Some people might think they know all too well how Gypsies and Travellers treat their horses… right? (Insert their eye roll, nodding, and even perhaps a judgmental smirk?) Actually, maybe they don’t.

Despite popular belief, many Gypsies/Travellers have a good understanding of equine welfare needs and how to care for their horses, according to a specialist in Traveller/Gypsy horse culture. They just might not use the same vocabulary or say it the same way other horse owners would.

“Most of the Gypsies and Travellers we interviewed related welfare to good physical health, the provision of adequate resources, and a positive mental state, with references to ‘happiness’ for their horses,” said Marie Rowland, PhD student at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Midlothian, Scotland, and at the Roslin Institute of the SRUC, also in Midlothian.

“They also placed the burden of care for ensuring good welfare onto the owner or carer, not onto a third party or onto the horse itself,” Rowland further stated. She presented her research during the 15th annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held August 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Her new study upturns common attitudes about gypsies and travellers with regards to their horse management, she explained. “Travelers and gypsies are distinct ethnic minority groups in the U.K. and Ireland,” she said. “Horse owners within these communities are often singled out as the main contributors to reduced welfare. People associate them with practices like unauthorized grazing (also known as fly-grazing), tethering, indiscriminate breeding practices, and abandoning unwanted horses. But there’s actually very little scientific research on what these people think and how they act when it comes to equine welfare.”

In her study, Rowland and her fellow researchers interviewed 40 horse owners belonging to Traveller or Gypsy communities, in Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland. (They recruited them via horse welfare organizations, horse projects related to Gypsies and Travellers, and horse fairs.) The scientists asked these people open-ended (as opposed to yes/no) questions that allowed them to express themselves freely in their own words, on topics of horse care, health, management, and welfare.

They found that, while a few respondents said they didn’t know what welfare was or that it was the job of welfare organizations, most of them demonstrated a good understanding of horse welfare, Rowland explained. Generally, they viewed equine welfare from a holistic point of view, referring to physical needs, health and illness, body condition, and even emotional health, with an emphasis on having a “happy” horse.

“There are a lot of myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes surrounding these groups of people, including with regard to their husbandry practices,” said Rowland. “Contrary to stakeholder views, the main findings of this study illustrate that the concept of horse welfare is understood by Gypsy and Traveller horse owners.”

The concept of poor equine welfare among these populations isn’t entirely unfounded, though, Rowland acknowledged. Cases of mismanagement and abuse do exist—as they do for most populations of horse owners representing a variety of different demographics, she added.

Administrative efforts to control how Gypsies and Travellers manage their horses—based on the poor practices of some of their members—could actually backfire in this population, according to Rowland. “Some people want to outlaw tethering, in the name of good welfare, but this would probably only make things worse,” she explained to Horses and People. “They’re likely to still tether their horses (because these cultural groups have difficulty in leasing land for their horses), but they’ll do it out of public view.”

The better solution, she continued, is to educate about good welfare “and engage with these horse-owning communities” with an approach that is adapted to their specific situation and current knowledge. Rowland’s face-to-face surveys are only a small part of the research that must go into the development of such a program, she said.

“The relationship between Gypsy and Traveller attitudes to welfare and ensuing welfare outcomes requires further investigation,” Rowland concluded.