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What Is a Welfare Concern?

There are an estimated one million horses, ponies and donkeys in the UK. The vast majority of these animals are much loved and well cared for. Sadly, there are cases where horses are neglected intentionally but in the majority of welfare cases, horses become a concern due to the owner’s lack of knowledge. The BHS has a dedicated team of volunteer Welfare Officers who work tirelessly to improve the lives of horses and prevent equine suffering.  

All horses are individuals, so their specific needs vary. There are also many different ways of keeping horses. Frequently, someone may not like the way that others care for their animals but if the horses’ needs are being met, then there may not be any cause for concern about their welfare.

Below we have listed some of the main reasons why horses may become a welfare concern. Details on how to report a horse(s) to us are available on Reporting a Welfare Concern. However, the list below is not exhaustive and if you have any uncertainties about a horse, please don’t hesitate to contact our Welfare team in confidence. Please be aware that all of our Welfare Officers are volunteers and on this basis we are not able to guarantee an immediate visit in the event of a genuine welfare emergency.

Stray horse on the road
Weight problems
Tethering
No water
Lack of food
Overgrown and cracked hooves
Skin problems
Rugs
Shelter
Stables
Mud
Dangerous fencing
Poisonous plants
Collapsed
Untreated injury
Horse unable to move
Horse attacked

Stray horse on the road

If a horse(s) is loose on the road, contact the police as an emergency – not only for the welfare of the horse(s) involved, but also to protect the safety of other road users.

Weight Problems

Underweight horses

Top:
Pelvis buried under fat and cannot be felt
Broad, flat back
Deep gutter along the back
Impossible to feel ribs

Bottom:
Wide, firm crest on the neck. A layer of fat can develop.

Both severely overweight and underweight horses are welfare concerns. An underweight horse can be identified by protruding or visible ribs, hip bones or vertebrae. During the winter, horses will naturally lose weight; this can be helpful for those horses that need to lose some fat before the arrival of spring grass. Be aware that a horse’s natural thick, hairy winter coat or rugs can hide its true condition.  Underweight mares with foals at foot are a particular concern.

Equine obesity causes a number of serious threats to the horse’s health.

Tethering

It’s not illegal to tether a horse but the horse’s basic needs must be provided. For further details about how a horse should be ideally tethered or whether it’s a cause for concern, see our advice on tethering, which has been produced in response to public concerns.

No Water

All horses should have constant access to fresh, clean drinking water. The water supply should be checked at least daily. Rivers, streams and springs can provide a water source, but these must have safe access points easily available to the horse. Steep banks or a low water supply can cause problems.

Lack of Food

Weather and time of year are huge factors in the quality of the grass. During the winter, the grass will have limited nutritional value and supplementary hay is often required.

Strands of hay left on the floor indicate that hay is potentially being provided to the horses. The body condition of the horses will be the best guide as to whether they are receiving adequate food in a situation like this.

However, in wintertime it can be particularly difficult to judge whether horses are being attended to as owners may be visiting and feeding their horses in the darkness before and after work. By the middle of the morning there may be very little hay left, so it may look like the horses are not receiving any supplementary feed. Horses that are not being provided with appropriate levels of food will begin to lose weight at a rate beyond what would be considered normal for winter.

Lush spring grass can potentially be a problem for some horses, especially those that are still overweight after the winter or those prone to laminitis. A management method of restricted grazing is often implemented to prevent the horse gorging on the rich grass. If a horse in good (or even overweight condition) on bare pasture, it may well not be a cause for concern.

It’s important, however, that these horses are not starved and hay may have to be given to replace the grass. Electric fencing is often used and can be moved back daily to release a small area of fresh grass for the horse to safely eat.

Overgrown and Cracked Hooves

Horses can either be shod (have shoes put on) or kept unshod. Whether shod or not, regular farriery attention is needed to prevent the hooves becoming too long or cracked. If left without attention, lameness can occur.

Cracked and overgrown hooves

 

Skin Problems

There are many issues that may lead to skin problems such as sunburn, bacterial infections or lice. Any part of the horse’s skin can be affected, but the most common issues are sunburn on the muzzle, or during the winter an infection known as mud fever and rain scald. Treatment will be required to prevent the problem becoming worse and help to clear up any issues.

