Animal Welfare Information Center

Information Resources on the Care and Welfare of Horses

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Equine Welfare Issues in the United States: An Introduction

by Carolyn L. Stull, PhD

Department of Veterinary Sciences
University of California

Horses are found on every continent in the world; perhaps this is an indication of the enormous utilitarian value which this versatile species has given to societies throughout the world. As these societies developed in different ways, it was perhaps inevitable that differing views of how horses should be treated also developed. Over the centuries, people of diverse cultural and ethnic origins have settled in the United States and have utilized horses for transportation, food, draft power, sport, pleasure, and companionship. The history of equine welfare and legislation in the U.S. is a reflection of the traditional views and background of its diverse society.

The U.S. was the first country in the world to provide legal protection of farm animals, which included the horse. In 1641, the Massachusetts Bay colony drafted a law which forbade cruelty to farm animals, including horses. In another Liberty, it was stated that rest, feed, and water should be provided to animals led, driven or ridden. States have historically addressed differing equine welfare issues through legislation. For example, California’s statue of 1905 forbade the docking of horses’ tails, which was defined as the removal of the lower portion of the tail for the purposes of shortening it. The docking of tails was primarily practiced on driving horses to prevent the entanglement of the tail with the driving lines. However, it remains today to be a prohibited practice in California, but not in other neighboring states. A variety of state legislation has been enacted over the years and currently enforces activities such as the prohibition of the poling of jumping horses, the misuse of specific medications in sport horses, and the elimination of some rodeo events in both traditional and Mexican-style rodeos.

Horses pulling wagons, carts coaches and city streetcars were used for transportation in the early nineteenth century. New York City was especially overcrowded with carriages, and the first horse drawn street railway was developed in 1932. These streetcars often were packed with too many passengers, and horses had to endure slippery, icy and salted streets during the bitter cold winter months. Henry Bergh became concerned about the overcrowding of the streetcars and the filthy housing conditions of these horses. There were numerous newspaper editorials ridiculing Henry Bergh as he stopped these streetcars and refused to allow traffic to continue until excess passengers disembarked. Henry Bergh continued with his crusade against the abuse of horses by developing legislation in the state of New York to charter the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Society focused mainly on the abuses of horses, but was also concerned with vivisection, transport of animals, and slaughterhouse conditions. Many branch Societies were established in surrounding towns and cities, and the successful expansion of the mission and goals of the ASPCA to other states was inevitable. Perhaps, Henry Bergh was one of the most influential leaders in addressing the welfare concerns of horses through model law enforcement and educational programs, in addition to founding the ASPCA.

The largest federal program in scope and impact on equine welfare in the last 50 years came with the legislation entitled “Horse Protection Act” of 1970. The Act prohibits the use of irritating or blistering agents, lacerations, or injected substances to the limbs of competitive horses for the purposes of altering its gait. Congress stated in the Act that “soring of horses is cruel and inhumane.” The legislation was mainly directed at the high-stepping gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse breed, but covers all competitive and sales events. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) veterinary medical officers inspect competitive events. Violators can be prosecuted as a felony offense. Identification of violations and the inspection process of the horses has continually undergone revisions since the initiation of the Act; some of these changes were the result of applicable scientific research and technology advances.

Horses in the U.S. have been used to produce meat products for human consumption, with most of the consumption outside its borders. Consumption of horse meat was popular after World War II, especially in Europe where beef was scarce and old or lame horses were processed for affordable meat products. Today, horsemeat is a high-priced meat delicacy in some European countries. Prior to 1979, horses were shipped live to Europe on ocean barges, often with high mortality rates and other unsuitable conditions. This practice is now prohibited (Provision of Export Administration Act) and thus the foreign companies invested in slaughter facilities in countries such as Canada and U.S. where there are large horse populations to supply their customers. Since there were a limited number of these facilities, often horses would have to endure long distances and difficult conditions by road transport to reach a facility. In the early 1990’s, there was public concern about the transport and handling conditions of horses to slaughter facilities which prompted the development of federal regulations. Research by several universities was conducted to establish scientific data on different aspects of transport. Using this published data, the USDA Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service established (February, 2002) specific regulations on the safe and humane commercial transportation of equines to slaughter (9 CFR Parts 70 and 88). The regulations cover maximum transit times and prohibit “unfit” horses from being loaded, the use of “pot-belly” trailers after 2006, and the use of electrical prods. Recently, Canada and Mexico have agreed (USDA, Veterinary Services Memorandum 555.18) to perform similar inspections at their slaughter facilities for horses originating in the U.S. to ensure the safe and humane transport of horses internationally.

The predominate role of horses in the U.S. has progressed over the last century from their utilization as livestock, draft or agricultural animals to recreational, sport, or as companion animals. This progression has paralleled the change in cultural values associated with the welfare of horses. Society today expects a similar standard of care for horses that are offered to family pets, such as dogs and cats. Neglected or abused horses are reportable to animal control agencies at the local community level in most areas in the U.S. Animal control and protection service in the U.S. consists of both non-profit and governmental organizations. The limited resources of most animal control agencies are primarily utilized for control of dogs and cats in their community. Their facilities and expertise for horses varies from no services to extensive shelter facilities designed for horses with trained personnel.

Although, most horses are afforded a high standard of care during their lifetime, some horses may experience lack of feed, water or care due to economic restraints, limited knowledge necessary to adequately care for the horse, or the loss of the horse’s ability to perform its intended role for the owner (e.g., lameness, old age). Most neglect and abuse cases can be resolved through owner education. However, the care and rehabilitation of the neglected, abused, or unwanted horses can be extensive in resources, funding, and time. Older horses may be limited in their physical abilities or health to be a promising candidate for relocating to another home following rehabilitation. Additionally, neglected horses may pose a disease risk to the general equine population and the public’s health by hosting or transmitting diseases. Educational programs using existing resources on subjects such as appropriate housing for climatic conditions, feeding requirements, health, acceptable training methods, manure management, transportation conditions, and humane euthanasia should be developed and accessible to all facets of society. These programs should convey to the owner the responsibilities in caring for horses which are socially acceptable and ensure the welfare of the individual horse.

The future of equine welfare will certainly be reflective of the progression of cultural values in society, the advancements from scientific research, future global trade and health issues, and the continued development of local, state and federal regulations and legislations. The emerging issues may include transportation regulations extended to pleasure and sport horses, minimum exercise requirements for confined horses, permitting equine facilities for environmental, welfare, and safety standards, and the development of feasible long-term venues to care for unwanted or aged horses at the local community level. Informational resources, such as this publication by Animal Welfare Information Center, will be invaluable for protecting or enhancing the welfare of the horse through many venues including the development of extensive educational programs, implementation of progressive or innovative management techniques, or by the enforcement of regulations or legislation.

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