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The 5 Domains Model and why CPD is vital for the future of the equestrian industry.

In October, I attended a workshop at Northumberland college titled “From Theory to Practice: Applying the Five Domains Model for Enhanced Horse Welfare”. This event was led by Cristina Wilkins and hosted by the wonderful team of academics and students at the Kirkley Hall campus. It was an extremely well ran, informative and interactive day which exceeded every expectation I had.


I’ve had to sit with my thoughts and really reflect on what I’ve learned before putting pen to paper (or, more specifically, finger to keyboard), which can only be the sign that this day really did deliver.


You could say, the CPD course did everything a CPD course should do … Continued my Professional Development and it lead me to reevaluate my own standards and practices. I truly believe every equine service provider and professional should attend at least one of the courses every few months and I wanted to share with you my experience and give a show of gratitude to Cristina and the team who ran that day.


So what is the 5 Domains Model?


The 5 Domains Model is a framework developed by Professor David Mellor and it is used for assessing different forms of welfare compromise in animals. Whilst the model was initially formulated in 1994, Cristina alongside a cohort of other fellow experts worked alongside Prof Mellor to publish a 2020 paper reviewing the Five Domains Model, you can find this paper here. The model focuses our attention on what is going on holistically with an animal and guides an assessor to consider each domain individually, in a hope to make a discussion about welfare less threatening.  The model includes 3 physiological domains, 1 behaviour domain and mental state is listed as the fifth domain. The five domains model is often compared to the “five freedoms” but instead it acknowledges that minimising negative physical or mental states does not necessarily lead to a positive outcome.


Figure 1 Credit to Daisy Sopel at Wildlife and Countryside Link for this table. Full citation in the footnotes.[1]

Cristina expertly guided us through how this model can be used for horses and this led to some brilliant discussions around social license, critical thinking, and tremendous horse advocacy. We evaluated how to go about renovating (rather than revolutionising) our industry for the better. We all had opportunities to ask questions, discuss key themes and even recount our own experiences. The day was expertly orchestrated from start to finish, and even featured an interactive session with some of the college horses.


One of the most encouraging things I took away from that day was a certainty that many of our professionals, coaches, riding school proprietors and livery yard owners want equestrianism to improve and are keen to drive that change. It was a privilege to be sat amongst a host of key players in the industry and see them speak passionately about the future and how they’ll strive to further advocate for the horse. The fact that this day was the creation of the curriculum manager at Northumberland College, Naomi Ainley, was a remarkable display of how forward thinking and pioneering the course delivery can be at the college (check out their courses here).


So what has this got to do with weighing horses?


What sets me apart from many weighbridge providers is my continuous focus to understand what a “day in the life” of your horse is. It would be easy for me to simply read the weight on the scales, but that weight and body condition score would be worthless without context or an understanding as to how the horse got there. I have always tried to assess how we can improve a horse’s quality of life whilst still striving for the results we need (in the case of an obese or underweight horse) within the margins of an owner’s time and resource. I am a verified member of the Progressive Equine Partnerships and I collaborate with vets and other professionals to provide a holistic approach to weight management. Whilst I’ve always identified as a progressive equestrian, I have historically felt a lack of confidence and somewhat like I'm swimming against the tide. The CPD session at Kirkley made me realise that I have somewhat unintentionally spent a lot of time with my clients discussing what the status of each of the 5 Domains is before implementing a change. Having now learned what the 5 Domains model is, I have a framework to work with when producing a map for a client of what the next 6 months should look like and subsequently, I feel incredibly focused. This is particularly useful when I am assessing if a horse would be able to tolerate a grazing muzzle, for example, or for increased turnout following laminitis. Going forward, I will now use the 5 Domains as a standard operating procedure for HWNE and this will undoubtedly improve my operations and the experience of my clients.


I think one of the biggest things which holds the equestrian industry back is the pressure we impose on each other to conform. I watch many owners discussing how they manage their horses and I always see one owner looking dismayed, questioning their own practices as if to say "should I be doing that too?" despite their horse being seemingly happy with things as they are. Sometimes, service providers feel that too. We feel compelled to lower their own standards to fit with the historic norms of the industry, the "it's always been done that way" or "I can't make a difference" mentality. It can be particularly difficult to discuss the topic of welfare with a client who feels they've got the best interests of their horse at heart, but is even more difficult to watch the industry remain as it is. It was truly wonderful to feel united with many other service providers, all with similar aims and ambitions. This is why courses like Cristina's are so very important and why we need to collaborate with one another.


I have always been a fan of learning, I truly believe you never stop learning and you can never know everything about a topic - you must stay curious. Sometimes desire for learning fuels an annoying impostor syndrome in me, but other times it ignites incredible focus and drive as it did on this day.


Within the lecture hall there was a real sense of being at the front of a change. I felt the energy immediately shift away from lamenting the pitfalls of the present and more towards shaping the success of the future. I do believe that if more professionals attended CPD courses like this one, our industry would undoubtedly change for the better.


Take this as a queue to book on for a CPD session like this one!

I want to take this opportunity to thank Cristina, Naomi and Lisa for hosting such a wonderful day, on my more challenging days I look back on what I learned and the subsequent discussions we had, and I feel even more motivated.  


If you’re reading this wondering if you should book onto the events at Northumberland College, I strongly recommend you check out Northumberland College’s Eventbrite now or if you want to learn more about the 5 Domains, join Cristina’s online course, links below:




[1] Moving to the ‘five domains’ model for assessing animal welfare (no date) Wildlife and Countryside Link. Available at: https://www.wcl.org.uk/duplicate-of-moving-to-the-five-domains-model-for-assessing-animal-welfare.asp (Accessed: 04 November 2023).

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