverse geography across the world results in the need for individualized management decisions,” Crandell noted. For example, amount and type of precipitation can affect access to pasture, regional differences in soil quality impacts grazing, and the acreage available on individual farms varies markedly.

“Costs associated with feeding horses can be daunting, especially when forage is limited. A KER nutritionist can help find more economical options that do not negatively affect your horse’s health,” assured Crandell. For nutrition-related information related to your region, contact a KER nutrition advisor today.

*McNeill, L.R., R.C. Bott, S.L. Mastellar, et al. Perceptions of equid well being in South Dakota. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. In press.