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News > Equine welfare and ensuring our horses fare well


Equine welfare and ensuring our horses fare well

December 29, 2020

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the effect of the pandemic on mental health and the impact that lockdown and associated restrictions has had on the population as a whole.  ‘One Equine’ was recently launched in Northern Ireland. Its focus is on the positive role that the horse can play in people’s lives and on improving both the physical and the mental health and wellbeing of individuals through Equine Assisted Therapy or Equine Assisted Learning. 

But what about the mental health of the horse? The World Horse Welfare Virtual Conference 2020 took place last month, the theme being the “The human horse partnership – what’s in it for the horse?”  During the event, a range of interesting topics were covered relating to horse welfare.  A key aspect of the discussion was about the mental health of the horse. It is well worth viewing the recording of the sessions, available here.

Speakers reflected on how there has been an advance in the thinking of welfare from the Five Freedoms (first proposed in 1965 in the Brambell report cited in Farm Animal Welfare Council, 2009) to the Five Domains model (proposed by David Mellor and Cam Reid in 1994 cited by Mellor, 2017).  The five freedoms are: Freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress.  The Five Domains’ model considers that there are four physical or functional domains (nutrition, environment, health and behaviour) which are all concerned with biological function or physical wellbeing with the fifth domain being the mental state or psychological wellbeing. The five domains model is designed to draw attention to areas that are relevant to animal welfare assessment and management.  This model can be applied to horse care and management.

At the conference delegates were challenged to think about some of the practices that are currently considered to be acceptable in terms of horse welfare and about the alternatives that might provide enrichment to the lives of the domesticated horse.

Some of these practices, alluded to by some of the presenters and panellists, or referred to in recent scientific papers on this topic (Horseman et al, 2016; Mellor, 2017; McGreevy et al., 2018) include the:

  1.  Riding and training related problems including use of items of tack and equipment including tongue ties, restrictive nosebands and anti-cribbing collars
  2. Housing or grazing horses in isolation without access to another horse and stabling 24 hours a day
  3. Abrupt weaning of foals
  4. Feeding practices including provision of diets which are not predominately forage based

Anti-cribbing collars may cause slight physical discomfort, reduced ability to swallow and psychological distress through frustration of not being able to perform the cribbing activity.  Restrictive nosebands, designed to increase control and reduce oral signs of resistance, are now considered to cause discomfort and may supress normal behaviour. There have been many innovative developments recently in relation to bridle and girth design for example which are designed to improve horse comfort.

Abrupt weaning (sudden removal of a foal from its dam) is considered to be very stressful and this stress is exacerbated if the foal is then kept in isolation.  Owners are encouraged to manage this process to minimise the stress on the foal and its dam and to group wean where possible.

Deviations from forage based diets create a series of health and behavioural challenges.  Health challenges can include ulcers and colic.  Behavioural challenges include not moving while eating (the horse’s natural behaviour is to eat and move at the same time) – this can lead to excessive intakes and obesity.

In 2008 in Switzerland equine specific laws were introduced which state that all horses, ponies donkeys and mules must be able to see, smell and hear other equids and that young horses (up to 2 1/2 years old) must be kept in groups.  Working horses (those ridden or worked regularly) must be allowed free time in open outdoor areas at least two days per week for at least two hours at a time and unworked horses (retired horses or broodmares) must have at least two hours of outdoor free time every day.  There is a requirement for five hours of equine husbandry training if you own more than five horses and for 40 hours and an internship if you keep more than 11 horses.  These measures have been designed to improve the welfare of the horse population and to make horse-owners more aware of management practices which are conducive to good welfare.  It has led to a drop in the numbers of horses housed in individual stables, an increase in those housed in group housing with access to paddocks and an increase in the proportions of horses allowed to interact with other horses (Leste-Lasserre, 2015).

At CAFRE, Enniskillen Campus a number of practices have been put in place to better meet the needs of the horses from a welfare perspective.  Group housing has been used for the young horses for many years. Whilst the majority of the horses are still individually stabled during the winter months they are spending much higher proportions of time turned out. ‘Active turnouts’ are now being used for groups of equitation horses, broodmares and young horses.  These create opportunities for horses to move; to interact through mutual grooming activities for example; surfaces suitable for rolling and a range of feeding points. We are also endeavouring to provide appropriate educational courses which address key aspects of equine health, behaviour and welfare.

It is worth reviewing our horse management and care practices, considering what we could do differently to improve the physical health and mental wellbeing of our horses and implementing some changes if required in order to enable our equines to fare well and have a life worth living.


  1. Farm Animal Welfare Council (2009) Farm Animal Welfare in Great Britain: Past, Present and Future
  2. Horseman, S.V., Buller, H., Mullan, S. and Whay, H.R.(2016) Current Welfare Problems Facing Horses in Great Britain as Identified by Equine Stakeholders, PLoS ONE, 11 (8)
  3. Leste-Lasserre, C. (2015) A Look at Switzerland’s Equine Protection Laws,, Jun 28
  4. McGreevy, P et al. (2018) Using the Five Domains Model to Assess the Adverse Impacts of Husbandry, Veterinary, and Equitation Interventions on Horse Welfare, Animals, 8(3), 41
  5. Mellor, D. (2017) Operational Details of the Five Domains Model and Its Key Applications to the Assessment and Management of Animal Welfare, Animals, 7(8), 60
  6. Mellor, D. et al. (2020) The 2020 Five Domains Model: Including Human-Animal Interactions in Assessments of Animal Welfare, Animals, 10(10), 1870