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Animal Rights vs Animal Welfare: Where Do You Stand?

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, March 01, 2014


Credit: Eldredge
Dr. Eldredge's son jousting - his horse enjoyed it as much as he did.
Animal rights is a hot-button topic these days. I first came across the topic in the early  ’80s when I was on a panel discussing “animal rights vs. animal welfare.” Even then, people were starting to draw lines in the sand.

Virtually everyone agrees on basic animal welfare. Animals deserve basic care – food, shelter, companionship (if they are social animals), room to move around, safety from abuse. We have numerous laws that regulate animal care – including in research and in food production. Those laws aren’t always enforced as well as they should be, but they exist.

Animal “rights” is a much trickier area. People have “rights.”  Should animals?  That question causes as much discord among animal lovers as anything. To be honest, I don’t feel animals need “rights” as long as they have “welfare.”

Let’s look at this from a horse owner’s point of view. Note I said “owner” – not guardian. Guardian conveys some legal suggestions that we really don’t want to get into. Horses straddle our animal partnerships. They (except in rare cases) aren’t true companion/pet animals who live in our homes. In most cases, they aren’t food animals either. They are livestock, in some cases, in that they are bred and often raised for a specific, useful purpose.

But the human/horse relationship goes beyond that of other livestock. It approaches true companion. Our horses develop relationships with us, with our other animals, with other horses. When we ride or drive, we trust them to a certain extent with our lives. They are our partners. That is how I think of my horses.

I think all of us believe in horse welfare. We feel horses should have good and adequate amounts of food. They deserve shelter – be it from sun, wind, rain or snow. Horses deserve and need basic veterinary care. Most horses are social and like companionship of some sort.

We take away our horses’ rights by making them carry us or pull us. We partner with them for these activities, but they’re done on our terms (most of the time anyway!). Treated and trained kindly and fairly, most horses enjoy work. Given the choice, most would prefer work over simply hanging out at the barn.

So here is where horse ownership gets tricky. Hard-core animal rights fanatics don’t feel that horses should be “owned.” Horses should not be ridden or driven or worked in any way. They should be set free on the plains and left to live out their lives naturally. If they die of starvation or in a freak blizzard or are eaten by a mountain lion, at least they died as “free beings.” Crazy, isn’t it? I know my horses have happily given up some “rights” to have shelter and food in return for light work.

Do you think animal rights fanatics only care about dogs, factory farming and animals in research? Don’t delude yourself. Their ultimate goal is no animals owned or used by humans. No “abusing” horses by forcing them to go riding them on trails, jumping obstacles or riding in an arena.

I highly suggest you read this blog and think about where you stand. I know where I stand, and now, so do you.

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New York's Carriage Horses: The First Step Down a Bad Road

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, February 09, 2014

New York City carriage horse.

I don’t know how many of you are aware of the situation with the carriage horses of New York City. Their jobs, and in reality their lives, are on the line. Amazingly the newly elected mayor said his first priority would be to rid the city of the carriage horses! Really?! Not drugs, low-income housing, health care, street plowing or violent crime? Nope. Those darn carriage horses.


Rumor has it that the stables of the carriage horses happen to occupy some land that wealthy benefactors of the mayor would just love to develop. Hmmm, maybe there is a method to the madness. Combine that with some of the serious anti animal, supposedly animal rights, animal caring people and you have a dangerous situation.

I have not personally seen the carriage horses for quite a few years. My trips to New York City don’t often take me near their routes. What I do know is that those horses are highly regulated. Think of them as having a top-notch union. They don’t work if it is too hot, their hours are limited and their care is stipulated. There is much more oversight of the carriage horses than there is of most of our horses.

On a hot day, do they sweat? Yes, they do. So do most of the people in the city. Think of what the animal rights folks would say looking at a team of miniature horses finishing the marathon competition at a driving event.

Do you think it will really be all that long before these people turn to all equine activities? Western pleasure, trial riding, eventing, open jumping. The carriage horses have strict guidelines for their use and care. They are observed by thousands of people every day. You can bet that if any questionable care is noted, that some one reports it. New Yorkers don’t tend to be shy about things.

Are there occasional abuses? Probably. Just as there are occasional abuses in pretty much every facet of life. But keep in mind that these horses ARE in the public eye. It can’t be easy to get away with any blatant abuse when you are right out there in front of thousands of tourists and native New Yorkers.

