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Welfare and the Question of Social Licence in Horses

Updated: Jun 5

The topics of horse welfare and social licence are subjects that Horses Inside Out is always happy to talk about. Anything we can do to help educate others for the good of the horse is what we love to do. At this year’s annual conference, the whole two days will be dedicated to these very topics, in particular relating to Growth and Development.

nic de brauwere, welfare equine

Dr Nicolas De Brauwere MRCVS, Head of Welfare and Behaviour, Redwings Horse Sanctuary will be one of the speakers at the Horses Inside Out Conference. He will be giving two presentations; Whose problem is it anyway? Leadership in ensuring a Good Life for horses and How did we get here? Horse breeding in the modern age – risks and rewards for people and horses. Allison Lowther chats to Nic to find out a bit more about what attendees can expect to hear from him in February.


The thing that struck me when chatting to Nic early in the new year is that he is passionate about increasing welfare conversations with horse owners. The Horses Inside Out conference brings together a whole group of professionals such as farriers, saddle fitters and therapists that regularly see owners and are perfectly placed to discuss the health and well-being of the horse. It’s these professionals that will visit yards more regularly than a vet. Many horses are only seen once a year for their annual vaccination, so although you may think your vet is the person to advise on matters of welfare, they don’t necessarily see the horse often enough to help.


“Farriers routinely visit yards,” say Nic. “Redwings teamed up with The Horse Trust and farriers to show them how they can be proactively involved in enhancing welfare. It turns out that the more experienced farriers were already talking to owners about the health of the horse.”

Horses Inside Out and Gillian Higgins. Mark Johnson shoeing a horse
For most, the farrier is a more regular visitor on the yard than your vet

Farriers aren’t the only professionals that see owners on a regular basis, saddle fitters, trainers, coaches and therapists are all in contact with owners on a more regular basis than vets.


“Welfare isn’t just something that you need to think about when things go wrong,” stresses Nic, “We all need to talk about it and recognise that everything we do with horses has an impact on their welfare.”

 The aim of Nic’s presentations is to increase people’s depth of understanding of the issues that ultimately impact the quality of life of horses, and to highlight that we can influence this through our own behaviour or through the conversations we have. He stresses that we need to recognise that every interaction we have with horses is a training opportunity and that the ability to continue to develop the relationship with horses is in our hands.


“Everyone who has an influence over a horse has a role to improve their welfare.”


The Five Domains

The five domains model has given us an opportunity to recognise the fact that animals are a lot more like us when it comes to feelings. This anthropomorphism has always been viewed as dangerous, but there's a term called critical anthropomorphism, which instead of thinking about how the horse feels because of how you feel, you try to place yourself inside the horse's head and imagine if you were a horse, would you enjoy this based on the knowledge that we have?


What are the Five Domains?

The Five Domains is a recent evolution of the concept of animal welfare. It builds upon the Five Freedoms and Needs which have existed since the mid-1960s and together with the Five Welfare Needs, they have been invaluable tools in both ensuring that an animal’s essential needs are met as defined in legislation, as well as helping us to understand what welfare standards we should be aspiring to.


As knowledge has improved and thanks to further research, as well as looking at animal welfare in a more holistic way, we now recognise that there are a whole host of factors which can have a positive or negative affect on an animal’s mental state.


The Five Domains is an important framework that helps to create a positive welfare state for horses. They go much further than just meeting their basic welfare needs and look at what is needed to optimise their physical and mental wellbeing.


Nic believes that the five domains model gives us an opportunity to assess how we care for, and train horses and he will discuss this further at the Horses Inside Out Conference.


“I'll be asking the audience to leave any preconceived ideas at the door and I’m sure many will discover that a lot of what they're doing is already completely compatible with the five domains model and will identify what's important to the horse. However, it will highlight things that we are doing that are fighting the horse and I hope this is what people will take away with them. It can be challenging when you are asked to question things that go against what you have previously thought but it is a very important skill to have as a professional.”


