Welfare is Your Concern
by: Doug Corey
September 2004 Article # 2342

For a veterinarian, one of the most important oaths taken is to protect the health and welfare of the animals in your care. For an organization like the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), which is the largest professional association of equine veterinarians in the world, one of its most important roles is addressing welfare issues that affect the horse on the national level. Whether the welfare concern is the plight of the unwanted horse or horses involved in competition, many of these critical issues involve not only the veterinary community, but also the daily caretakers of the horse--the horse owners.

The AAEP has a committee of members whose sole task is to monitor issues affecting horse welfare and recommend positions on these issues to the AAEP board of directors. In the last two years, the Equine Welfare Committee has
developed position statements on the practices of soring and tail docking, the use of horses in urban environments, and the transportation and processing of horses. Perhaps no other issue in the equine industry has stirred as much passion and
debate, though, as the processing of horses.

With bills in both the Senate and House of Representatives intended to end the processing, or slaughter, of horses at U.S. facilities, the AAEP has relied heavily on the careful deliberation the Welfare Committee has given this issue. Before deciding which position to take, a survey was conducted with the AAEP membership. In addition to gathering important feedback from veterinarians who know firsthand the issues confronting unwanted horses, the Committee also examined studies regarding the welfare of horses shipped to slaughter and the effectiveness of transportation guidelines. All of this helped ensure that an informed position was recommended, and most importantly, the welfare of the horse was the highest priority.

Federal legislation aside, the heart of the slaughter issue is the unwanted horse. The AAEP advocates the humane treatment of all horses and believes the equine industry and horse owners have a responsibility to provide humane care throughout the life of the horse. As a veterinarian, I know that horse owners sometimes face very difficult decisions when a horse does not live up to expectations, is dangerous, or the financial resources no longer exist to provide for its daily care.

If and when this occurs, veterinarians need to be ready to counsel clients about the options available to them. These options can vary quite a bit in different regions of the country. Some of the options that exist for a horse that needs placement are retirement farms, private individuals who are willing to take on an unwanted horse, sale of the horse to a buyer that may be purchasing for processors, and euthanasia, which may ultimately be the best choice. It is not always easy to discuss these issues, as many owners have extremely close relationships with their horses. As a veterinarian, I try to help them make the right decision for the horse so that its welfare is not compromised. The AAEP plans to continue focusing on the plight of the unwanted horse. The Equine Welfare Committee is now working to develop care guidelines that discuss the many aspects of effective and humane horse care and management for individuals who wish to start a rescue or retirement facility. A session about unwanted horse issues will be presented at the AAEP's annual convention in December.
Protecting the health and welfare of the horse should be among the highest priorities for those involved in the equine industry. Whether you are a veterinarian or a horse owner, we all share this responsibility. The AAEP's Equine Welfare Committee will certainly continue to do its part.