Postgraduate students, representatives from the equine industry, teachers and riding instructors came from as far as Australia, Canada, Spain, Hungary, Great Britain, Finland, Denmark and Sweden and gathered at the picturesque and wintery Equine Centre Wången in Sweden for the 3rd Equitation Science postgraduate course. Twenty-two “smart and like-minded horse people with diverse backgrounds came together in one room” during one week, to learn about equitation science and discuss horse welfare through the lens of the Five Domains Model.
Horse welfare scientists and those entering academia (i.e. MSc and PhD students) possibly find themselves in the middle of the debate on the horse sports’ social license to operate. “We need to be explicit about what we mean when we discuss welfare and agree before engaging in discussions” says Cristina Wilkins from the University of New England (Australia), one of the invited teachers.
She borrows the iconic and ambiguous duck-rabbit image by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as a metaphor for the potential pitfalls of horse-welfare debates, and how they may hinder positive change. “What do people mean when they talk about welfare? Are some people talking about the physical aspects, while others talk about affective experiences? To achieve improvements, we must first agree that welfare is a state that belongs to the individual animal, and focus on assessment methodologies that foster improvements that are meaningful to the animals” she continues.
Welfare refers to the animal’s subjective experience of the situation they are in. The Five Domains Model has become an important tool for welfare assessment as it incorporates the mental or emotional state of the animal in relation to the other four domains, i.e. physical environment, health, nutrition, and behavioural interactions with the environment, conspecifics, and humans.
How horses feel about human interventions matters! “Emotions are closely linked with welfare” – pinpoints Professor Christine Nicol from the Royal Veterinary College (UK) during her seminar on ‘What is joy without sorrow?’ “Important aspects for ensuring horse welfare are to maintain essential minimum standards, meet biological needs, and alleviate severe negative welfare challenges.” she continues. “One important research focus of the future is to learn more about horses’ capacity to form expectations” she concludes, “and whether, beyond a certain baseline, positive welfare is influenced more by individual personality than by environment”.
Alleviating stress and fear reactions in horses is another important aspect to equine welfare but also to safe horse handling and training. Invited guest lecturer and researcher Associate Professor Janne Winther Christensen from Aarhus University (Denmark) introduced the topic by giving course participants an overview of the standard stress model. This topic was subsequently followed up in a series of practical exercises in Wången’s indoor arena. Two Icelandic horses were tested in a novel object test, and the importance of correct experimental design and habituation methods were highlighted to ensure reliable test results as well as horse welfare.
During the course of the week, Associate Professor Maria Vilain Rørvang, one of the organisers from SLU, repeatedly emphasised “to keep a critical eye when reviewing equitation science results”. She continues that “it is important to remain critical of our own results and the work of others, to avoid overestimating horses’ mental abilities and thereby jeopardising horse welfare.” She reminded participants of Lloyd Morgan’s canon, stating that higher mental abilities should not be used to explain behaviour associated with lower psychological processes while presenting (mis)conceptions about horses’ social learning capacities.
Towards the end of the week, students ventured into ethical discussions lead by Professor Peter Sandøe from Copenhagen University (Denmark). He gave a thought-provoking evening lecture which was open to the public, with the paradoxical title “A horse is not a horse”. By that title he did not mean to deny that horses are biological beings with species-specific needs. Rather the point was to focus on the horse in diverse human contexts. “Horses are for leisure, sports, therapy or other activities. And recently they are also being used for conservation purposes in so-called rewilding projects. They are viewed as companions, family members, sports or working animals, or as semi-wild animals. Taking different viewpoints of how horses are perceived by individuals and society in different contexts, stimulated interesting discussions and supported the notion that the horse is also a social construct” summarises Professor Sandøe. Next morning, he challenged students to develop and discuss their own views on a number of ethical issues relating to the use and management of horses. “These discussions may be challenging, and the students clearly have strong disagreements, but they are necessary, and as teachers we need to provide students with a language to brace such discussions”, he follows.
A student from the course, Océane Liehrmann from University of Turku, Finland says that “I enrolled in the 2023 Equitation Science course to connect with fellow researchers but also to engage with professionals in the equestrian industry and veterinarians. This experience provided a valuable opportunity to exchange ideas and perspectives on the diverse challenges related to horse welfare and explore avenues for enhancing collaborations. The course itself was well designed, with fascinating lectures covering a wide range of topics. Spending time with the lecturers throughout the week was a real plus, allowing for in-depth discussions and a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Overall, the course proved to be an enriching and insightful experience, fostering both personal and professional growth in the field of Equitation Science”, she ends.
The course was arranged by Associate Professors Dr Elke Hartmann and Dr Maria Vilain Rørvang (both SLU) and financed by The Graduate School of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science at SLU and The University Network NOVA. The course leaders hope to be able to offer the course again in 2025.