Welfare is one of those words that mean many different things to as many different people. The concept of welfare can be viewed in a scientific manner, where the physiological and psychological results of environmental stress, and the impact of it on an organism, is measured and a scale produced with 'very good' at one end and 'very poor' at the other but, even when a technical directory of measurement, cause and effect is to hand, the basic question remains unanswered, and that is the why of it rather than the what.

The importance of providing good welfare is an ethical or moral issue; it has no real existence in the physical world; it is subjective and entirely open to definition.

The task is made easier by the fact that more and more official bodies are producing welfare codes, from the European Community to the Fedaracion Equestre Internationale .

As a working model the F.E.I  code is probably a logical choice:


1.     In all equestrian sports the horse must be considered paramount.

2.     The well being of the horse shall be above the demands of breeders, trainers, riders, owners, dealers, organizers, sponsors or officials.

3.     All handling and veterinary treatment must ensure the health and welfare of the horse.

4.     The highest standards of nutrition, health, sanitation and safety shall be encouraged and maintained at all times.

5.     Adequate provision must be made for ventilation, feeding, watering and maintaining a healthy environment during transportation.

6.     Emphasis should be placed on increasing education in training and equestrian practices and on promoting scientific studies in equine health.

7.     In the interests of the horse, the fitness and the competence of the rider shall be regarded as essential.

8.     All riding and training methods must take account of the horse as a living entity and must not include any technique considered by the FEI to be abusive.

9.     National Federations should establish adequate controls in order that all persons and bodies under their jurisdiction respect the welfare of the horse.

10. The national and international Rules and Regulations in eqestrian sport regarding the health and welfare of the horse must be adhered to not only during national and international events, but also in training. Competition Rules and Regulations shall be continually reviewed to ensure such welfare.

Of all the elements of the code, the most wide ranging and open to debate is the second, which is repeated below:

"The well being of the horse shall be above the demands of breeders, trainers, riders, owners, dealers, organisers, sponsors or officials."

Before going any further, we are going to have to look for a definition of just what 'well-being' means, particularly since its use is often interchangeable with 'welfare'. In some cultures there is only one word, which does the job of both but, since it is a conceptual term and therefore varies in its usage from culture to culture, this should not surprise us. According to the concise English dictionary 'well-being' is defined as: Happiness and good health'. Well-being is also said to have a "stronger connotation of subjective feeling in its use. It is used to refer more to the individual’s perception of its state itself. Well-being can be used to mean the feelings which an individual has about both its environment and the consequences of interactions with it." (1.)  

So, with this in mind, if we wanted to play with this element a bit we could put up the following propositions:

1. Being kept in solitary isolation is most likely to make a horse unhappy and is therefore against the code.

2. Being stabled is liable to cause high levels of stress and behavioural stereotypes, which occur as a result of sensory deprivation, and is therefore counter to the horse’s well being.

3. Forced weaning is extremely emotionally stressful for both foal and dam, and is therefore counter to the horse’s well being.

4. Deprivation of natural social contact and play produces psychologically unhealthy horses and is therefore counter to the code.  

5. Equipment such as spurs, bits and whips, plus any and all items of harness that operate on the basis of physical force, pain and discomfort have an impact contrary to well-being, and are therefore contrary to the code.

6. Training methods that feature psychological coercion, and produce symptoms such as learned helplessness and post traumatic stress syndrome are contrary to well-being, and are therefore contrary to the code.

We could go on increasing the size of the list until it is equal to the code itself, but the point has been made. However, each of those elements is being put into practice around the world thousands of times per day, which begs the question: was this what was intended when the code was drafted?

If it was, then there would seem to be many management methods that need to be changed in order for the code to have any meaning.  

If it wasn’t, then just what should the Code be taken to mean? What it actually says is that the horse comes first and that there are no excuses. So, if horses can't be kept in such a way that their well-being is assured because, say, there is insufficient space or money has to be earned, then they should not be kept at all! Tough stuff!

In fact, radical stuff since, for the first time in 6000 years, it suggests that the needs of the horse come first, over and above those of human partners. Of course, for this to have any meaning, the code would have to be applied and enforced. At present, there seems to be little chance of anything but downright cruelty being acted against and, such is the level of ignorance of the horse's nature, it seems doubtful that its 'happiness' is going to be protected in any real sense. So why bother to have such an element in the Code at all?

