Improving animal welfare is a hot topic. When you hear about this, you often know that people want the animals to have a better life. But what does this better life look like? You cannot ask a horse what it thinks about its current life, so you will have to measure well-being in a different way. The five freedoms have been developed for this. But before we can determine the state of welfare of an animal, it is useful to know what welfare actually is. It is quite a complex concept, to which various different definitions are attached. In general, you could say that welfare has to do with the physical and mental health and well-being of an animal. In veterinary medicine it is described as follows: ‘An individual animal is in a state of well-being if it is able to actively adapt to its living conditions and thereby achieve a condition that the individual experiences as positive’ (Journal of Veterinary Medicine, part 134, Sept 2009).
In order to make the measurability of animal welfare easier, the Brambell Committee laid the foundation of the five freedoms in 1965. In 1993, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) continued to develop and achieved the following five freedoms:
- Free from thirst, hunger and malnutrition
- Free from physical and thermal discomfort
- Free from pain, injury and illness
- Free from fear and chronic stress
- Free to display natural behaviour
How can you ensure that a horse is in a good state of well-being?
Free from thirst, hunger and malnutrition
Make sure that a horse always has free access to clean drinking water. Give it enough good quality roughage. This also stimulates the horse’s natural behaviour, foraging and chewing. You can supplement the ration with concentrates, for the addition of vitamins and minerals or extra energy.
Free from physical and thermal discomfort
This has to do with the horse living in a comfortable environment, in which it is free from discomfort. These discomforts may be physical, for example because the horse cannot lie down, or thermal, relating to the temperature, for example, too high an ambient temperature. Therefore, provide a spacious shelter or stable in which the horse is not too cold or too warm. Trees or other hiding places can also provide this. As long as the horse has shade on hot, sunny days and shelter on cold, wetter days. A horse feels most comfortable (without a rug) between -5 and 15 degrees.
Free from pain, injury and illness
It is always possible that your horse to picks up an injury while playing around in the field, or to catch a virus at a competition site. This does not mean that there are immediate welfare concerns. The point is to minimize the risk of pain, injury and illness. So ensure a safe environment, without sharp protrusions or other things that might injure the horse, and provide the right care to prevent diseases as much as possible. If it does occur, it is important that the horse gets the right treatment from, for example, a vet.
Free from fear and chronic stress
Anyone who handles horses knows that anxiety and stress cannot be completely prevented. All you need to do is shake a plastic bag in the bushes and your horse will go straight into fear mode. This is not a problem, the horse needs this acute stress to survive. However, if this stress persists for a long time, it can turn into chronic stress. Chronic stress arises when the horse cannot influence its environment and the situation remains unpredictable for him. For example, if the horse cannot show its natural behaviour. This can lead to behavioural problems, such as stereotypical behaviour. It also poses serious health risks for the horse.
Free to display natural behaviour
This freedom depends on the animal species. A monkey has different natural behaviour than a chicken, and a pig lives differently from a horse. It is therefore important to delve into the nature of the animal. Fortunately, we are discovering increasingly more about the natural behaviour and needs of horses. There are a number of important aspects for horses to be able to exercise their natural behaviour: sufficient (free) movement, social contact with peers, sufficient fiber-rich food and stabling with sufficient space and light. It remains practically impossible for domesticated horses to fully exhibit all their natural behaviour, but it is important that the needs of horses are met as much as possible.