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Improving the Welfare of Meat Horses Using Positive Reinforcement-Based Training for Self-Loading

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That last truck ride. It’s like they know it’s their last.

Horses loading into trucks headed for the slaughterhouse often rear, kick, paw, defecate, refuse to move, or charge abruptly the opposite direction, leading to injuries to themselves, to other horses, and to handlers, scientists say.

High stress levels also make these horses more susceptible to infectious diseases by reducing their immune system responses to germs they’re exposed to during the trip.

But is that because they know what fate awaits them at the other end of that truck ride? Not only will the horses be bled to death after a sometimes successful stunning, but chances are, they’ll be processed at a slaughterhouse designed for a variety of species—not just horses—with equipment that isn’t adapted to their size, shape, cognitive capacities, and emotions. They’ll be channeled through pens and chutes pushed up next to horses they don’t know—or horses they do know but don’t necessarily like—and their stress rates will climb, probably having a negative effect on their meat quality in the process, according to scientific reports.

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Whilst it’s unlikely the horses know about that unpleasant future that awaits them, the fact is that horses generally find transport stressful—especially when they’re not habituated to it, says Barbara Padalino, PhD, researcher at the University Alma Mater Studiorum of Bologna Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences, Division of Animal Sciences, in Bologna, Italy.

That’s why training “meat horses” to load by themselves using learning theory and food rewards (positive reinforcement) can be one way to improve the welfare of horses taking that infamous last truck ride, she says.

“As an animal welfare scientist, I must make sure the needs of any animal are met until the last second of life, reducing any possible suffering,” Padalino tells Horses and People. “So the training of meat horses for transportation is of value, if we can make their last trip less stressful, and we can reduce their risk of getting injured or sick, even if they are going to be slaughtered.”

It’s a process that “can never be entirely stress-free,” according to Roly Owers, MRCVS, CEO of World Horse Welfare, in Norfolk, U.K. Still, for this leader of one of the world’s top equine charities, which works hand-in-hand with the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI)—slaughter should remain an accessible option for horse owners faced with end-of-life decisions for their animals.

“Horses deserve a good life, as well as a good death,” he told Horses and People. A well-designed slaughter program that addresses horse-specific welfare needs from start to finish, including transportation to the slaughterhouse, leads to a better life and death than what many first-world horses experience today.

The closing of U.S. slaughterhouses, for example, “has resulted in dire consequences for the welfare of unwanted horses,” Owers explained in a paper published recently in the BMJ VetRecord. “They are often transported long distances out of the country, are kept in poor conditions and can be slaughtered with little regard to their welfare. Whereas, a well-regulated slaughter industry, with competent practitioners and slaughter close to the source, could be a safe way to give these horses a humane end.”

A welfare-prioritized slaughter industry would take horses’ innate flight responses into consideration, keeping noises low and encouraging a calm environment that reduces the horses’ levels of fear, he said. Ideally, horses should benefit from “equine-specific abattoirs,” some of which already exist in Europe.

“For example, there are facilities that have gates, locks, and doors that have been coated in a special metal to dampen loud noises, that have flooring made of rubber matting with grip rather than smooth concrete, and that employ staff who have an understanding of horses and can handle them effectively but sympathetically,” Owers reported. “Still, such facilities continue to be rare across Europe”, he said.

For Padalino, even if owners can’t access equine-specific abattoirs, they can still address a major source of compromised welfare in slaughter-bound horses: the trip itself.

Regardless of the destination, science has shown that transport alone is a top source of stress for horses. As such, preparing equids for travel in a slaughterhouse-bound truck is critical for their welfare, she says.

In a recent study, she and her fellow researchers worked with 32 young horses raised in northeast Italy for meat production. Using operant conditioning with shaping and positive reinforcement – training techniques based on learning theory – they trained 18 of these horses to self-load in the transport truck.

Over a period of several weeks, the handlers first taught the horses to take food from their hands and then to touch a hand-held target. Using this target, they led them, gradually across training sessions, to enter the truck by themselves.

By the time the horses took their final trip in the truck, the experimentally trained horses loaded much faster—an average of only 44 seconds—and with more voluntary forward movement than the 14 untrained control horses.

If it seems odd or even unfair to teach horses to trust humans with food rewards only to send them to slaughter, Padalino insists that that’s not how we should be viewing the situation.

“The fact that they become more familiar with people, in my opinion, is better, because the handling during transport and at the slaughterhouse is done by people, so if the horse is less scared by people, he maybe be quieter and less stressed during the last moment of his life,” she said. “So, I think it may be useful to reduce possible suffering.

“Clearly, I hope that the personnel is also trained, so that the welfare of the animal is respected as much as possible during transport and slaughterhouse procedures!” she adds.

Betrayal? Not really, according to these experts. While it’s true that the horse is being sent to his death—which is what the horse’s flight instinct is protecting him from—the greater reality is that the horse is being sent to a “better death” than he would have had otherwise.

“At a time in the UK when ponies can be bought for £5 or horses are ‘free to a good home’, these animals can often end up in the hands of the inexperienced and uncommitted, with inevitable consequences for their welfare,” Owers reports in his VetRecord publication.

“There is also a danger that if slaughter is not available for those owners who cannot afford euthanasia and carcass disposal then illegal slaughter might fill this gap—unregulated and out of sight, this could have profound implications for horse welfare and food safety.”

Still, slaughter should never be considered a “safety net” for irresponsible breeding or lack of proper care, he adds.

“The decision to end a horse’s life is a difficult one, and it should always be difficult,” he said. “And ultimately, it must be made with the horse’s welfare in priority.”

The study titled: Positive Reinforcement-Based Training for Self-Loading of Meat Horses Reduces Loading Time and Stress-Related Behavior by Francesca Dai,Alessandro Dalla Costa, Lebana Bonfanti, Claudia Caucci, Guido Di Martino, Roberta Lucarelli, Barbara Padalino and Michela Minero was published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science and can be found here.

Christa Lesté-Lasserre

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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3 Comments

  1. This might work in Europe, but not in the US, we don’t raise horses for food in this country and therefore our horses are medicated differently than food animals. We also do not have any kind of substance tracing system, no do we horse owners want one. Not that it works very well since 171 Tonnes of illegally processed horse meat was caught in the EU last year. Horses who’s passports had been falsified.

    Horse meat from US horses is not safe for human consumption.

  2. Still think it’s wrong to breed especially horse’s for meat. Bad enough training them to load themselves on their last journey, just so sad. The only time any animal should be put to sleep if it is sick and nothing can be done for that animal.

  3. What a load of crap. No horse should end up in a slaughterhouse. Anyone that supports horse slaughter is no friend of equines and Just looking for a way to make money off the backs of these animals. Horses are working and support animals not meat animals. Next thing up will be a market for dog and cat slaughter. I know in some areas it it is culturally acceptable to eat pets but that does not make it right. Same holds for horses. Don’t even try the “would you rather see these horses starve to death” excuse. If there were appropriate laws in place to fight cruelty to animals we would not see animals starved to death because there would be consequences to their actions. Humans have become so greedy they will try to make a buck off anything! Enough is enough.

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