It's often upsetting when you're on holiday and you spot what appears to be an animal in pain - and plenty of tourists are especially upset by seeing horses working in other countries.
However, you're not totally powerless - and there are ways of seeing if an animal is being genuinely mistreated, or if everything's as it should be. We spoke to World Horse Welfare about how tourists can help, and make a difference to these horses' lives.
Tourists are often upset by seeing animals mistreated abroad – and horses are no exception. Which countries are best known for mistreating their horse populations, and why?
In all countries you will find people who treat their animals well and people who do not, so it would be unfair to point the finger at particular countries as being the most likely to mistreat horses. Countries which use horses and donkeys for transporting tourists tend to attract more complaints, as they are more visible, but there are so many different factors which can affect how horses are treated and cared for, and this can vary between regions, towns, villages and communities.
The condition of horses used in tourist activities is often of a lower standard in poorer or developing countries, particularly when it comes to city carriage tours and trekking horses, which are often asked to cover long distances on difficult terrain. Often basic husbandry and care of these animals is deficient, due to limited knowledge and a lack of quality service providers, such as trained veterinarians and farriers. This is what World Horse Welfare works to address through our international programmes.
What can be surprising to tourists is that those who mistreat the horses may not see their actions as being cruel, so try not to assume that is their intention. Very often they are only doing what they have seen others do, or are doing what they have been taught by previous generations of horse owners in their community.
For instance they may not believe that whipping their horse repeatedly is mistreatment but might believe 'it is the only way to make a horse go'. Some cultures don’t even believe that animals can feel pain. That is why education is so important and why we focus so much on it in the communities where we work in Africa, Latin America and Asia. It is so inspirational to see the change in attitudes and behaviours we help to bring about, and how keen these horse owners are to do what is right for their horses once they understand what they need.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that standards of animal welfare in some countries outside of the UK will be very different to what we are accustomed to. Being objective about what you experience can be difficult, but there are ways of spotting issues. Is the horse underweight and extremely tired? Has it been left in the sun with no shade, or access to water? Is the carriage the horse is pulling overloaded or are the passengers too heavy? These can be signs that the animal is being mistreated.
Do tourists have any power over traders who are cruel to horses – do, for example, refusing to have their picture taken with horses, not taking horse rides, etc?
If you are in a situation where you feel horses are not being appropriately cared for, then the best thing you can do is to refrain from using the services being offered and explain why, in a clear and precise way. Tourism will be the livelihood of many people operating businesses such as trekking or carriage rides, and by refusing to pay for services where you feel the horses are not being adequately cared for or mistreated, they can be encouraged to raise their standards.
If you have pre-paid for an activity and you feel unhappy with the horse/s you are provided with then the best course of action is to request an alternative or ask for a refund, again explaining why, and making your concerns clear.
You can also take action by reporting the company or individual responsible for the horse to the relevant tourist board or tour operator. If you booked the activity or were recommended it through a third party, then it’s worth getting in touch with them to raise your concerns and advise they don’t direct other people to that company or individual again.
Would you ever advise tourists to boycott certain countries or areas where animals are treated particularly badly?
We wouldn’t advise a boycott of a particular country or area, but if you are keen to take part in activities or trips involving horses while abroad, it’s important to do your research and ask for recommendations so you are in the best possible position to choose relevant companies or service providers carefully. The more tourists who make their views known, the more pressure can be exerted to improve these horses’ welfare.
Why aren’t local authorities doing anything to make the horses’ lives more comfortable?
Many local authorities are working to set higher standards for animal welfare but sadly there isn’t always the legislative structure to support them. Animal welfare legislation can vary widely from country to country, and can be insufficient in certain places and non-existent in others.
These issues are often not brought to the attention of local authorities and they require a range of evidence of poor practices before they can be addressed. As a result, it is important for tourists to raise their concerns to the relevant authority or tourist board. You may not feel like you are making a big difference, but every voice helps and adds pressure which can help to bring change.
If a tourist should come across a horse being mistreated, what can they do? Should they get involved, and speak to the people mistreating the animal?
As mentioned earlier, refusing to use an individual or company’s horse because you are concerned with the way the horse is being handled or cared is often the best and safest option.
Do not assume the individual is intentionally being cruel – explaining why you think the treatment is unacceptable in a measured way is more likely to make an impact. Getting into a discussion with the person responsible for the horse can be tricky if there is a language barrier and could put you in a vulnerable position should they become agitated or aggressive.
Also, the person who is in charge of the horse on a particular day may not be the owner or carer, as they could have simply hired the animals they are using which makes it difficult to know who is responsible for any welfare problems.
Some traders may treat their horses properly, but tourists may mistake the horse’s working life for cruelty. What are the signs of a healthy, happy horse which is being looked after?
The important thing is to be realistic about the condition of working equines abroad as it is likely to be quite different to the horses and ponies you might see around the UK. Often the types of horses and ponies used will be leaner in shape so may appear to be underweight, even though they are in good condition. Here's how to spot a healthy and well-cared for animal, so you can make a choice you feel confident with:
- Reasonable body condition
- Stood in a shady area if the weather is particularly hot
- Good quality and well-fitted tack
- No open sores or wounds
- Feet in a good condition, ie. not too long or ragged
- Quiet and gentle treatment from the handler
- Bright eyes – does the horse look alert when you greet it?
- Clean nose and eyes
Finally, what can people do once they’re home to make life easier for horses abroad?
Report any issues of animal welfare that you have experienced to the relevant authority, tourist board or tour operator with as much information as you possibly can about the location and details.
Unfortunately, many countries simply don’t have the animal welfare legislative structure in place to address these problems with immediate effect, but by highlighting the issues you can help put positive pressure on the local authorities which will aid in bringing change in the long-term.
While World Horse Welfare is unable to investigate individual welfare concerns outside of the UK, we will do our best to direct you to the relevant in-country welfare organisation who might be able to help. You can contact World Horse Welfare on +44 (0) 1953 498 682.