For years, a minority of pet owners have courted controversy by electing to dye their pet’s fur, paint their nails, or dress them in outfits or accessories. Now there’s a new craze sweeping the country, the pony painting party, bringing fresh controversy. These parties allow children to paint doodles or handprints on a pony, or decorate or colour their mane or hooves. A petition set up to ban this activity has attracted nearly 350,000 signatures. There are many that object, but there are those who defend these parties. This highlights the benefits for both animal and child. 

What are these benefits?

I once had the pleasure of working at an equine therapy centre in Bolivia. I offered therapy to children with a variety of disabilities. While they didn’t offer painting therapy, the children spent time stroking and grooming the horses, a process both horse and child seemed to enjoy. The team of vets, trainers and physiotherapists carried out talking therapies and exercises while interacting with and atop the horses. The response from the children was incredibly beneficial. They were introduced slowly and bonded. The ponies seemed to enjoy the contact and I saw no signs of distress. It was a wonderful experience. 

While this isn’t the same as a painting party, it highlights the benefit the animal-child bond can bring to both. Horse and owner enjoy the contact of grooming, and nobody would object to this. I wonder what difference having paint on that brush makes to the horse.

The chair of the ethics and welfare committee of the British Equine Veterinary Association says, “Vets and physios paint horses with chalk to demonstrate anatomical features; we use it as a teaching tool. As long as the paints don’t cause any harm to the animal, there doesn’t seem to be any cause for concern. What’s more important is making sure they are well looked-after otherwise. They are fed and watered and get rest periods without children being around them the whole time.”

The charity, World Horse Welfare, while pointing out that painting an animal is not to everyone’s taste, don’t feel this alone constitutes a welfare issue, providing that the ponies are not showing any signs of distress and the paint is non-toxic. They advise many horses and ponies enjoy human interaction but also that not all ponies are of suitable temperament, and these ponies should not be used.

So, what’s the problem?

From a veterinary perspective it’s vital that animal welfare is maintained throughout any activity, whether it be riding a horse, training a show dog, or racing a pigeon. All these activities can be done with, or without, good welfare in mind. If welfare is impacted, then vets will have an issue. 

Unlike my Bolivian experience, establishments may set up without doing due diligence when it comes to child safety and animal welfare. Perhaps instead of a ban, setting minimum standards and assessments of venues and organisers would be a compromise. 

Assessing areas like general welfare, and with parties, making sure non-toxic paints are used, ponies have the correct temperament and get regular breaks, allowing only 1-2 children with a pony, supervised, and any signs that a pony is unhappy are acted upon. 

The British Horse Society take a more negative standpoint commenting that while they can see pony parties may be a fun way for children to learn about ponies and understand that regular grooming is an important part of pony care they wouldn’t encourage the excessive use of paint for pure entertainment purposes. 

Other campaigners are concerned that young people may be influenced to try and do the same thing to other animals in unsafe environments, and that these parties are insensitive and disrespectful. 

Regarding the ‘pampering’ of pet dogs the RSPCA acknowledge that it’s great that people want to spend quality time with their pets but warn that attempts to ‘pamper’ can be confusing and frightening for a pet.

Is it ethical?

If horse painting could be done while preserving welfare I would not object, but I personally wouldn’t partake. I see some potential moral and ethical issues, but this is my opinion. 

I feel we should teach children to respect animals, and it seems a little undignified. There are activities we carry out without animal consent, such as surgical procedures, but these are with the pet’s best interest at heart. Should we be promoting defaming of animals for entertainment to our children? If perhaps for therapeutic benefit, it may feel more ethically grounded. Humans can form great bonds with animals, beneficial to both, and are great ‘therapy’. However when there are many less controversial ways to allow your child to bond with an animal, why choose this one?

Final thoughts

I applaud those who care about animal welfare and strive to improve it. I personally think there are other battles to fight that would have a greater impact on animal welfare. While we debate this there is indefensible animal abuse and neglect occurring here, and all over the world. If improving welfare is your passion, consider supporting some of the welfare charities making a vast difference to the welfare of billions of animals yearly. Your support is invaluable to them continuing their work. 

In the UK, despite recent new legislation, we are still fighting against puppy farms and the poor welfare they bring. A UK woman was recently prosecuted when all 25 horses in her care suffered. Horses were starving to death, not being treated for ailments, their hooves not trimmed. One died, and the rest were in a pitiful state. RSPCA inspectors investigate more than 185,000 incidents every year. 80% of current animal welfare legislation comes from EU law. This year, vets and others have lobbied to defend UK welfare standards. Loosening these standards post-Brexit would impact the welfare of billions of farm, research, and companion animals. 

This is just in the UK alone. Around the world welfare charities are working to improve welfare for all animals, everywhere.