Home 9 Physiology 9 Equine welfare: the measurement indicators’ complexity

The ANSES (French National Agency for Animal Health Safety) defines animal welfare as ” the positive mental and physical state related to the satisfaction of its physiological and behavioral needs, as well as its expectations. This condition is determined by the animal’s perception of the situation “.

Nowadays, the horse is used in many fields: breeding, racing, jumping, trekking, equitherapy… Although this multiple fields increases the ways in which he is perceived : the interest in equine welfare has grown in recent years, and many indicators to evaluate it have been developed.

In this article, we will make a quick overview of the equine welfare history, discuss different indicators that allow a first multidimensional evaluation and finally list a few initiatives that have been implemented by institutions to prevent abuse.

Equine welfare, a complex concept

The first animal welfare protection laws were enacted in the United Kingdom in the early nineteenth century. The Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act was ratified, which made it illegal to “beat, abuse, or mistreat any horse, mare, gelding, mule, ass, ox, cow, heifer, steer, sheep, or other livestock.” Following that, both the United States and France made animal cruelty violations part of their laws. 

It took more than a century for attitudes to shift from animal protection to animal welfare. Animals were recognized as sensitive beings by French law in 1976, and they must be kept in conditions that are appropriate to their biological needs.

In 1977, the three-dimensional concept of animal welfare proposed by Fraser and al. integrating the five animal freedoms (FAWC, 1993), proved that there was a strong correlation between physical well-being, emotional well-being, and naturalness.

The “Five Freedoms“, core principles for ensuring animal welfare (from FAWC, 2009). 

    • Freedom from hunger and thirst through free access to safe food and water to maintain good health and vigor;  
    • Freedom from discomfort through an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting place;
    • Freedom from pain, injury, and illness through preventive measures or prompt diagnosis, followed by appropriate treatment;
    • Freedom to express normal behavior through adequate space, facilities and companionship;
    • Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring living conditions and treatment of animals that avoid mental suffering.

The “Welfare Quality®” project (2004), integrating the multiple dimensions of animal welfare, was also developed from the five freedoms (Fraser et al.). The AWIN equine welfare assessment protocol establishes 12 assessment criteria based on four major dimensions:

awin assessment protocol for horse

In any approach, scientists agree that animal welfare is a complex and multidimensional concept, reflecting the subjective perception of an organism in relation to a chronic situation

Equine welfare measurement parameters

The physiological parameters of a horse under “normal” conditions, i.e. a “sound” horse, not suffering from any deficiency and not being confronted with a stressful situation, will be as follows:


The average weight of horses varies greatly due to the diversity of existing breeds, including light breeds (Arabian) and heavy breeds (draft horses). However, there are two methods for estimating weight:

    • Weight = (4.3 x thoracic perimeter) + (2.6 x height at withers) – 785
    • Weight = ((thoracic perimeter)2 x chest to hip length) / 8700

An underweight horse can be affected by various parasites, tumors, pathologies, and diseases. On the other hand, overweight horses can, among other things, lead to cardiovascular and respiratory problems, increase the risk of laminitis and orthopedic diseases, and reduce fertility.

Heart Rate:

At rest, the heart rate of a foal is between 50 and 70 beats per minute. In contrast, in an adult horse, a resting heart rate of more than 50 beats per minute is considered abnormal, since it varies on average around 28 to 44 beats per minute (AAEP). Like other parameters, heart rate can vary depending on the horse and external factors. 

Respiratory rate:

At rest, the average respiratory rate of a horse is between 12 and 24 breaths per minute. After intensive training, it can rise to 45 exhalations per minute (AAEP). 


The average temperature of a horse varies between 36°C and 38°C (Hall and al). There are also physiological variations depending on effort, stress, and even gender since the average rectal temperature of a stallion is 37.5°, 37.8° for a mare, versus 38.5° for a foal.

Mucous membranes:

Mucous membranes should be pink in color. A light color indicates anemia, a dark color (red) indicates congestion, and yellowish mucous membranes may indicate an icterus problem.


Usually, a horse urinates between 6 and 8 times a day, depending on his shape and the weather conditions. In terms of daily quantity, this represents 3 to 18 ml per kg of weight. The urine of a healthy horse is usually clear.

However, understanding the physiological signals of well-being is complex, as it can take a long time for a change to be reflected in these parameters. Furthermore, some short-term internal changes (such as hormones) may reflect both chronic and one-time situations. The scientific evidence (Visser and al; Harewood and al; Fejsakova and al) therefore concludes that hormone and heart rate scores can reflect potentially intermittent unpleasant states but cannot be reliably used to assess well-being. 

equimetre vet

Regular monitoring of the horse’s health:

Monitoring the horse’s physiological parameters can prevent the occurrence of these changes. An increase in heart rate frequency, for example, can be associated with stress, discomfort, or chronic tiredness. Some connected objects are used to track the evolution of the horse’s health, clinical follow-up, or recovery. These tools, when used at rest, allow for the measurement of the horse’s electrocardiogram, activity, position, and respiratory frequency at a distance and during several days and nights.

