Strengths and Weaknesses of a National Equine Database

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A group of horses and foals

French researchers investigate the strengths and weaknesses of a 45-year-old National Equine Database. Their findings can help all countries optimise the efficiency and management of horse traceability systems.

A national equine database can help keep track of where horses are—and what happens to them when they change hands—while leading to better infectious disease control. But, as French researchers have recently revealed, the quality of that database is only as good as the involvement of the owners and stable managers.

“Our study confirms that [the French national database] is a useful and high-quality system, but, unfortunately, many people don’t know they’re supposed keep their information up to date, nor how to update it,” said Halifa Farchati, PhD candidate, of the Laboratory for Animal Health in Normandy, in the Physiopathology and Epidemiology of Equine Diseases Unit of the French Agency for Food, Environmental, and Occupational Health and Safety (ANSES), in Goustranville, France.

As one of the world’s oldest national equine databases, the SIRE—a French acronym for “information systems relative to equids” (and an English breeding term reference)—has been stocking details about French horses since 1976. Categories include the horse’s name, breed (even if there’s no official breed), pedigree, sex, date of birth, date of death, microchip number, and SIRE identification number, as well as the owner’s current home address. The horse’s “keeper” (such as a boarding stable manager) should keep his addresses up-to-date.  Owners and Keepers are expected to keep SIRE records up to date as situations evolve, such as when people change homes or names, or when horses are sold or castrated, or when horses die.

In theory, the system works well, with 95% of French horses registered in the SIRE database, Farchati said. And most of the industry’s professionals keep their information updated—probably because otherwise, they wouldn’t be allowed to compete or enter their horses in races, she explained.

However, in practice, much of the rest of the information is outdated—especially with regard to owners’ and keepers’ addresses and the lack of registration of the physical locations of horses. And this could make the database much less effective, most of all during an infectious disease outbreak.

. “[This] revealed a significant problem, namely that it is not possible to contact quickly all owners and keepers individually in the event of an outbreak,” the team stated in their paper, which was published recently in Research in Veterinary Science.

In their exchanges with the various owners and stable managers—with a relatively high response rate of 20%—they discovered that about a third of castrated horses were still listed as stallions, Farchati said. However, more than 90% respondent owners whose animal had died had reported the death, a much higher rate than the 60% feared by French authorities in previous estimates. (The difference might be due to the fact that in the study there were relatively few horses that had died, she added.) Meanwhile, about 11% of respondents didn’t actually own the animal anymore, although the SIRE’s records indicated the contrary.

More concerning was the fact that 33% of the owners had out-of-date contact information for themselves, Farchati said. And half the owners who kept their horses at home had not declared themselves as the horses’ keepers. Overall, about 40% of the data about equids’ keeper was inaccurate, making it very difficult to trace or manage outbreaks on a national scale, she said.

“French owners have an obligation to identify their horses, declare if they keep horses, and inform authorities when a horse changes hands,” said Farchati. So why don’t they?

For one thing, the “obligation” isn’t enforced. Keepers are currently rarely sanctioned, although the French Institute of the Horse and Equitation (IFCE) now makes efforts to inform them when they’ve skipped out on their obligations. “For the moment, the focus is more on awareness, on trying to get people to understand their obligations,” said co-author Jackie Tapprest, DVM, PhD, who’s in charge of Epidemiology at Laboratory for Animal Health in Normandy (ANSES). “Sanctions may come at a later stage.”

Additionally, they might simply not understand why they should keep the SIRE informed, she said.

Meanwhile, owners are often unaware of their obligation to keep their address up-to-date or provide an email address, according to Farchati. But doing so would just be “good sense,” she said. “It’s a great way to be rapidly informed about infectious diseases or anything that might concern their horse.”

“It’s complicated to contact people if we don’t know where their horses are, or if we don’t have their current contact information, but few people realize that,” said Carole Sala, DVM, PhD at Epidemiology and Support to Surveillance Unit (ANSES), who collaborated on the study. “It’s like with cats and dogs: when people move house, they remember to change their address with the post office and bank, but they often forget about pet registries—although that’s very helpful when their cat or dog goes missing. It’s the same with their horses: there seems to be a lack of awareness about how important this is.”

As for declaring a horse’s death, many people don’t do it because it requires physically mailing in the horse’s registration booklet (provided by the SIRE when the horse is registered after birth) to get it marked as a deceased horse. The objective is to prevent fraud by preventing reuse of the booklets—especially for slaughterhouse sales. But in reality, many owners may have an emotional attachment to the registration booklets and don’t want to let them go, according to Sala. “They can get them back after they’ve been stamped, but I think many people don’t realize this,” she said.

As the European Union continues to enforce its 2016 requirement that all member nations have national equid databases, and as many other countries aim for better traceability of their equids, the 45-year-old French SIRE can serve as an example—for better or for worse, the researchers said.

“We hope this study will allow other countries to gain inspiration from the SIRE’s strengths and weaknesses as they establish their own databases,” Tapprest said.

The study by Halifa Farchati, Aurelie Merlin, Mathilde Saussac, Xavier Dornier, Mathilde Dhollande, David Garon, Jackie Tapprest, Carole Sala, titled: ‘Is the French SIRE equine information system a good basis for surveillance and epidemiological research? Quality assessment using two surveys’ is published in Research in Veterinary Science, Volume 134, 2021, Pages 96-101, ISSN 0034-5288,

It is open access, and can be read in full 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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