Those of us who enjoy horses outside of their natural habitat often encounter a dilemma: Is the discipline or use we've selected for them "what is good for the horse"? Equine deaths during the Calgary Stampede and the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Nevada wild horse roundup bring this quandary to mind. In the former, four horses died out of 700 participating in the chuckwagon races. These deaths shocked competitors and fans alike. Many individuals, veterinarians included, remarked on the excellent care such horses get (most of them Thoroughbreds that were unsuccessful as racehorses) before, during, and after the competitions, as well as their exemplary level of fitness. Veterinary examinations and drug testing are standard practice during the competition, so deaths such as these are puzzling.


BLM horses

In the wake of equine welfare issues, such as the BLM’s wild horse roundup, we have been forced to ask ourselves what is best for the horse.

The circumstances surrounding the BLM's effort to drive dehydrated horses from a water-starved range by way of helicopter does as much to draw attention to the tragedy of the ­ever-increasing number of unwanted horses in this country as any other recent event. Of the 1,224 horses gathered in the Tuscarora area this summer, 34 horses died or were humanely euthanized: 13 animals died due to water starvation/dehydration-related complications; 12 animals had pre-existing life-threatening injuries or conditions; four horses died or were euthanized as a result of gather-related injuries; and five animals died from assorted causes after transportation to the short-term holding facility. The management of 38,000 plus horses that continue to grow in exponential numbers on restricted land presents daunting welfare challenges.

Both science and society have a role in deciding what constitutes an appropriate level of animal welfare and the ­appropriate use of the horse. While science can determine what type or degree of animal welfare risk exists under specific circumstances, it cannot determine what type or degree of risk is acceptable--that is the question society ­answers.

How do owners, equine veterinarians, and all others tasked with caring for the horse enter the welfare equation? Each must first consider his or her relationship with the horse. Veterinarians and horse owners have legal and ethical obligations. As chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners Welfare Committee, I am constantly reminded that we are obligated to "put the horse first," but recognize that the interpretation of this phrase might differ from one situation to another. Different factors when evaluating the welfare of animals include:

  • The basic health and function of the body, known as the functional view.
  • How an animal "feels," i.e., its psychological state, including pain, suffering, or contentment; a viewpoint known as the positive affective state.
  • An animal’s ability to lead a ­reasonably natural life, including behaviors in which it might normally engage; a view known as natural living.
None of these views is inherently right or wrong, and people might hold more than one view at any time. And, when assessing horse welfare, the animal's athletic, economic, and recreational uses certainly must be added into this mix.

Is giving unsuccessful Thoroughbred racehorses a second career in chuckwagon races "putting the horse first"? Are the stress and inherent risks related to moving hundreds of wild horses more humane than allowing death by dehydration? What about the dilemma of unwanted horses and the controversies surrounding the best way to manage their growing population?

I do not pretend to be able to resolve the continuing equine welfare questions that face each of us every day. But I do know, based on my own experience, that what might be the preferred approach to these issues can change with circumstance and time. We would do well to walk in the shoes of those charged with overseeing competitions, the management of wild horses, and other areas of equine care before we condemn their practices or results which might, at first glance, appear less than ideal. We might discover that some of our own welfare efforts have proven less than ideal when viewed from a retrospective position and that the evolution of equine welfare involves thoughtful consideration and participation from us all.

Reprinted from the October 2010 issue.

Midge Leitch, VMD, Dipl. ACVS, of Cochranville, Penn., is chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners Welfare Committee and is a clinician in radiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center.