A cynical person might suggest that the only purpose it serves is to mollify those who decry the use of animals in sport - that it is nothing more than paying lip service. It would be difficult to assure such a person that this was not the case, and that is a great shame, for the majority of horse owners and riders do have an affectionate attachment to their horses, and try to do their best, as they see it, for them. If a person is unaware that, let's say, a horse kept by itself is unlikely to spend the same amount of time lying down as one in a group, and that this means they are unable to spend time dreaming, and that this means in turn that, as with people, their psychological well-being is adversely affected, then they cannot possibly be blamed for breaking the code. If they do know, then it becomes a different matter. Ignorance, so they say, is bliss.

There is also another alternative, and that is to dismiss such knowledge as mumbo-jumbo and seek to destroy the credibility of those who work to widen the knowledge base by making malicious personal attacks. Knowledge is like the biblical seed, it has to fall on fertile soil to germinate. So, if you don’t want to be tied down by a Code, you have only to refuse to see any reason why what you do might not be the best method and carry on as before, and for you the Code changes nothing at all.

For the Code to have any impact it must be enforced, but who is going to enforce it and on the basis of what accepted facts or consensus? The probable answer is that this is a hot potato that is going to be dropped and allowed to roll out of sight where it can be happily and conveniently ignored. A simple admonition to "do what you think is best for the horses in your charge" would then be both more honest and of more real value.

Looking for a moment at just why such a Code was formulated, we can list some of the events during which horses were injured and which caused a public outcry at the time. Four separate incidents occurred in 1992, which led to a wave of adverse publicity in the media against what was seen as lack of consideration for the welfare of the competition horse. Three fatal falls happened during the cross-country phase of the three-day event at Badminton, England; NBC news coverage of the Barcelona Olympics produced expressions of outrage by both media and public; a horse suffered a broken back during show jumping at Wembley Stadium arena in London and, lastly, "Mr Brooks" broke a leg during the Breeders cup in Florida, USA. (2.)

We are probably all aware of the liking that T.V. producers have for cutting together sensational falls and "stunts gone wrong", whether human or equine. It produces cheap, re-cycleable programming, satisfies the ghoulish, and truth or objectivity come a distant second to ratings. Other, more reputable sources, such as 'Animals International', the publication of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, are also quite capable of linking, on the same double-page spread, photographs of Arctic seals being clubbed to death, bear-baiting using Bull Terriers, and a horse falling in the Barcelona Olympics, with an accompanying caption reading "Cross-Country Cruelty at the Olympics". (3.)

Such items in the media, whether true or not, produce the perception in the public mind that equestrian sport is inhumane, and it is that perception which has to be dealt with. Responsible organisations are trying to improve the welfare of competition horses, and groups such as the International League for the Protection of Horses are doing their utmost to promote good welfare for horses all over the world but, for many people, their attempts do not go nearly far enough and are, of necessity, focused at a level that a majority of people will be willing to support. Show a picture of a horse suffering from malnutrition and most will be prepared to condemn the owner, but show a picture of a well-fleshed horse suffering the anguish of social isolation and few will respond.

Element 6 of the code refers to the promotion of education, but that also only goes so far. If part of that education highlights the poor welfare that results from current, widespread, intensive horse keeping and associated management practices, then don’t expect the FEI, or any other body for that matter, to take it on with any sort of enthusiasm. Truth, as it is said, is relative, and often makes an unwelcome guest! Is the FEI going to step in and monitor the incidence of stomach ulcers in top level international dressage horses? Does it keep records of stallions euthanased because their solitary existence has turned them into psychopathic killers? Is it prepared to acknowledge that use of bits is directly linked to the development of head-shaker syndrome? No, no and no. And never mind these hard questions, how about just a small shift, such as the FEI being prepared to allow riders to compete in dressage without bits – again no! So just where is the evidence that the FEI is honestly prepared to put its own code into practice? And if they are not should we view it as the result of a distinct lack of critical reasoning – or, and perhaps far more realistically, an unwillingness to actually come to grips with difficult issues?  

For those who truly wish to do what is best, hard though that may well be, there needs to be some kind of measuring system to decide just what will best support the well-being of the horse, and the following statement is an attempt to formulate an over-riding principle for the creation of such a system.

"Horses should be kept in such a way that they are able to freely express those behaviours that are a natural part of their physical and psychological character."

The logical outcomes of accepting such a proposition are reasonably obvious; the willingness to espouse such logic is another matter altogether and will, no doubt, remain a matter of personal inclinations or opinions. I, for one, would not wish "thought police" on anyone, but the era of political correctness is upon us and "he who is lost will be he who has stalled" (4.)

This is probably a good point at which to leave the rarefied atmosphere of ethical debate, and move on into some other, more practical, areas that are of concern.

