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 – greatly 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 take away 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’ (Mellor, 2016). In it, the author 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, a series of provisions and corresponding welfare aims which together provide for and fulfill the needs and desires of the animals in our care.

Provisions Welfare Aims
Good Feeding – Provide ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour Minimise thirst and hunger and enable eating to be a pleasurable experience
Good Housing – Provide shade/shelter or suitable housing, good air quality and comfortable resting areas Minimise discomfort and exposure and promote thermal, physical and other comforts
Good Health – Prevent or rapidly diagnose and treat disease and injury, and foster good muscle tone, posture, and cardiorespiratory function Minimise breathlessness, nausea, pain and other aversive experiences and promote the pleasures of robustness, vigour, strength and well-coordinated physical activity
Appropriate Behaviour – Provide sufficient space, proper facilities, congenial company, and appropriately varied conditions Minimise threats and unpleasant restrictions on behaviour and promote engagement in rewarding activities
Positive Mental Experiences – Provide safe, species-appropriate opportunities for pleasurable experiences Promote comfort, pleasure, interest, confidence, and a sense of control

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, 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).


Wild, Feral, Free-roaming: The Sable Island & Konik Horses

Two units in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare have been dedicated to issues surrounding the management of wild/feral and free-roaming horse herds. The first unit was focused on the 2013 US government shutdown and how that impacted the herds managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The most recent unit has taken a broader perspective, looking at how herds are managed in other countries.

The management of these populations is an incredibly complex topic which demands the consideration of numerous, site-, herd- specific factors. The issues are further muddied by the varying opinions of well-intentioned wild horse advocates, the general public, scientists, veterinarians, and government bodies charged with the actual management of the animals, some of which I may tackle in a future post. But for now, I’ll keep things light and share a couple of example of free-roaming and feral horses, one from Canada and one from England.

Sable Island Horses: Life in “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” 
Image 1. Roberto Dutesco by Ingrid Bulmer

I am absolutely in awe of the Sable Island horses, of which I first became aware in 2008 through the documentary Chasing Wild Horses. The film follows photographer Roberto Dutesco on his second visit to the island to photograph the horses, in 2004. You can watch it here. And if you’re ever in NYC, be sure to visit his gallery. The larger than life photographs are incredible!

Sable Island is a 42 km (26 mi) long, 1.5 km (0.93 mi) wide sandbar located 160 km (99 mi) southeast of Nova Scotia, Canada, where the arctic stream and gulf stream meet, shaping the land. Covered in fog for about 200 days a year, it is a fragile, primitive landscape populated by over 400 feral horses, along with seals, birds, terrestrial insects, and the aquatic life in a small freshwater lake. It is estimated that 30 to 40% of Sable Island will eventually be lost to sea level rise, a projection based on a 3-metre rise.

Known exclusively as “The Sable Island Horses”, like the feral herds across the US, they cannot be classified as a breed. Rather, their origin is nearly impossible to link to any specific breed(s), as they are thought to be descendants of a wide variety of horses that arrived on the island, some possibly by shipwreck, of which there have been nearly 500 since the 16th century. The more popular theory, however, is that they were introduced to the island in the mid-1700’s, along with cows, sheep, goats and hogs when the British seized animals from the Acadians and expelled them from Nova Scotia. The idea was to let the horses fend for themselves and periodically harvest and sell them for a profit. Through the 1800’s the horses were used to patrol the shores of Sable Island for shipwrecks.

By 1950, biologists working on the island proposed they be removed. Being an introduced/invasive species, they were said to be damaging the ecologically sensitive land. The Canadian government formulated a plan to have the horses shipped to the mainland to either work in coal mines or be slaughtered for pet food. In the wake of this decision, schoolchildren across the country initiated a letter-writing campaign to the Prime Minister, urging him to spare the horses. In response, Prime Minister Diefenbaker declared full protection of the horses and amended the Canada Shipping Act to restrict access to Sable Island.

Today, the horses are the only terrestrial mammals on the island and they continue to be lawfully protected from any human interference. While other feral herds generally experience population increases of up to 20% per year, doubling every four or five years, growth on Sable Island is slower and more or less kept in balance by the severity of the winters and sparseness of the landscape.

The Konik Horse: Free-roaming ecological restoration
Konik Ponies ay Oare Marsh Nature Reserve.
Image 2: Konik Ponies at Oare Marsh Nature Reserve by Smudge 9000

Descendants of the Tarpan, Konik horses are being used across both continental Europe and the UK in ecological restoration efforts to manage and rewild a variety of landscapes. One example is Wicken Fen, a national nature reserve in the UK.

Launched in 1999, the Wicken Fen Vision aims to expand the reserve fifteen-fold over a 100-year period using a natural, sustainable management approach that will be flexible and adaptive in response to changes in the environment. As part of their regeneration efforts, Konik horses and Highland cattle have been introduced as key players in the restoration and ongoing management of the land. Their foraging and feeding behaviours, although they may consume the same types of vegetation, are different enough to facilitate the growth of wetland and grassland plants and create subtly different habitats across the landscape.

The animals are currently free to roam over a  247-acre (100-hectare) area, a range which will expand as new, adequately vegetated areas of approximately the same size become available and connected. A hardy, self-reliant, naturally free-roaming breed, Konik horses are well-suited for life on the fen and thrive on the available forage – grasses, sedges, rushes, scrub, brambles, thistles, docks, and nettles. Their temperament is such that they do well with minimal human intervention, yet are seemingly indifferent to the presence of humans in their vicinity. These particular horses were moved to the fen from a similarly managed nature reserve in the Netherlands.

How exactly do grazing animals affect restoration in their environment?

That depends on their density and feeding habits. Naturally, some areas will be grazed more than others, and conversely, there will be taller and denser patches of vegetation throughout. Grazing pressures will naturally fluctuate in response to population growth, however, as previously mentioned, new land will continually be added to the reserve, thereby dispersing the population over a larger area of land. Other ways in which the animals alter and influence the landscape are through the creation of well-trodden paths, dusty patches where they roll, and microhabitats of water-filled footprints and dung piles. These dung piles provide habitat for a variety of invertebrates and micro-fauna.

How are the herds managed?

Though primarily hands-off, a Grazing Warden oversees herd management with the assistance of volunteers and an on-call veterinarian. Animals are regularly inspected for internal parasites and signs of condition loss. Wicken Fen follows the Five Freedoms of animal welfare and the Grazing Warden monitors and records herd reproduction, deaths, and their impact on vegetation.


CBC News. (2014, Sep 4). In Depth|Sable Island: The wild horses’ history and future. Last updated Sep 10, 2014. Retrieved from 

Dutesco Art. (undated). The Wild Horses of Sable Island. Retrieved from

Harris, J. (2008). Chasing Wild Horses [Documentary]. Canada: Arcadia Entertainment.

National Trust. (2011). “Wicken Fen Vision: The Grazing Programme explained.” Retrieved from


Feature Image: Sable Island Horses “Love Bite” by Roberto Dutesco. Retrieved from

Image 1: “New York photographer Roberto Dutesco stands next to an image from his Wild Horses of Sable Island exhibit, at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax to Oct. 13” by Ingrid Bulmer. Retrieved from

Image 2: “Konik Ponies at Oare Marsh Nature Reserve” by Smudge 9000. Retrieved from