Let’s look at what happens if the mayor wins and the horses are kicked out. Already other cities are thinking about following up with their own evictions. How many horse crazy little girls will miss their one daily chance for equine interaction? How many people who had one chance during the day to pause and interact with another living being, a creature so fabulous it has partnered with mankind for thousands of years, will now lose that opportunity?  There is a quote attributed to Winston Churchill that says, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

What will become of the horses themselves? The activists say things like they will all live happily ever after on peaceful farms with green meadows and wonderful, loving care. Really? Where are these farms? Who is going to pay for that care? Most horse rescues are already strapped for land, help and cash. Suddenly dumping a large number of horses on the rescue scene is not going to work out well.

To me, the bottom line is that I am not convinced these horses are doing all that poorly. Most horses enjoy working and love a routine in their lives. Think of the Marguerite Henry story, “Five o’Clock Charlie”. Throwing these horses out of New York City will endanger their lives. It will put many people out of work. It will remove something wonderful and special from Central Park. And I firmly believe, it will be the first step towards ending all human interactions and partnerships with horses.

Go online, sign a petition. Send a message to the politicians involved. Let them know that the tourism industry of New York City will be badly damaged by the removal of the carriage horses. Remember, Edmund Burke’s quote, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Read the New York State Horse Council's statement on carriage horses.

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The Horse Gene, Part 1

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, February 08, 2014

We found this photo on eBay, if you're looking for Prince Harry the Hairless Horse.
While no official study has been done, the existence of a “horse gene” is a well-established “fact” among equine fanciers. This gene is not a simple inheritance gene as evidenced by genealogies of many families. It is not totally sex-linked, but female offspring have a much higher incidence.

I will provide myself as an example. To my parents’ horror, apparently my first word was “horse.” Neither of my parents ever had much interest in horses. I did, however, have two aunts and one great aunt on my father’s side who obviously had the horse gene. My sisters both got mild cases of this – perhaps influenced by me.

From the moment I could speak, I asked for a horse at every opportunity. At age 3, I was given a rocking horse (Prince Harry the Hairless Horse in case anyone got the same one I did; you can learn more at I rode him for hours every day, fed him dry cereal through a small crack by his mouth and groomed him daily.

When Wheaties offered a pony as a prize in the contest, I ate Wheaties multiple times a day just to get more box tops to send in. When my father played a cruel joke one day and called the house to tell me I had won the pony, my mother was furious. That led to my father’s promise that I could have a horse when he retired from the Army but I had to pay for it. Don’t worry – I was not about to let him forget it!

Meanwhile I was a dedicated fan of My Friend Flicka, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and any other show on TV that featured a horse.  I still asked for a horse at every chance and was disappointed to receive Breyer models – not that they weren’t great, but they weren’t real. My personal library consisted of everything ever written by Marguerite Henry and all the classic horse books.

At that time we lived in a rural area near Binghamton, N.Y. I was about five when I disappeared one day. My mother said she got a phone call from a neighbor about half a mile down the road. Mr. Gene Davis (hoping you are still alive Mr. Davis!) became my hero. He had a Quarter Horse mare named Goldie who had just had a half Arabian filly, Ahza BeBe. Goldie was not a friendly horse, but apparently she felt a small girl was not a threat. Mr. Davis found me in the stall with the mare and filly.

Since the horses and I got along so well and it was obvious it would be almost impossible to keep me away, I simply began to spend every waking hour I could down at the barn with the two horses.

Before you decide my parents were neglectful, do remember things were a bit different back then – the early ’60s. I was in my own personal horse heaven. Goldie was a lovely Palomino as befitting her name and Ahza was a bright chestnut.

Then my father was transferred to Germany. There were many tearful goodbyes to my beloved equine friends and off we went. By sheer luck, we were now living in Zweibrucken – a German town famous for its lovely Rose Garden AND its horses! They had beautiful stables, horses competing at the top levels in dressage and open jumping plus a grass track for both flat and steeplechase racing.

I would hike the mile down the hill from the Army base to the stables whenever I could. Now, for every gift I simply asked for money for riding lessons.

The German system for young people was that you would take vaulting first. We had a lovely gray Percheron named Donner with a smooth canter. A flock of little girls with one or two boys (hmm, notice the gene distribution again?) would run and leap on and off this marvelous horse while he cantered steadily around. Language was no barrier. I can’t do a headstand on dry land but I did one hanging on to Donner’s neck in our Christmas show.

Unfortunately Donner was headed for retirement. The replacement horse was a lovely roan mare named Zuckerpuppe (Sugar Doll). Her tolerance for crowds of human monkeys clambering around her was not great. We might get two or three of us on board and then she would gaily buck and send us flying. The arena had deep sawdust and no one was every hurt, but it was frustrating.

To be continued . . .


