…that based on the latest survey (2011) 3.5 million people in the UK had ridden a horse at least once in the previous 12 months and that there are an estimated 988,000 horses in the UK.
This got me thinking that that’s an awful lot of horses and probably as many opinions on the best way to keep a horse. So how do we know what is best for our horses…
Some people anthropomorphize their horses and treat them like people. They think that the horses are best kept separate from other horses and they like tucking them up at night in their own little bedrooms. And despite the horses often spending as much as 23 hours a day without their human owner they believe their horse somehow prefers human company to equine company.
Having 45 equines and years of experience looking after them we have no delusions about what our horses would like to be doing. But also we use the 5 freedoms to make decisions about our horses living conditions.
So what are these 5 freedoms. Well they are currently enacted in the animal welfare act and are summarised really well on the website http://www.healthyhorses.co.uk
Freedom from hunger and thirst
Horses have evolved as trickle feeders, designed to be chewing/occupied by feed for a large portion of their day. Their digestive systems are primarily designed to digest fibre and, therefore, forage (hay/haylage/grass) should represent the majority of their diet.
Wild horses spend about 60% of their time eating. This compares to stabled competition horses kept in individual stables and fed rationed feed where only 15% of their time is spent eating. Although these horses usually receive good nutrition, their eating is done over 4-5 hours; a third of the time spent by wild horses who are free to graze at will (16-18 hours per day).
Ideally domesticated horses should have free access to fibre to allow them to eat for at least 16 hours per day and clean drinking water. So for as much of the year as possible our horses live out and are free to graze 24/7. In winter our ponies have hay in their field in 5 hay feeders and so with one feeder to 4 ponies they can easily get access to forage.
Freedom from discomfort
Horses evolved as a social species living in open plains where running away was their primary method of escape from predators. Today, horses still possess an inherent aversion to isolation and confinement. Research has shown that horses with free access to both pasture and to box stalls with bedding, hay and water, prefer pasture even during poor weather as long as some grass is available.
While horses do need some protection from the elements – shelter, trees, barn – they do not require warm housing and have been shown to be able to comfortably tolerate low temperatures. Horses naturally insulate themselves with their winter coats; however, horses with clipped coats may need rugs to maintain a comfortable body temperature. Anything that a horse wears, be it a rug, headcollar, bridle or saddle, needs to fit correctly and be cleaned regularly.
Horses that are in work should only be asked to do what they are capable of and what they enjoy.
At this time of year almost all our ponies and all our horses are rugged in order to protect them from the lowest temperatures. The fields that they roam in have undulating ground and natural shade and shelter via tree lines and high hedges. We don’t provide field shelters as these are often points of conflict and therefore can cause injury. But with 400m of tree line to shelter against on both sides of the field all the ponies can get shelter from rain and wind and extreme heat and sunlight (in summer)
Freedom from pain, injury and disease
It is important to make sure all reasonable steps are taken to prevent ill-health and to seek prompt veterinary care in the event of illness or injury.
Our vets (Loch Leven Equine) are super, come to the rescue in emergencies and are there to give sound advise to keep our herd of ponies and horses healthy.
Freedom from distress and fear
Horses evolved as a social species living in open plains where running away was their primary method of escape from predation. Movement and grazing will naturally dominate the majority of a horse’s time. Therefore, confining horses to individual stables or paddocks may be insufficient to meet their social and mental needs. Distress may result from lack of social interaction and space.
We keep our horses and ponies in large mixed sex herds in fields with as much space as possible for the animals to roam in. In summer we try to balance the needs of the animals to roam in as large a space as possible with the need to rest fields to allow the grass to grow. The horses have around 15 acres to roam through and the ponies the same. It is beautiful watching a herd of horses go for a mad gallop back and forwards across our fields.
Freedom to express natural behaviour
Chronic frustration from isolation, lack of social contact, lack of environmental enrichment and/or lack of stimulation can result in abnormal or stereotypic behaviours (‘stereotypies’). Abnormal behaviours include pacing, licking, eating or chewing of non-food objects. Stereotypies are repetitive behaviours horses use to cope with the abundance of time that would otherwise be spent grazing and socializing. Examples of stereotypies include crib biting, weaving, wind sucking, head tossing and head nodding. Unfortunately some stereotypies become learned behaviours that cannot be resolved, even after the horse has been removed from the environment that initially triggered the behaviour (e.g. wind sucking).
Once again we avoid isolating our horses and ponies in single animal paddocks even if this means that sometimes we have further to walk.
It is quite clear that the only way to keep equines in as natural an environment as possible and therefore give them the freedom to express natural behaviour which then keeps them free from distress and fear is to have large mixed sex herds roaming over as large a space as is available as they would in the wild
This however is what creates the clash between what humans want and what horses need. When an owner wants the horse kept in a small paddock by itself or with one companion pony to avoid herd injuries (which happen) or are fearful of leading their horse away or through a large herd of other horses but the horse wants the stability and protection of a herd. When the horse wants a large area to roam over but the owner doesnt have the time to walk a mile to catch their horse.
There are no easy solutions to these clashes. The way most people keep their horses is dictated by the practicalities of what their livery yard allows. However it is still useful for horse owners to have a very thorough knowledge of natural horse behaviour and then recognise that a horse as a prey animal will have different drivers from humans. Because the more we can understand horses the more we can learn to give them what they genuinely need and not what we may mistakenly believe they want…