The racing industry is one of the largest users and producers of horses. It is a strange fact that many people who are interested and drawn to horses will not have anything to do with racing. Most often, the reasons given for this are those to do with the way in which race horses are kept and trained, most particularly the fact that they are put into work at such an early age. There is ample evidence to suggest that no horse should be ridden until it reaches three years of age, and that to do so can cause physical damage to the musculo-skeletal system resulting in a very short career ending in a trip to the meat-works.

In equestrian events, we expect a horse to come into its full potential at around nine to twelve years of age, and such great horses as Charisma have beaten the rest of the world at the age of sixteen!

We know that early weaning is stressful and traumatic, and that isolation causes stereotypical behaviour and further stress. So why are these practices continued? Trainers need owners in order to make a living, and a hard and stressful living it is! And finally, the whole racing industry needs punters to attend races and place their bets.  

In most consumer industries the belief is that the customer is right and must be given what they want, and if changing racing industry practices would result in more people going to the track and having an interest in racing why does the industry not look at what changes it could make? We hear often enough that racing is having a hard time but there has not been a major change in years which is, to say the least, a little hard to understand. Not only does racing have a hard time attracting punters and owners, it also has an increasingly hard time finding stable staff. Having been involved in the process of training young people to work in the industry myself, it is very clear that many who have the potential to be very good at working with horses are put off by the way in which those horses are treated. As society's attitude towards the ethics of animal use change, racing is going to be forced to reassess its methods or go into extinction as a dinosaur of the past.

What is the problem with starting horses out as three-year-olds? Initially, there would be horses bred that would have to be kept on by breeders an extra year or so but, by staggering the change over four or five seasons, only twenty percent need to be held back each year - perhaps those that come from families known to mature later. Since governments make such a huge amount from the racing industry, we might even look to them to help breeders out during the transition with tax breaks and so on - after all it would be protecting the golden goose.  

If, by waiting the extra time, owners are presented with an ‘investment’ that is likely to be more durable, not to break down after a couple of seasons racing, and to have a residual value at the end of its career on the track, wouldn’t it become a more attractive proposition? Breeders in New Zealand, and no doubt elsewhere, have been finding it difficult in many cases to cover their costs when selling yearlings, and part of the reason is surely that at such a young age it is extremely difficult to judge exactly what kind of horse the buyer will end up with when it matures. And if more horse-lovers are brought into racing as a spectacle in which the power and beauty of galloping horses can be witnessed in the firm knowledge that the horses involved are being treated as living entities rather than as mere commodities, would not the whole industry benefit? The industry will have to change; growing awareness of animal welfare will force it, is slowly forcing it, so why not make changes willingly and thereby support the jobs and income that are derived, rather than have to be dragged screaming and kicking into the twenty-first century?

It is, as is usual, the few who abuse horses who spoil it for everyone, and there certainly are stable staff whose response to the frustration of a horse not doing what they want is to wade in with kicks and sticks, and for them my only suggestion is "get some anger management counselling, and, if that doesn’t cure you, get another job!"

Over the past five years, horse breeding in New Zealand, to take just one example, has become less financially sustainable - after all, why should a buyer be expected to pay a good price for a purpose-bred sport horse when they can easily pick up the rejects from thoroughbred racing virtually for free? The high profile international success of N.Z event riders on N.Z thoroughbred sport horses led towards what seemed to be a bright future for horse exports, so much so that the Department of Trade got involved in order to support the industry. Now we have reached the point where such a large percentage of the horses foreign buyers are offered fail veterinary inspection for soundness, and there are so many to choose from, that the prices realised have tumbled.

The general public see the rare T.V item documenting yearling sales where fabulous money is paid for progeny from a very select few studs, and believe that all is well. What they don't see or hear about are the high numbers of yearlings which fail to make even the price needed to pay the service fee of the stallion used. If the N.Z government were really interested in supporting the horse-breeding industry as a whole, surely something should be done about this.  

It wasn't that long ago that a research grant of several hundred thousand dollars was given to a N.Z university for the study of causes of leg problems and breakdown of racehorses. Having received the money, a spokesman then declared that they were pretty sure they knew what the causes were already - as, of course, do many in the horse world. Ordering a few copies of equine specialist Dr James Rooney book 'The Lame Horse - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment would have saved a lot of time and money!

Most research funding for studies of the horse comes from the racing industries of the various countries, which might be seen as a good thing - racing repaying its debt to the horse. But is that really the whole story? There is nothing quite so pernicious as 'vested interest' and, since all other industries (and governments come to that) tend to massage fact to suit the present status quo, why should the racing industry be any different?

