Animal Welfare

We all want to give our equine friends the best care we can and there is a lot of truth in Maya Angelou’s quote that you must do the best you can until you know better – then when you know better, do better. But did you know that in New Zealand there is a Code of Welfare issued under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 which sets the minimum standards horse (and donkey!) owners must meet in order to meet their legal obligations as a horse owner?

The Animal Welfare Act 1999 provides for the welfare of animals in New Zealand and puts obligations on people who own, or are in charge, of animals to provide for their welfare. Codes of Welfare, which are developed under the Act, set minimum standards and recommend best practice for the care and management of animals. There are references in the Codes of Welfare to regulations issued under the Act. Regulations impose enforceable requirements on owners or persons in charge of animals – which means that an owner or person in charge of an animal can be prosecuted for failure to comply with these regulations. Failure to meet a minimum standard in a Code of Welfare can be used as evidence to support a prosecution – so knowing their contents is important!

With that in mind, here is a snapshot of some obligations in respect of horses:

The standard about equine management requires people who own or are in charge of horses to have not only the skills but the personal qualities required to be effective and safe when handling horses. The standard focusses on the owner/person in charge having an awareness of how their actions might affect the welfare of their animals. An example of best practice given in the code is that training and handling procedures are adapted and modified to suit an individual horse – we all know a horse who is unhappy about the girth being done up, so handling that girthy horse is going to have to be much more gentle and tactful than girthing a pony who is totally ignorant of the girth!

In respect of food and water it is obvious that horses need quality feed and fresh water. But did you know the standard requires that steps are taken to reduce competition for feed between horses, such as distributing hay in a number of separate piles? Or that horses receiving hard feed should have this fed in smaller amounts throughout the day, rather than one large meal? Perhaps most interesting is the recommended best practice to reduce hard feed on days where a horse is not worked to decrease the risk of metabolic problems (rather than providing the same feed irrespective of whether the horse is worked).

There are three very topical issues in the equine training and handling section. The first is the standard which provides that horses must not be struck around their heads, which is directly linked to a regulation, meaning that prosecution can occur if that standard is breached. It is also recommended best practice that riders should not be heavier than is appropriate for the equine in question, taking into account the size of the horse, its breed, physiological status and its workload. And lastly, there is a reference to the handler’s behaviour towards horses is patient.

While this might sound basic and first principles to many horse owners it is the fact that these standards are enshrined in New Zealand animal welfare law that might be the surprise. There are other interesting requirements in the code – horses should not be turned out in headcollars, caked-on dirt should be removed from covers weekly, and that equipment used on horses must be maintained in good condition – which shows that is worth reading and keeping in mind when considering our horsemanship practices. If you haven’t read the Code of Welfare it is available at this link.

This article is not legal advice, nor is it a definitive statement of your obligations as a horse owner or handler. It represents comments on the Code of Welfare as it existed at the time this post was written. You should always check your own obligations in any situation and take your legal advice if you need it!

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