The importance horses played throughout man’s history is recorded in countless fabulously carved, painted or written works littered in museums, rock walls and libraries throughout the world. Many of you will be familiar with the testament left behind by our paelolithic brethren who adorned caves and rock galleries with paintings 20.000-35.000 years ago. The horses depicted on these walls are not very different to the horses we see today.
Since the dawn of domestication however man’s customs have rooted deeply, moral norms have been enforced, and different social attitudes abound with biased opinions clashing heatedly.
Although many agree that causing deliberate and unnecessary suffering to animals is unethical, definitions of terms such as comfort, well-being, discomfort, stress, fear, anxiety, pain, and distress are not generally agreed upon, leading to lack of consensus and fall-outs between parties, usually in detriment of the domestic horse’s well-being.
Today, horses are used by man in many parts of the world for food and leather, draught power, companionship, recreation, sport, scientific research and education. Awareness, concern and understanding of issues related to the welfare of domestic animals have increased exponentially in recent years despite all the conflicting interests.
“In fact, if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.” ― Ruth Harrison, Animal Machines
What is Animal welfare?
The word “welfare” is of Old Norse origin and can be traced to the word, velferth, which literally translated means: good travels (Phililps, 2009). In English, farewell, is used much in the same manner. Funnily enough, in the languages with Latin origin such as Spanish, Catalan, French or Portuguese; bienestar, benestar, bien-être and bemestar respectively all mean well-being.
Dr. Don Broom defines the welfare of an animal as “(…) its state as regards its attempts to cope with its environment. This state includes how much it is having to do to cope, the extent to which it is succeeding in or failing to cope, and its associated feelings.”
However we choose to define terms related to welfare, we should consider preliminarily the following question as proposed by (Philipps, 2009) “How good is an animal’s state in its environment?” To answer this apparently simple question is no easy task, as we must consider the components that constitute the animal’s environment, how the animal perceives it, and the genetic and experiential factors contributing to the animal’s internal state.
Several world-views clash in regard to welfare, some radically opposing others. Welfarists are those that exploit animals but attempt to provide them with their basic needs, while rightists, advocate for non-exploitation of animals altogether.
There has been much debate surrounding the question of sentience in other animals; Animals are sentient, which is to say that they have the ability to feel, perceive, be conscious, or have subjective experiences. I have heard many people say: horses don’t feel pain, they have no emotions, yet they are quick with the whip or spur…what for? This brings us to the problem of “anthropomorphism”. One is easily labeled as being anthropomorphic as soon as animals are attributed suffering, distress or even just emotions for that matter. Non-human animals were emotional long before humans came into existence, as matter of fact, so much so that we too have inherited and developed from ancient favored traits. To say they feel as we feel, is another matter which is not only anthropomorphic, but subjective too.
Defining terms related to welfare
Animal welfare, according to The World Animal Health Organisation, “(…) means how an animal is coping with the conditions in which it lives. An animal is in a good state of welfare if (as indicated by scientific evidence) it is healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe, able to express innate behaviour, and if it is not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear, and distress. Good animal welfare requires disease prevention and veterinary treatment, appropriate shelter, management, nutrition, humane handling and humane slaughter/killing”.
So, it’s not only about ensuring an animal is not mistreated or caused unnecessary pain or suffering, but ensuring the animal’s physical and mental state, by providing conditions in which natural needs are considered and attended to. Well that sounds easy enough to understand, but it seems the equine industry, or a large part of it, is still rowing upstream against the scientific current.
For example the terms stress, distress and suffering have been used interchangeably in the literature, despite good scientific evidence for both an adaptive stress response and a state of distress. Dr. Marthe Kiley-Worthington (2012) points out that stress is a normal response allowing animals to adapt to changing environments, therefore stress itself is not necessarily harmful. However, the prolongation of stress responses in which animals can not regain their conservative equilibrium (Humphreys, 1933) or homeostasis. This begs the question: when does stress become distress? The transition of stress to distress depends on several factors including the stressor duration and intensity,
Although the description of many conditions have been afforded by different approaches and terminologies, there is no argument that pain and distress are likely to have a direct impact on animal welfare and quality of life.
Lets have a look at some of the terms used in the articulation of the five freedoms.
Comfort - is a sense of physical or psychological ease, often characterized as a lack of hardship. (From Wiki)
Discomfort - NOUN:1. Mental or bodily distress. 2. Something that disturbs one’s comfort; an annoyance. (From Houghton & Miffin)
Well-being - a general term for the condition of an individual or group when quality of life is positive (From Wiki)
Stress - Serve the animal by promoting physiological and psychological adaptation to a changing environment, and in cases such as these, stress may be considered beneficial to the organism. Many times used to describe “a negative concept that can have an impact on one’s mental and physical well-being” (From Wiki), and this is so, although it is actually the prolongaton of these stressors that actually have an impact on welfare. Selye (1975), proposed the term Eustress to denote the typeof stress in which anaimls actually seek the stressor such as in excercise.
Fear - is a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of danger. frequently related to the specific behaviors of escape and avoidance. (From Wiki).
Anxiety - The displeasing feeling of fear and concern. (From Wiki) It is a normal reaction to stressful situations.
Pain - is an unpleasant feeling often caused by intense or damaging stimuli causing the individual to withdraw from damaging situations, to protect a damaged body part while it heals, and to avoid similar experiences in the future. (From Wiki)
Distress - Most definitions of distress characterize it as an aversive, negative state in which an animal’s coping and adaptation responses fail to return the animal to a state of normal physiological and/or psychological well being (From National Research Council). Distress can be used to describe a state in which an animal, unable to adapt to one or more stressors, is no longer successfully coping with its environment and its well-being is compromised (From Recognition and Alleviation of Distress in Laboratory Animals, 2008) Prolonged distress may result in pathologic conditions such as gastric ulcerations, intestinal lesions, hypertension, and the suppression of the immune system.
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