To ensure good welfare standards, a common narrative is needed on what is meant by “responsible ownership” of equines.
Equines are the most versatile of animals. They can be wild or semi-feral, sporting athletes or companion animals, as well as used in production of meat and other derived products. They are also working animals in areas such as transport, tourism, forestry, agriculture and therapy, and sometimes even used in research.
Nor are keepers of equines a homogenous group. They have various reasons for keeping their horses or donkeys, and socio-economic and cultural differences mean that they do not have the same resources or information available to ensure the optimal welfare of their animals.
There are also differences in the legal frameworks governing the lives of equines. This means that a framework needs to be adapted to those specific contexts to ensure that equines welfare is kept in mind at all times.
A common narrative on what we mean by responsible ownership had not been developed in the EU in a comprehensive way until 2015, when World Horse Welfare and Eurogroup for Animals produced the Removing the Blinkers study. This report described a number of welfare problems including lack of space, continuous confinement without social interaction, a lack of or inadequate access to health and professional care, and even outright neglect. These welfare concerns can be exacerbated by both health (e.g. pandemics) and economic crises. These and other forms of mistreatment cause physical pain and stress and diminish the equines’s ability to display natural behaviour, as well as to interact with humans in a mutually beneficial way.
In 2017, the issue of responsible ownership and its transversal impact was pointed out by the European Parliament in a resolution calling on the European Commission to develop European guidelines on good practice in the equine sector for various users and specialists.
However, as demonstrated by the terrible physical and mental hardships of donkeys in Santorini, the suffering of horses in the logging industry, who endure open wounds, lack of food and overlong work days, or the increase in long journeys for transported horses intended for slaughter, as reported by the European Parliament, there is still a long way to go.