Fostering a Good Quality of Life

My 7th Equine Guelph course, Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare, has recently come to an end. It was a bit different from previous courses in that the discussions were more philosophical, which was a nice contrast to the science-based focus of other courses. It was fascinating to debate ethics and learn about equine welfare issues globally. The first few units presented an opportunity to learn about the wide variety of feral herds and the complexities inherent in decisions regarding their management  increasing my understanding of the issues from a variety of perspectives.

The course significantly broadened my understanding of the differences between animal rights and animal welfare, and the polarity and contradictions inherent in ongoing debates. There was also an opportunity to apply knowledge gained through this course and others in a way that could improve equine welfare through direct action. For example, if there was an onus on all facility operators, rescue and otherwise, to develop science-based protocols around equine care and management, the benefits to the animals would be immense.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this course was an article the instructor shared early on, Moving beyond the ‘Five Freedoms’ by Updating the ‘Five Provisions’ and Introducing Aligned ‘Animal Welfare Aims’ by Anthony Mellor. Mellor argues that some degree of discomfort – hunger, thirst, fear, pain, etc. – is necessary to trigger the physiological responses that result in an animal eating, drinking, fleeing a potentially dangerous situation, or resting to alleviate pain – that these responses are necessary for the proper biological functioning, health, and survival of an animal. We know this to be true for ourselves.

Rather than focus on eliminating the things the Five Freedoms purports we strive to eliminate thirst, hunger & malnutrition; physical & thermal discomfort; pain, injury & disease; restrictions on behaviour; fear & distress which can never truly be eliminated, Mellor proposes an alternative approach. This alternative is a series of provisions and corresponding welfare aims which together provide for and fulfil the needs and desires of the animals in our care — provisions of good feeding, good housing, good health, and fostering appropriate behaviour and positive mental experiences. 

Of course, the degree to which these are provided for will vary drastically based on personal knowledge, beliefs, and the degree of empathy one has toward an animal, nonetheless, I believe we should be moving beyond the Five Freedoms and focusing on something more akin to the Five Provisions.

It is not enough to strive to ensure that a horse is free from negative experiences. Rather, it is essential to understand and incorporate the Five Provisions of Animal Welfare into all levels of care and management to support positive experiences around feeding, housing, and health, thereby fostering appropriate behaviour and positive mental experiences. It is also important to understand equine perception, learning abilities, herd dynamics, and common welfare issues.

Good feeding, good housing, good health, appropriate behaviour, and positive mental experiences are all key components of a good life. Doing our best to understand the sometimes quite subtle messages conveyed through equine behaviour and facial expressions will make it easier to identify when something is not right in the horse’s world, and when something is! Just as we can learn to read equine body language indicating negative experiences, we can learn to identify when horses are experiencing or anticipating something positive, such as pleasure or a reward. Likewise, an understanding of perception, learning abilities, and herd dynamics will facilitate species-appropriate interactions. And knowledge of common welfare issues may alert us to an inappropriate aspect of current care and handling.

Because we cannot truly know what a horse is thinking or feeling, or what exactly it is trying to communicate, developing as much knowledge and awareness as we possibly can to interpret signs of both positive and negative experiences can go a long way in ensuring a high quality of life for the horse(s) in our care.

A good life is one that is not necessarily free of negative experiences but also filled with positive experiences that contribute to a positive emotional state.

Mellor, D.J. (2016). “Moving beyond the ‘Five Freedoms’ by Updating the ‘Five Provisions’ and Introducing Aligned ‘Animal Welfare Aims’.” Animals, 6(59).