Any untreated skin problem is likely to be extremely uncomfortable for the horse and would certainly constitute a potential welfare concern. Lice will cause a horse to rub and can often result in bald patches on its coat which potentially could lead to an infection if the horse continues to rub its skin raw.

Skin problems

Rugs

This pony is well adapted to cope with cold weather as it is in good condition, has a thick coat and natural shelter (hay was also provided).

There are many different breeds of horse, which all have their own characteristics. For example, native ponies and cobs are very hardy and have evolved to cope with the harsh elements during the winter. These types of horses rarely need to be rugged and so a lack of rug is not usually a welfare concern. Even if it snows, the horse’s coat is well designed to keep the wet and cold out.

Rugs do have their benefits and are often used for horses of finer breeds that don’t have such thick coats, plus older horses and ones prone to losing weight. Clipped horses should be rugged appropriately in accordance with the weather conditions. Some horses who have a very small clip on the underside of their neck and front of their chest, and are a good doer, can often cope without a rug.

The rug can’t hide how thin this pony is, as shown by the complete loss of weight on its hindquarters.

The concern about rugs is that they can hide the true condition of a horse. In very thin horses you can often see the hip bones protruding through the rug and the rug begins to look ‘too big’ for the horse. 

During warmer weather, rugs are often used to prevent fly nuisance and there are some rugs that are used to cover up most of the horse due to a condition called sweet itch (an allergic reaction to the bite of midges). These rugs are made of material that help to keep the horse comfortable and so shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Fly masks are often used to prevent the irritability caused by flies.

Shelter

All horses need access to shelter, both from inclement weather during the winter and from the sun and flies during the summer. Shelter can either be man-made, like a field shelter, or natural, such as trees or hedges. Rugs also provide a degree of shelter for the horse. If a horse has no shelter available at all then this is potentially a concern but it can be difficult to resolve if the horse is in otherwise good condition.

Stables

This building is completely unsuitable for keeping horses

When stabled, horses should be able to stand up and turn around without difficulty and lie down and roll easily without the risk of injury. Stables should be of sound construction with no protruding objects that could cause an injury. Stables should be mucked out daily; horses should not be left stood in stables of deep muck or inadequate bedding. Water and adequate food should be provided.

Horses should not be kept stabled 24/7 and should be adequately exercised or turned out. The only exception for a horse to be kept stabled is when instructed to do so by a vet.

Mud

Horses will inevitably end up standing in mud. This isn’t a cause for concern unless the mud is very deep, such as up to their knees, or the horse has mud fever (a bacterial infection where the horse’s legs become inflamed and infected). Extreme weather conditions can challenge even the most conscientious horse owner, and horses naturally enjoy rolling - even in the muddiest conditions!

A muddy horse will not be a welfare concern unless there is an injury that is not being treated.

Dangerous Fencing

This fencing is completely inadequate and poses a risk of injury to the horses

Field boundaries should be well maintained to prevent horses escaping or being injured. Further advice is available from our pasture management guidance.

Poisonous Plants

Fields should be kept free of poisonous plants. For information on ragwort, refer to the BHS Ragwort Toolkit.  There are too many poisonous plants to list individually; however, if you need any additional advice, just contact the BHS Welfare team.

Collapsed

It can be difficult to tell if a horse lying flat-out in the field has collapsed or is just sleeping. Horses will often lie flat-out asleep in the sun in a dry area. If you’re concerned, try shouting out as the horse may lift its head, or look out for the horse twitching its ear or for its stomach area moving. Horses that are more likely to be a concern are those laid flat-out on a very wet area.

Untreated Injury

Horses with a serious injury - for example, a large, deep open wound - will need to be seen by a vet.

Horse Unable to Move

Although this horse may appear as if it has collapsed, it was fast asleep in the sun.

A horse that is unable to stand up, walk or put one of their legs to the floor may be indicative of a serious problem. As well as sleeping lying down, horses can also sleep standing up due to a locking mechanism in their back legs, and as a result will often rest a hind leg. Therefore, it is important to first decide if the horse is actually asleep rather than being unable to physically put its hoof to the floor.

Horses Being Attacked

In the event of a horse being disciplined, it should be done so appropriately, timely, reasonably and proportionately. Any excessive physical force or use of the whip that causes unnecessary suffering to a horse is an offence. Evidence in the form of video footage or injuries left on the horse assists with a Welfare Officer being able to deal with the case.

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