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Spring parade Is Zurich’s traditional festival too stressful for horses?

A heart rate belt measured the horses' pulse during the festival in 2016

(© UZH/Michelle Aimée Oesch)

The Sechseläuten spring parade in Zurich – with its explosive finale – is certainly not for those with faint hearts or sensitive ears. But what about the hundreds of horses that take part? Could being made to ride through crowds and around a bonfire constitute animal cruelty?

Monday marks the culmination of the annual eventexternal link, in which the Böögg, a snowman effigy whose head is packed with explosives, is placed on top of a giant bonfire. Tradition has it that the faster the Böögg explodes, the hotter the summer will be.

Around 550 horses take part in the parade of the city’s guilds, which makes it way through the city streets, before finishing with a gallop around the Böögg on Zurich’s Sechseläuten square.

Animal welfare groups have long complained that the event is too stressful for the horses. Criticism was particularly strong after a horse died on parade in 2015 – although the death was later attributed to natural causes.

A Master’s thesis by the Vetsuisse Facultyexternal link at the University of Zurich has been looking at this very issue of stress. And, after assessing 23 horses, from nine guilds, which took part in the 2016 Sechseläuten, it concluded that equine stress levels at the event were moderate.

Student vets attached pulse-measuring belts to the horses, with 13 of the animals being given sedatives (to check the effects of sedation). Testing took place in two stages: at a quiet riding arena 14 days before the festival and on the day of the event itself.

Putting the heart rate belt onto a horse

(© UZH/Michelle Aimée Oesch )

Under observation – and simulated on the test day – were the parade, the countermarch (in which some of the horses move between the rows of other horses in the opposite direction, rejoining the formation at the back) and the ride around the Böögg.

Horse manure was tested for levels of the stress hormone cortisol. An expert was also on hand to observe the horses’ behaviour.

Countering expectations

Researchers said in a recent statementexternal link that they found no difference in cortisol levels between the test and the actual day. They actually observed the most signs of stress during the countermarch, rather than around the exploding Böögg.

Overall, the horses’ pulse rate was higher on the day of the parade. Experience was important: old hands had lower heart rates than horses new to the event.

“The increased heart rate at Sechseläuten indicates an increased stress burden. But when you consider the cortisol levels and behaviour evaluation as well, it is moderate and bearable for the horses,” said Michael Weishaupt, head of the Equine Sports Medicine Unit, in the statement.

Stress levels are comparable to those of a riding or dressage competition, the study found.

Horses are adaptable, Weishaupt said. “It is key to get the horses used to the parade situation and the excitements in advance. Good preparation for such events for both horse and rider is important,” he added.

Reactions

“We are pleased about the study’s results,” Victor Rosser, spokesman for the Central Committee of the Zurich Guildsexternal link, told the Swiss News Agency. The guilds are aware that taking part in the parade with its many spectators can be risky for the horses, but changes have been made in the past.

“Riders need a diploma, and horses have escorts during the parade,” he said. He emphasised how horses could get used to the event.

But York Ditfurth, president of the Animal Welfare Society Zurichexternal link, was less convinced. Not all 550 horses were suited for the Sechseläuten, he told the news agency. “It just needs one horse to lose it,” said Ditfurth. “The Sechseläuten is only a happy event until it turns into a tragic one.”

He called for the number of horses to be reduced and for only professionals to be allowed to ride round the Böögg.

In 2015 a horse collapsed and died at the Sechseläuten, which had led to renewed criticismexternal link from Ditfurth’s organisation that the event was too stressful for the animals. An autopsy later foundexternal link a heart rhythm disorder, rather than stress, to be the cause of death in the 24-year-old horse.

Long hot summer

On Monday, the horses had a shorter run than in most years. Böögg’s head exploded in just under ten minutes, which means that Switzerland should enjoy a very nice summer.

Böögg SRF

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