Animal welfare is often measured in context of the 5 freedoms. This is also often seen when looking at livestock. These are as follows;
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst.
2. Freedom from discomfort.
3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
4. Freedom to express normal behaviour.
5. Freedom from fear and distress.
Duncan (1996) said ‘neither health, nor lack of stress nor fitness is necessary and/or sufficient to conclude that an animal has good welfare. Welfare is dependant on what the animals feel’.
There are a lot of questions about the welfare of horses. Factors should be assessed from a physical and psychological perspective. However, by owning horses we also benefit the horse from a physcial perspective as it gets food and water and is looked after. It has also ensured survival of a species that may have become extinct in the wild if they did not have this link with humans. This may balance out the inconvenience of being ridden.
Behavioural needs are species specific. They will still perform the behaviour even if they don't need to. An example of this can be seen in birds with nest building as if a nest is built for them they will still want to build one.
Behavioural needs reflect the evolutionary pressure that has been placed on a species. These behaviours are wired into the horse's brain. Prevention of the behaviours can cause a stress response in the animal. Primary equine behavioural needs are eating, locomotion and social contact.
The horse is quite unique as a species as it has not received the same level of domestication as other species such as dogs and yet is kept in a restrictive environment. This may be problematic from a welfare perspective. The more motivated an animal is to perform a behaviour, the more frustrated it will be if it is prevented from performing it.
Stabled horses may be fed a diet that is low in forage. This has been linked to the development of stereotypies and health problems including ulceration and colic. When looking at horses on a diet high in fibre (which is more suitable) there may still be differences between the types of fibre. Thorne et al (2005) carried out a trial to look at the behavioural effects when horses were provided with a diet with multiple forages. Horses on a multiple forage diet performed foraging behaviour more frequently and for longer periods of time than horses on a single forage diet. There were indications that horses demonstrated individual preferences for particular forages. Abnormal behaviours such as weaning were only seen on the single forage diet. These results indicated that there were potentially beneficial behavioural effects of multiple forage provision over a 7 day period. It may be a means of enriching the horse's environment.