The Future of Equine Breeding

Modern equine breeding is another topic Nic will be discussing and one that he feels isn’t always seen as relevant to welfare, but it is and links closely to the social licence question.

Horses Inside Out and Gillian Higgins. Foal lying down on grass
Breeding horses links closely to the question of social licence

“Breeding tends to respond to what people want to see, to have horses with desirable traits that satisfies the demand from buyers, riders and judges,” explains Nic. “My concern is that this can and does lead to overbreeding of certain types of equine and can also encourage an overemphasis on certain traits and qualities that are aimed at a specific market or even fashion.”


Nic goes on to explain that there is a long lag between the act of breeding and the achievement of either success or the discovery of serious problems. These unintended consequences of a particular approach to breeding don’t get discovered until foals reach a level of maturity and are tested to the point that problems are recognised as part of a bigger pattern rather than just the misfortune of an individual animal.


For example, we are now seeing typical elite dressage horses that have a conformation quite different from the horses seen 20 to 50 years ago. This in itself is not necessarily wrong, in fact breeding with performance in mind and where possible led by good research into genetics and success, is the backbone of good breeding practices. However, it’s the very noticeable shift in the ‘look’ of some sport or show horses that gives Nic reason to pause and wonder what we lose, and what impact it has on the health, quality of life and longevity of the horses if breeding becomes focussed on a small number of highly desirable characteristics without enough regard for the consequences for the horse as a whole.


“I am no expert on the breeding of elite horses but have seen first-hand how my concerns play out in the rescue horse populations I deal with."

Nic has seen how problem genes or combinations of genes can become dominant in a population when the focus has been on specific qualities like desirable coat colours and appearances. It is important for all participants, in whatever discipline or breed we are active in, to keep looking, asking, and reviewing if what we are aspiring to, and creating with breeding programmes, is healthy and in the interests of long-term sustainability for horse sport and use.


“Waiting until we might have the horse equivalent of brachycephalic dogs will be too late," he stresses. "Suddenly there will be a huge drive to legislate against what's going on in the horse world and we as participants in that world, may lose any influence over what happens as a result."

"Open discussions need to be had with breeders, judges, trainers, riders and owners about what are we aiming for and what good welfare looks like.”



Putting Health and Welfare First

When it comes to breeding horses, Nic believes we mustn’t lose sight of the fundamentals of a healthy horse. For example, when horses are bred for certain characteristics, such as very exuberant  elevation in dressage or driving horses. You shouldn't be surprised if a horse with such exaggerated movement for example ends up with joints that develop arthritis at a relatively young age; because they just can't cope with the power of the muscles that they develop to produce that movement, or the excessive range of motion of some joints.


“I was fascinated with the public discussions about the British rider, Lewis Carrier after his dressage tests at the London International Horse Show. He appeared to be the only one that was riding his horse in the frame that fits the description of the dressage rules. Dressage is about testing how well the rider has trained the horse. This was reflected in the whole way of going of his horse Diego, a happy, relaxed athlete showing off a harmonious relationship. His determination to be an advocate for his horse is a sign that many riders are listening to the concerns raised about horse welfare in horse sport. I wonder when he will get recognition for his decision to ride in a more horse centred way? With the evidence available on the risks or harm coming from practices like excessive neck flexion and tight nosebands, it is essential that we consider all aspects of horse use and enjoyment, including breeding healthy and successful horses, while equestrianism is under such intense scrutiny.”


Nic thinks we are beyond equestrianism ‘maintaining’ its social license, we need to think of this as being about ‘earning’ it all day and in every aspect of our horse pursuits. These are difficult conversations to have but are necessary. Taking an honest look at what we think and do, with the benefit of tools like the 5 domains framework to help us be more objective in our assessments and reflections, can ensure we deliver a good life for our horses and help equestrianism to thrive.

One think is certain, the topics that Nic is covering at the Horses Inside Out Conference in February are sure to start a conversation. Why not join us and be part of that conversation. Tickets are still available - you can attend in person, or via our live streaming option.

Buy access to the conference recordings here:

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