The Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada

Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada, equine charity Canada, humane horses, proper horse care, shelagh niblock

By Shelagh Niblock, PAS

It’s safe to say that horse owners across Canada are passionate about their horses and their industry. Whether they are pleasure riders, competitors, or those who breed or train horses for a living, Canadian horse owners are invested in the equine industry both emotionally and financially. We read, we research, and we invest in them in the hopes of having the satisfaction of seeing a healthy horse in our barn or a successful one in the arena. Sometimes we are faced with making decisions about the welfare of our horses, and although social media is filled with opinions on what is the “best” thing to do for them, it isn’t always obvious as to what is the “right” thing to do for them.

Sourcing reliable information on topics such as equine welfare can be challenging, and it is helpful to have websites to go to that are associated with the leading research-based and industry-supported organizations. The Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada (HWAC) is one such organization. The HWAC is a non-profit organization which has been very successful in developing a platform for equine industry stakeholders and equine researchers, providing practical science-based information about equine welfare and equine health issues to horse owners in Canada. 

What is HWAC?

The Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada (HWAC) is an alliance of equine organizations in Canada, including provincial horse councils, a number of breed and sport organizations, equine veterinary colleges and research facilities, as well as Equestrian Canada (EC). HWAC is managed by a Board of Directors, including a number of leaders in the Canadian Equine Industry. 

The goal of HWAC is to provide a platform for the partner equine organizations to disseminate accurate information both to stakeholders in the Canadian equine industry and to the public. The statement of purpose (SOP) for HWAC is as follows:

  1. Promote humane handling of horses throughout all of their life stages;
  2. Develop equine education resources and programs;
  3. Inform constituents and partners of matters and issues related to the welfare of the horse population;
  4. Enhance public awareness of matters and issues relating to the welfare of the horse and the horse industry.

The HWAC supports the equine industry in Canada through their alliance with stakeholder groups, focusing on areas that include the goals of liaising between specific groups, providing education to stakeholders and the general public, and monitoring issues that have the potential to impact horse health and welfare and the success and health of the industry itself. The objective of the HWAC is one of education — it has no regulatory or policing role. 

What is the History of HWAC?

HWAC was formed in 2008 as a response to concerns related to the humane care and handling of horses. It was registered under Corporations Canada on 29 July 2011, as a not-for-profit corporation. Stakeholder concerns, as recognized by a number of stakeholder groups, were not being adequately addressed by other equine industry organizations, and so a working group was established. Bill desBarres as the Chair is well known as a participant in the equine industry in Canada, and has been active in a number of different capacities for many years. DesBarres assumed the role of Chair of HWAC at that time, and to this day generously continues to donate his time to the organization. His practical but research-based approach to the equine health and welfare issues has helped to make the HWAC a respected resource for horse owners across the country.

NFACC and the Equine Code of Practice

The HWAC provides an invaluable resource to the horse owner looking for information about regulations or issues associated with the Canadian equine industry. A quick click on the “About Us” tab on the website homepage takes you to options that connect to an interactive list of virtually every agency in Canada that might have important information for the horse owner. Not only is a link to the full National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines (also referred to as the Equine Code of Practice) included, but links are also included to information such as body condition scoring for horses, poisonous weed identification, and emergency preparedness for horse owners, to name just a few.

Related: The Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines

Research and Education

HWAC has partnered with several schools providing educational resources for future equine professionals, including the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Atlantic Veterinary College, and Equine Guelph. Equine Guelph is the heart of the equine program at the University of Guelph, including educational programs for virtual learning for those seeking education but not a degree, as well as degree and graduate degree programs in Equine Science. Equine Guelph is also the home to the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare, as well as the Ontario Veterinary College, which grants degrees in Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and diplomas in Veterinary Technology.

HWAC has also partnered with the world-renowned animal welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin. There are probably few horse owners in Canada today who have not heard about the work Dr. Grandin has done in promoting animal welfare standards by implementing changes in feedlots and slaughter facilities for farmed, commercial livestock. She brings to any discussion a very realistic perspective on the subject of the humane handling of animals intended for food. Her work has been a foundation stone for the excellent research done on the same subjects in our own Canadian agricultural universities. Dr. Grandin could — and probably should — be a part of the conversation on equine welfare and “the unwanted horse” in Canada.

Training Opportunities Through HWAC

HWAC offers training in the NFACC Equine Code of Practice in Safe Transport for horses, and in Emergency Preparedness for horse owners. The training for the Equine Code of Practice includes two options. The first option is a guided study program through the entire Equine Code of Practice with supportive material and YouTube videos. The second option allows the participant to pursue certification of achievement in a minimum level of expertise in the Equine Code of Practice through an exam process for the low cost of $25. Learning about the Equine Code of Practice and becoming a certified practitioner of it is now being included in the curriculum for some school programs teaching equine science.

Regulations and Resources at Your Fingertips

HWAC provides a one stop option for any horse owner seeking to find out more about the regulations that support equine welfare in his or her home province. At the bottom of the home page on the website is a link to Animal Laws and Regulations for all provinces. The home page also provides a link to the Equine Code of Practice and to the Canadian Animal Health Surveillance System (CAHSS), through which any horse owner can be kept up-to-date on the incidence of any health concern in the Canadian equine industry.

COVID-19 and Canadian Horse Owners

The 2020 Equine Industry Symposium, held virtually in November 2020 and hosted jointly by the University of Guelph, Ontario Equestrian, and Equestrian Canada described the enormous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Canadian equine industry. Due to the complete shutdown of all equine activities and facilities, many owners and businesses were hit hard, both emotionally and financially, in a way that no one could have predicted. The industry spent several months trying to regroup and organize some semblance of normality in the midst of a situation that was anything but normal. The rest of the country was also hurting, and there seemed to be minimal sympathy and/or empathy for barn owners who had no more cash flow but still many mouths to feed. Information was coming from multiple sources but finding help could be confusing and frustrating. The COVID-19 shutdown forced many horse owners and equine businesses to seek resources they may not have had to seek in the past. At the time of writing this article, our industry is one year into the social distancing and biosecurity protocols required by COVID-19. More Canadians become vaccinated, it is hopefully much closer to being in a position where we can all look back at 2020 and reflect on what we learned from the experience.

Related: 2020 Equine Industry Symposium Summary

What Did We Learn From COVID-19?

The experience of a complete shutdown of the Canadian economy taught our industry to be more prepared for unforeseen events. In particular, it demonstrated the need for central organization of resources for horse owners who need help. HWAC has helped to provide a reliable connection to the resources horse owners need to make good decisions for their horses no matter what the circumstances.

Whether you want to familiarize yourself with the Equine Code of Practice, find out what Equine Guelph has to offer in the way of online courses, or find out about the incidence of reportable diseases in our horses, HWAC has it all. The HWAC website and all the reliable information it brings to the Canadian Equine industry can be found at www.horsewelfare.ca.

Next time you are sleuthing the internet, look up this very useful organization and explore the many resources it has to offer. 

Photo: Shutterstock/Rita Kochmarjova

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