Our horse’s welfare – who defines “abuse”?

The pressure to win – Olympic athletes and professional horsemen alike feel it. Some call it greed, but sometimes it’s fueled by the desperate attempt to make a living. In the show ring or the race track, people hire successful  trainers. Unfortunately some set aside empathy to use the horse as a tool for their sport.

But what defines abuse varies among the public. How a horse experiences pain or anxiety is different from a human. He does not share our human logic or goals or the ability to think in the abstract. In many cases, what wouldn’t stress a human, stresses a horse. Conversely, some things a human considers painful is merely uncomfortable to the horse.

One thing I love about speaking and coaching riders on the science of equine behavior is reviewing all sorts of studies to help sort through the fact and fiction of equine learning and horse welfare. Research ranging from trailering to horse training methods to tack  – how what we do with horses, or neglect to do, affects a horse’s stress, measured by heart rate and cortisol levels. It’s been an eye opener to learn that some things are more stressful to a horse than we think, while others are less.

“Our views on animal welfare are conditioned by our personal knowledge base and life experiences,”  explained Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, in his keynote speech, entitled “Horse Welfare Wars: When Emotion and Fact Collide,” at an  AAEP Convention… “In a perfect world, all welfare solutions would be based on science, such as (the horses’) health and biological function (as opposed to emotion). In reality, though, science is often ignored if society believes something is wrong.” Lenz adds that he believes emotions often take over because society views animal welfare as a moral issue rather than a scientific issue, and they tend to be quick to blame when someone is caring for animals differently than they would.”

Let’s continue to question “questionable” training practices, but put on our thinking caps and check the evidence before we label a certain practice as abuse.