Doing Better by the Horse
Horse and Rider|Winter 2019
The recent efforts of equine organizations are helping to advance horse welfare vis-à-vis the humane treatment of show horses. Where do things stand now? We talk with a founding member of AQHA’s Animal Welfare Commission.
By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer

“The American Quarter Horse has been good to each of us. Let’s make sure we are good to it in return.”

With that plea, James C. Heird, PhD, concluded his talk at the 2009 American Quarter Horse Association Judges Conference in Dallas, Texas. During the talk, titled “Do Right by the Horse,” he explained the concept of “habituation,” a phenomenon where we stop responding to something we’ve grown accustomed to. “Habituation prevents us from seeing that some of our actions and techniques are counter to our responsibility of protecting the horse and its dignity, the animal that is the very reason we entered the industry.”

Heird went on to become the inaugural chair of the AQHA’s Animal Welfare Commission, formed in 2012 to protect and improve the welfare of Quarter Horses. Since that time, AQHA has made rule changes that prohibit abusive equipment and actions deemed inhumane to the horse; enforcement is accomplished through the observations of show stewards, judges, and show management.

Horse&Rider has previously reported on issues surrounding humane treatment for horses (see box on page 57). Here, we’ll talk with Dr. Heird for an update on AQHA’s efforts. Because the association typically leads the field in groundbreaking changes, its efforts have influenced other organizations in their horse welfare policies. In “The Progress so Far” on page 60, we’ll look at some of the specific changes and initiatives AQHA and other groups have launched to date.

Heird, an AQHA past president, longtime judge, and ongoing member of the Animal Welfare Commission, is also an executive professor and coordinator of the Equine Sciences Initiative at Texas A&M University.

H&R: From 2012 on, AQHA has made many rule and procedure changes to help insure the well-being of horses. What, in your opinion, have been the most noteworthy changes overall, in terms of an ongoing beneficial effect?

HEIRD: Without question the forming of the Animal Welfare Commission by our Executive Committee in 2012. There’s no way to describe the huge effect it’s had. It wasn’t too popular when it was first formed, but it’s been incredible how our industry has come around.

That commission—which is comprised of an amazing group of people, then and now—made all those rule changes. The thing is, the commission reports directly to the Executive Committee. It doesn’t need approval from the floor. That committee can then approve what we’ve come up with or send it back to us for more work. But overall the committee has been good about implementing the recommendations we make.

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