I challenge the racing industry to take on board the overwhelming scientific information regarding the potential damage done to horses by such practices as working them at too early an age - and to change! Perhaps then the problems of finding staff, attracting the public to the races, and maintaining some reasonable residual value for horses retiring from racing, will decrease and, with them, the problems of financial viability faced by non-racing breeders.

The racing industry is easy to pick on, but there are plenty of other areas that could use some cleaning up. Kentucky walking horses are subjected to abuse by various methods, such as the application of abrasives and false boots in order to secure the exaggerated gait, and it seems only fair to say that if someone can't be satisfied with a horse for what it is, then they should stick to machines instead. To a lesser extent, but along the same path, what about the sport of harness racing where, again, all kinds of paraphernalia are required in order to make horses trot or pace at a speed which is quite unnatural and at which they would normally be cantering? Are horses not sufficiently beautiful moving in natural gaits that they have to be subjected to working in hobbles and overchecks in order to conform to some arbitrary standard of movement? Would the trainers of harness horses be prepared to fit a harness to their children in order to make them swing their arm on the same side as the leg moving forward? No, that would be entirely too silly wouldn’t it? We love our children for who and what they are, don’t we? But it's all right to do it to horses because we wish them to move as we dictate rather than as nature intended.

Then, of course, there is that super-macho spectacle, the Rodeo. A pastime where the brutish can really show their mettle. But, in a world where human beings seem to find the greatest of difficulty in merely being kind to each other, I suppose nothing should come as much of a surprise.

Some religions have a happy knack of declaring animals to be on this planet solely for our use, so that must make it OK to treat them as we see fit. And, by that measure, the imprisonment and forced immobilisation of mares in stalls for the collection of Pregnant Mare Urine is fine also, and it makes money, and can be used to manufacture human pharmaceuticals too. So all is well there! And if people find it entertaining to watch horses or mules forced, by electric prods, up steep ramps onto high-dive platforms from which they will be made to 'dive' into tanks of water, then we certainly must not stand in the way of their having their fun!  

It really is all a matter of degree, each act of cruelty or abuse becoming merely an understatement of the next and succeeding ultimately in desensitising society - to the detriment of us all.

Having, no doubt, upset a few people with the preceding paragraphs, good manners probably dictate that an apology should be offered. Well sorry, but I'm not going to give one. I shall just have to content myself with knowing that in this world there are people whom it is truly a privilege and a duty to upset, and declare my right to say what I believe to be true. What each individual is prepared to do is a matter for their conscience, if they have one, but they should not be too surprised if others lobby for legislation that makes the abuse of another species illegal.

For those who wish to spend either their leisure or working hours with these most noble and glorious of creatures, and to be free to do so without being subjected to the condemnation of the media, it must be acknowledged that it is human nature to judge things by the worst rather than by the best and that, as equestrians, they have a duty to themselves to attempt to control the excesses of the few in order to protect the rights of the majority.

All types of cross country, jumping or race courses can be designed to protect the safety of the horse while allowing for a true test of skill and athleticism; indeed, that is what the best designers do, but there will always be accidents in which injury occurs to either horse or rider. Such is the nature of sport. For those who would do away with equestrian sport altogether, there is the question of what would then happen to all those horses that would become surplus to requirements. Would it be better that they were all consigned to an early death in order to feed domestic pets or the people who find the eating of horsemeat acceptable?  

The fate of humans and the horse are inextricably linked, for better or worse. Our treatment of the horse allows us to express a sense of dignity and compassion and, as such, the relationship can become one of real and enduring beauty, spiritual in its intensity and glorious in its achievement. And, who knows, by understanding and learning to communicate with members of another species, we may come to better understand ourselves and the environment in which both species must survive.

Finally, we might consider the potential for damage to our own species by our treatment of other creatures. The development of empathy is crucial to our safety as individuals, for it is this that prevents the perpetration of acts of violence and cruelty to others. Each time we suspend empathy, for whatever reason, we invite harm. Once we start excusing ourselves from an obligation to treat other living creatures with respect and compassion because they are of a different species we also invite further suspensions of empathy, perhaps because of a difference in culture, or religion or sexual preference. Once one exception is made the door is thrown open to others. Will you be attacked on the street by someone who, by virtue of your having more than they do, or being a different colour, suspends empathy towards you? So, are you prepared to suspend your empathy by keeping a horse in isolation? Will you use spurs to enforce your will, even if by doing so you cause pain? If you can only compete in your chosen discipline if you use equipment that causes pain – will you continue to do so?

"The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witheld from them but by the hand of tyranny...a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old. But suppose the case were otherwise, What would it avail? The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over anything that breathes..."

Jeremy Bentham