Comparing Apples to Oranges
Comparing Apples to Oranges
Issues affecting horse welfare in the United States are many and multi-faceted. Horse welfare (in the sense of at-risk horses) is not unlike human social problems such as hunger, poverty and access to healthcare. The issue of horses falling at-risk of inhumane transitions is as complicated as any other social problem. Progress on social justice issues can be rapid or it can stall depending on leadership, innovation and collaboration. Understanding the process of how to achieve societal change is as important as identifying the individual day-to-day strategies to get us to that change. There are a number of particular frameworks that have been proven successful to achieving a societal paradigm shift in a social change movement. Every social movement is different, and each are dynamic. However, there as just as many similarities in the movements as there are in the particular problems they are trying to solve.
Occasionally, I am criticized for comparing the issue of horse welfare to that of dog and cat welfare. Some people can’t understand just how similar these two animal welfare issues can be. The issues of dog/cat homelessness and widespread dog/cat euthanasia are shockingly similar to horse homelessness and horse slaughter. In the dog and cat world we “used” to call the issue “dog and cat overpopulation” not dissimilar to the term “unwanted horses.” About 7 or 8 years ago, dog and cat advocates stopped using the term overpopulation as it was determined that in fact there were enough homes for all of the homeless dogs and cats. Instead, it was realized the problem was lack of demand or interest in adoption of shelter animals. It wasn’t “cool” to adopt a shelter dog 20 years ago.
A similar change is happening in the horse welfare world with the term “unwanted horses.” In fact, these horses are not unwanted; but rather there is a disconnect in the infrastructure to safely transition these homeless horses into new homes. It is a marketing issue for sure. The larger part of the horse-owning population does not consider adopting a horse when looking for a new horse. This was the same issue faced by shelter dogs/cats 20 years ago.
In fact, 15 to 20 years ago, 4-6 million dogs and cats were euthanized each year in shelters across the United States. Today, the number is closer to 800,000. This drastic change only came about because dog/cat welfare leadership came together and collaborated and innovated to approach the problem in a multi-dimensional way. Only increasing the market share of adoption animals would not have singularly led to this success; nor would have only instituting widespread low-cost spay/neuter. Lastly, only educating the community on the issue of homeless dog and cat euthanasia also wouldn’t have done it. The truth is, it was each of these things working in conjunction that have propelled the dog and cat welfare issue forward. Additionally, all the groups involved did not all work on each part of the problem simultaneously. In most communities, some groups would focus their efforts on marketing adoption animals and making animals ready for adoption. Other groups focused primarily on low-cost high volume spay/neuter efforts. Other groups only did pet pantries while others provided veterinarian wellness services. Through the efforts of all these advocates and groups we are sitting here today nearing the finish line of solving the homeless dog and cat problem and the resulting shelter euthanasia problem.
The issue of dog/cat euthanasia is not dissimilar to the issue of horse slaughter. Both have historically been the mechanism to “rid” society of the homeless animals. What we found with the homeless dogs and cats was that almost all of them (90%) that were dying in shelters were completely adoptable. We are also finding out that a very high portion of horses going to slaughter are also adoptable.
So, why hasn’t the same been done for horses? Why do we still have as many “homeless” or “at-risk” horses today as we did 15 years ago? The answer lies in collaboration and innovation. Until now there has not been an attempt to incorporate a wide variety of stakeholders in working on multi-faceted solutions together. Also, there has been a dearth of innovation in equine welfare which leaves us with a huge opportunity. Lastly, there has been no data associated with the equine welfare movement. How can any movement occur on a social problem if no data exists to measure baseline metrics and progress through outcomes?
It is time for change and The Right Horse Initiative was formed by a group of pioneering individuals who were ready to collaborate, innovate and measure success on behalf of horses. The Right Horse Initiative is truly a collective; meaning neither my experiences nor anyone else’s singularly drives the direction of our work. The collective is not a singular person, staff or leadership. Instead, it is a collaborative effort of passionate individuals and organizations. We each use our unique strengths and ideas to find the most effective and transformative solutions for helping horses and guide the direction of The Right Horse Initiative.
Since its inception, the collective has continued to grow with a network of partner organizations, industry groups and veterinarians. I proudly bring my experience helping shelter animals to the table, as it has allowed me to take a unique vantage point when looking at the issues surrounding at-risk horses. My experiences with dogs and cats have positioned me to better serve my community as we work to help horses. And just like me, each member of the collective brings a valuable voice to the conversation that is seeking to transform equine welfare.
Collaborative groups do not have to agree on everything to move forward together, but rather, agree on some things. That is how groups meet in the middle and change occurs. The only things that have no place in the collective are bullying, personal attacks and inflexible thinking. Positivity and support enhance creativity and risk-taking which enables progress. The Right Horse Initiative is squarely aimed to reverse the slow pace of progress we have traditionally seen by using widespread collaboration, positivity, a willingness to try new things and linking arms with other leaders to look for areas of common interest.
Solving social problems almost always includes a multi-dimensional approach. Applying the same principals that worked in the dog/cat welfare space makes sense when it comes to increasing adoption capacity, limiting entry into at-risk situations, and public education and promotion of horse ownership and welfare. Clearly there are differences between horses and dogs and cats; but there are fewer differences between the horse welfare and dog/cat welfare world than there are similarities. If we were to continue doing the same thing we have been doing, nothing will change. Is comparing horses to dogs/cats like comparing apples to oranges? Yes, but are there ways that you can correctly compare apples and oranges that are helpful? Yes.
Social issue solutions require collaboration, flexibility, leadership and positivity. So, it is not surprising the area of horse welfare has stalled in progress. The good news is people are ready for change. The Right Horse Initiative is contacted daily by rescue groups, individual advocates and horse industry groups desperately wanting to be part of the change. The feedback our team is consistently getting includes relief that change could be coming.
The society paradigm shift we are looking to achieve is an accepted, accessible and expected humane treatment for horses including end-of-life transitions. It is time for change. Change is hard and it causes discomfort. But, change also is exactly what this horse welfare space needs to move forward and achieve the desired paradigm shift for horses. It would be foolish to not look at other successful social movements and follow their models. After all, we are not the first to encounter these sorts of issues. Why re-invent the wheel.