Assessing horse welfare and providing feedback to the horse owner

Last changed: 18 February 2020

Discovering early signs of compromised welfare in horses is important in order to prevent serious health issues and behavioural problems. How can one really tell if the horse is doing well? What's important to assess? And how do you give the results from the assessment back to the horse owner so that changes for the better can be made?

A protocol for assessing horse welfare has been developed at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) which gives an extensive overview of horse welfare. The protocol was developed in line with the Welfare Quality® project where similar protocols were created for farm animals such as pigs and poultry.

There are many protocols worldwide that assess horse welfare. However, many have flaws and don't include animal based parameters, i.e. measures taken directly on the animals such as body condition score or lameness. Instead, these protocols mainly look at resource based parameters such as stall sizes. The protocol developed at SLU includes a mix of animal- resource- and management based measures and covers many aspects of horse welfare. The protocol requires training of the assessor and has potential to be used in self-assessment schemes, official animal welfare controls or by independent third parties. The protocol was compared to assessments made with the official protocol used by Animal Welfare Officers in Sweden.

Results from the assessments are used in feedback to the horse owner so that awareness is raised around potential welfare issues. The feedback enables remedial action and changes in management to improve horse welfare. How to supply the feedback is currently being studied and a system for advise and feedback is currently being developed as a results from field studies in 2014. Included in the development of the feedback system is questionnaires, interviews, stable assessments and close contact with the horse industry. The aim is to develop a system that provides feedback and advice in a way that the horse industry requires so that the information comes to practical use.

Sofie Viksten, Institution of Animal Environment and Health (HMH) at SLU, started her PhD project in March 2011 and aimed to develop a protocol for assessing horse welfare and a system to give feedback to the horse owners. The project is planned to finish in 2016.

Sofie Viksten has a background as an Animal Welfare Officer with the County Administrative Board and has a degree in Biology (BSc) and Environmental and Health Protection (MSc). She's previously worked with behavioural studies of wild animals, physiology, animal welfare and environmental consulting.

Contact: Harry Blokhuis

Page editor: gunilla.jacobsson@slu.se