As we approach the breeding season for mares, on 10th March 2021 SAWS organised the Ethics Lunch and Learn to address welfare and ethical challenges for equine reproduction. This session was attended by both RVC staff and students, all of which brought extremely valuable stories, ideas, and questions into the discussion. Overall, this ELL facilitated the discussion of ethical challenges facing these animals, and identified powerful stakeholders in the field of equine breeding (stud owners, equine breeders, judges, riders, charity, academia etc.). We hope to have stimulated students and staff to not only learn about welfare considerations for breeding equines, but also gain the confidence to question the norm, speak up for these animals, and bring health and welfare up the list of priorities in the industry.
We were extremely fortunate to hear personal and professional experiences from Dr. Madeleine Campbell, who is a distinguished specialist in both animal ethics and equine reproduction. Madeleine kindly provided a thought-provoking presentation to set the foundation of the day’s discussion. She introduced three overarching topics of concerns at the individual level, concerns relating to breeding techniques, and challenges and opportunities afforded by assisted reproductive techniques. I will briefly explore the first two topics with references to both her presentation and questions proposed by the audience.
1) Concerns at the individual level:
Just like brachycephalic dogs, hereditary conformation issues are no surprise for poor breeding choices in horses. However, unlike dogs, horses often “work” to a certain degree in benefit to the owner, i.e. racing or eventing. Many owners therefore perceive breeding as an opportunity to add values to their horses when they can no longer compete, either due to age or other health limitations. The latter is particularly concerning because this could perpetuate genes associated with diseases and poor conformations, which should not be selected from a welfare perspective.
Furthermore, one attendee also shared that ‘performance’ is still the top priority amongst people working in the equine industry when selecting and breeding horses. Yet ‘health and welfare’ unfortunately came quite low down the list. Although these factors are not mutually exclusive, it is crucial to address welfare issues that don’t have direct financial benefits to the owners/riders and may easily be overlooked by judges.
No conversation and meetings these days can escape the discussion of Covid, which certainly stimulated many equine owners to breed their animals during lockdown. Madeleine addressed that these changes would inevitably lead to overbreeding in the industry. Someone from the audience also asked about wastage, which Madeleine confirmed to be a significant issue, which may be even worse in the near future due to the aftermath of Covid.
2) Concerns relating to breeding techniques
For breeding to happen in the wild, a mare and a stallion would spend extensive time interacting, playing, and ‘teasing’ each other. These behaviours were deliberately abandoned as humans took control of the selection of horses and breeding activities.
Hand breeding, or natural cover, is by no means ‘natural’ when compared to the behaviours of horses in the wild. Interactions of mares and stallions are kept to the absolute minimum to avoid danger to both the horses and people involved. Valuable mares and stallions may also need to travel long distances to mate physically, which opens another wide range of welfare and ethical issues for horses in transport.
Assisted reproductive technologies utilise scientific and biological breakthroughs to improve efficiency and mitigate risks for breeding-related activities. The reproductive components, i.e. sperms and eggs, can be extracted, stored, and used effectively that eliminates many significant welfare concerns for the breeding animals addressed above.
Natural cover is the only technique approved for breeding racing thoroughbreds, which raised many heated debates for many years already. Some argue that this regulation maintains the integrity of stallions, but Madeleine also explained financial benefits (i.e. stud farms receive significant income to accommodate for mares) that heavily influence people’s decision to comply in this system.
Furthermore, an attendee questioned the closest equivalent to ‘consent’ that is used in the industry and whether there are any rules or guidelines that mean that, if a mare is too unwilling or distressed, the process must be stopped? I thought this was a fascinating question that currently cannot be answered. With continued effort to understand animal behaviour, we may be able to provide them adequate autonomy that ensures a symbiotic relationship between humans and horses.
This one-hour discussion is just a snapshot of the ethical issues and opportunities revolving around equine reproduction. However, I hope that these questions and thoughts will be shared beyond the RVC SAWS community in order to protect the welfare of breeding horses.