ears tool

Documenting the welfare and role of working equids in rural communities of Portugal and Spain

Recently, the need for a more holistic approach to welfare assessment has been highlighted. This is particularly pertinent in the case of working equids who provide vital support for human livelihoods, often in low- to middle-income countries, yet suffer from globally low standards of welfare. This study aimed to provide insight into the welfare status and traditional use of working equids in rural Western European communities using the new EARS welfare tool, designed to provide a broad view of the welfare of working equids and the context in which they are found. Other questions on the topics of equid management practices, social transmission of expertise, environmental stressors, and traditions, alongside physical and behavioural welfare assessments were also included to explore the impact of these wide-ranging factors on an understudied population of working equids. The protocol was trialled on 60 working equid owners from communities in Portugal and Spain where, despite the decline in traditional agricultural practices and livestock keeping, donkeys and mules remain working animals. Many owners stated that the help donkeys provided was invaluable, and donkeys were considered to be important for both farming and daily life. However, participants also recognised that the traditional agricultural way of life was dying out, providing insights into the traditional practices, community structure, and beliefs of equid owners. Questions investigating the social networks and social transfer of information within the villages were effective in finding local sources of equid knowledge. Overall, welfare was deemed fair, and the protocol enabled the identification of the most prevalent welfare problems within the communities studied, in this case obesity and the use of harmful practices. The findings suggest that the new protocol was feasible and detail how contextual factors may influence equid welfare. Increasing understanding of the cultural context, social structure, and attitudes within a community, alongside more traditional investigations of working practices and animal management, may, in the future, help to make equid welfare initiatives more effective.

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Research output

Comparison of working equid welfare across three regions of Mexico


Factors affecting working equid welfare are wide-ranging and reflect cultural, economic and climatic conditions, the type of work equids are used for, and individual differences in the practices of their handlers. In Mexico working equids are widely used for facilitating agricultural activities, however, welfare issues are common.


To assess working equids across three communities in Mexico, identify predominant welfare problems and document how these problems vary across locations and associated working roles and species type.

Study design

Cross-sectional survey.


The study combined the administration of a wide-ranging questionnaire to equid handlers/owners and a welfare assessment of their animal. 120 equid owners were asked about their equid management practices, the working conditions and health status of their animal. The welfare of their equids (56 donkeys, 7 mules, 57 horses) was assessed by evaluating body condition, signs of illness or injury, and behavioural indicators.


Welfare varied by species, working role, sex and location. The poorest welfare was seen in one of the two arid regions (the third location having a tropical climate). Donkeys had poorer welfare than horses, and equids used for packing had poorer welfare than those used for riding and agroforestry. Overall poor body condition and wounds were the most common problems seen.

Main limitations

Work type, species type and location strongly co-varied, thus the impact of each factor could not be assessed in isolation. The sample size was relatively small.


Results showed significant regional variations in welfare, suggesting that environmental and/or cultural variations are producing a major effect on welfare.

Published online ahead of print.

Publication date

EARS - Equid assessment research & scoping tool: a new approach to analyse, understand and respond to equid welfare problems worldwide

Presentation date

The capacity for decision-making and intervention in any project related to equid welfare should be based on a knowledge of the real issues affecting these animals worldwide, regardless of the tasks performed. This approach is even more important when new emerging economic activities around equids - e.g. donkey skin trade - are particularly challenging in terms of animal welfare.

The Equid Assessment Research & Scoping (EARS) Tool is a questionnaire developed by The Donkey Sanctuary, in collaboration with World Horse Welfare, with the main purpose to provide reliable information about the general health and welfare of equids worldwide. EARS is primarily designed to obtain individual information about an equid and its surrounding environment, or from a group of equids in similar conditions, through cumulative repetition. It is organized into 18 indicators, each one divided in to different categories, and each category with a specific set of questions. The EARS Tool allows the development of different protocols, by choosing the correct set of questions that best fit the inherent needs.

Data collection and preliminary analysis of data in a simple, fast and effective way are also a central aspect of EARS, by using open source software (OSS) throughout the data collection cycle: Open Data Kit Collect to log information in the field; R to parse, analyze and filter this information; and R Shiny to disseminate the results through dashboards. These OSS products allow off-line data collection with initial overview results presented as soon as the user uploads their surveys when back online.

This new tool contributes to a better understanding of the underlying reasons behind poor equid welfare, and allows the design of evidence-based strategies that not only identify and tackle the real causes of problems, but also allow the organizations to measure the impact of decisions taken over time.

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