Several physical and behavioral factors can indicate both the release of chronic stress and a positive one-time situation. To ensure the animal’s well-being, it is important to check for injuries or swollen areas after training or competition. The AWIN welfare assessment protocol includes a check for prolapses (uterine, anal, or vaginal), which are considered welfare signals (Hewes and al). Assessment protocols frequently include evaluation of hoof condition, as well as symptoms such as coughing, eye, nose, and genital mucus.

Changes in a horse’s locomotion usually indicate discomfort or even pain. Locomotor asymmetry, stiffness, a significant decrease in motivation to work… all of these symptoms may indicate the onset of lameness. Lameness, which may be linked with acute pain or discomfort (Ross et al), can reveal chronic problems (Landman et al) and thus become a welfare issue.

Clinical assessment of lameness is generally based on the visual evaluation. As the scales and methodologies used vary widely from study to study making the assessment of lameness complex, it cannot be considered an indicator of welfare in and of itself. As interest in animal health has grown in recent years, many tools for understanding and treating lameness have been developed. Tools for quantifying locomotion have recently appeared in this context, allowing for a precise and objective evaluation of the horse’s locomotion. In the future, these tools could be used as a reference, allowing an informed measurement of the horse’s locomotion.

Finally, the behavioral indicators are also very complex to analyze, since in many cases they can reflect both a positive and a negative situation. Chewing or yawning, for example, are frequently regarded as relaxation signals, indicating a positive state of well-being. They can, however, be triggered by stressful or negative situations (Walusinski and al). Indeed, high rates of yawning have been observed in horses during ambiguous or frustrating situations (Rochais and al) or chronic diseases (Pearson and al).

How to encourage and guarantee the horse’s well-being?

The well-being of horses has become a major concern, and studies and research into it have increased. Many equine sector actors, including national and international institutions, have collaborated and are now offering solutions to encourage and support it.

  • The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), founded in 1921, is the international regulatory authority for equestrian sport, recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In 2013, it published a Code of Conduct for equine welfare.
  • The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), which was founded in 1993, aims to promote sound and regulated practices that preserve the integrity of the international horseracing industry. Its role includes coordinating and harmonizing the rules of breeding, racing and betting; ensuring the quality and fairness of racing for breeders and the general public; protecting the welfare of horses, jockeys, and racing fans; and ensuring that the racing industry remains current on technical, social and economic issues.
  • Real actor in the racing world, Racing Victoria has made very important investments to promote equine welfare, being at the origin of many projects. These include the establishment of an Equine Welfare Advisory Board (made up of four independent experts in equine welfare and veterinary medicine) and increased monitoring and education. More than $10 million AUD has already been committed to these projects, and a second investment of $15 million AUD is planned to pursue this effort.
  • On the French side, in 2016, the whole horse industry met at the Salon de l’Agriculture to sign, under the aegis of the FNSEA, the Charter for Equine Welfare. This charter was ratified by the AVEF, the FFE, France Galop, Le Trot, the FNC, and the GHN.
  • Other initiatives have also been put in place, such as the EquuRES label, which is actually the only quality approach in favor of the environment and animal welfare specifically developed for equine structures, or the Good Practice Guide published by the French Federation in 2021.

Equine welfare represent one of the major challenges for the years to come, and many actions have already been implemented. The strategy of the equine world’s actors is continually evolving, with a common objective: to protect and preserve the horse’s physical and psychological integrity. 


Most of the indicators described in this article are not specific to alterations in well-being as they can indicate both acute and chronic conditions. They cannot, therefore, be considered as obvious indicators of poor health. However, if they are unfavorable, they must result in a more thorough examination of the animal.

Animal welfare is a valuable but difficult area of research in which strong emotional and popular beliefs (Korte et al) may outweigh scientific evidence. However, regular monitoring of the horse’s health can optimize its welfare and reduce situations that can negatively impact it.

Given the critical importance and urgency of ensuring animal welfare, the largest institutions have collaborated with various equine actors to develop strategies to identify bad practices and encourage good ones. On a smaller scale, many local actors are proposing actions in support of a cause that is becoming increasingly important…

Keywords: equine welfare, AWIN protocol, equine veterinarians, horse health monitoring

Lesimple, C. (2020). Indicators of Horse Welfare: State-of-the-Art. Animals, 10(2), p.294. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10020294

Popescu, S., Diugan, E.A. and Spinu, M. (2014). The interrelations of good welfare indicators assessed in working horses and their relationships with the type of work. Research in Veterinary Science, 96(2), pp.406–414. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.rvsc.2013.12.014 

‌Czycholl, I., Klingbeil, P. and Krieter, J. (2019). Interobserver Reliability of the Animal Welfare Indicators Welfare Assessment Protocol for Horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 75, pp.112–121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2019.02.005