Welfare status and owner perceptions of working horses in Chile

Luna, D., Vásquez, R. A., Rojas, M., & Tadich, T. A. (2017). Welfare Status of Working Horses and Owners′ Perceptions of Their Animals. Animals, 7(8), 56.

Working equines make a valuable socioeconomic contribution in many developing countries, through provision of transport, traction and income generation.  However, these animals often experience poor welfare, which can vary between geo-cultural contexts.  The purpose of this study was to assess and compare welfare status and owner perceptions of working horses in two geo-culturally different Chilean regions.

Data were collected from 100 draught horses and their owners in peri-urban areas of Metropolitana de Santiago and Araucania regions. Assessment of the horse’s welfare was conducted via direct observations, using welfare measures, combined with resource-based measures obtained indirectly via interviews with the horse’s owners.  Owner perceptions were assessed using discourse analysis of responses to an open question: What does your working horse mean or represent to you?   

Horses were viewed positively by their owners

Welfare status was generally good in both regions.  The most prevalent welfare problems were hoof abnormalities (53%) and skin lesions (47%); only the latter differed significantly between regions, with higher prevalence in Metropolitana de Santiago. For behavioural aspects, friendly responses to owners/observers were higher in Araucania, but negative behaviour was very low in both regions, indicating a positive human-animal relationship overall.  For husbandry aspects, a significant difference between the regions was found in shoeing practices, with the majority of horses (75%) shoed by owners in Araucania, compared to (81%) shoed by farriers in Metropolitana de Santiago. However, this was not associated with any differences in prevalence of hoof abnormalities.  

With regards to owner perception, those in both regions had a positive perception of their horses, viewing them as sentient individuals, often ascribing human characteristics (anthropomorphism), and considering their horses as companions or family members.  The perception of horses as an instrument for work was also recorded in both regions, but was more prevalent in Araucania.  The authors suggest this may be due to cultural differences between the regions.

This study found that both affective and instrumental perceptions of working horses can co-exist, which is contrary to some common assumptions.  The authors propose that efforts to improve the welfare of working horses should reflect both the human-animal relationship, and the physical and mental wellbeing of the individual animals, in addition to taking into account cultural differences.

World Animal Protection’s view

Studies such as this provide insight into the role of owner perception in influencing animal welfare. This is increasingly important as we strive to better understand the motivating factors that may contribute to the welfare of animals under our care. World Animal Protection  recognises the importance of understanding cultural differences in how animals are viewed.