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Senior Horses and Cold Weather

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, January 22, 2014

As many of you know by now I have three senior horses – all 30 + years old. So when it is cold, I take extra care. 

Our barn is built into a hillside. This is almost always a plus – the exception being spring thaw when we get some flooding in the aisle. In the summer, the barn stays cool and in the winter it stays relatively warm. 

This morning when I first got up, the outside temperature was –17° F, with a wind chill of –33°. I waited a bit and it did indeed warm up. Outside now –6°F with a wind chill of –13°. I head down to the barn where the temperature is a balmy 20° F. 

The horses basically get all the hay they can eat, plus grain. In the winter I add alfalfa pellets and on really cold days, some alfalfa cubes. They also get some oil added to their feed plus apples as treats. I put heated water in their water buckets (warming up water with a bucket heater). 

The horses are not blanketed but have wonderfully thick coats. Snow does not melt on their backs in storms as they are so well insulated. They actually look a bit like Thelwell ponies at times. 

We currently do not have much snow so the horses are still grazing and picking in the pastures. In fact, they often leave the hay I put out to go paw and graze in the fields. 

Today my plan is to put them out after they eat their grain for a half hour or so while I clean stalls, freshen up waters, add hay, etc. Then they will come back in where it is warmer. I finish my chores and open the back door. I bang the gate (our signal to come), holler and wave my arms. They look up and basically wave back. They do not come. 

I wait a few minutes and try again. Same result. I head out to bring them back in. Ha! Now three elderly equines take off cantering slowly AWAY from the warm barn and me. I give up! It is sunny and I will go back down in an hour to see if they have come to their sense. 

Four hours later, the seniors decide that just maybe it would make sense to head back into the barn and eat some alfalfa cubes and hay with a chaser of warm water. Crispy, the Quarter Horse, started to have second thoughts but I got the back door shut before she could leave. 

I might add, when it is hot in the summer, my horses are much more willing to stay in. That may be partly due to fly attacks as well as the heat, but I have a barn full of cold weather equines. The one exception is Spice the donkey, She feels that she should be in unless it is 50 to 75° F with a nice breeze and no precipitation. 

I hope your horses are all comfortable and well fed, whatever the weather where you are! 

P.S. I tried to get a photo of the wild seniors out in the snow with the bright blue sky but my camera refused to work. Too cold for equipment, so it ought to be too cold for horses!

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Equine at War

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, January 17, 2014


I just finished reading a neat little book by Susan Bulanda, called Soldiers in Fur and Feathers. While that description might seem to leave out horses and donkeys, they are included.

The book discusses animals that worked for and with the Allied forces in World War I. Jimmy was a donkey whose mother was captured from the Germans. His mother was killed when he was just a few weeks old but the soldiers raised him on canned milk (probably cutting back on their own rations). He was a beloved mascot and was taught numerous tricks including putting his forelegs around a soldier’s neck for a kiss! Jimmy also worked lugging ammunition and did survive the war. He was retired postwar to a private home in England. Knowing my own donkeys I am surprised he didn’t cause any problems by braying at the wrong moment!

The United States was responsible for shipping the majority of horses and mules into battle. Those equines were already stressed by a treacherous ocean voyage and then went right into combat. Most of them were put to work pulling transports of various types. A team of all black horses stayed together throughout the war and retired together. Susan recounts many instances of the soldiers in charge of the horses putting their horses before themselves when it came to drinking water, etc.

Mechanization was already moving into warfare but there were some cavalry charges – mostly in the Middle East. The Australians seemed to be quite talented at surprise cavalry charges. An Arabian from India named Ragtime and an Irish bred Thoroughbred named Warrior both featured prominently in stories about horses in the war. Both also seemed to lead charmed lives and were able to retire at the end of the war with their beloved owners.

Many of us have seen the movie War Horse and Susan’s book describes many scenes similar to what is shown there. With all the horrors of war, it is impressive to see the relationships that still developed between soldiers and their horses. The bond held up even in difficult situations with the horses giving their all at the request of the soldiers who cared for them. The trust and working partnerships had to be intense.

There are a few black and white photos of the equine forces. Jimmy the donkey is a truly handsome fellow and Ragtime is a classic flea bitten grey Arab. The black horse team is quite impressive.

Along with the horses and mules, the book covers a number of dogs who aided in the war effort. Most surprising to me were the heroic (honestly!) carrier pigeons. Even badly wounded, many pigeons still carried out their duty and delivered messages that saved many lives. Many animals served and made a big difference – saving the lives of many soldiers.

The book is published by Alpine and available on their website, via Susan’s website and through Amazon and local book stores. I highly recommend it for an inspirational read.

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