Natural living for horses
Or: Would you keep a dolphin in your bathtub?
Probably everybody will realize that you cannot keep a dolphin in a bathtub. It would be a very unhappy dolphin that would not live very long. Animals live longer and have less health problems if the environment they live in provides what they need. Anybody who has ever tried to take home a dog from a rescue organization - or from a good dog breeder - knows that you can expect a lot of questions: Do you have enough space? Do you have enough time? Will it get enough exercise? Will the dog get what a dog needs to be happy and healthy?
We can ask the same thing about horses: what does a horse need to be happy and healthy? To get an answer, we have to look at how horses live 'on their own', in nature. Wild horses:
- are very sociable herd animals (they never live alone, always in a group)
- are fairly claustrophobic 'steppe animals'; they like open spaces and open resting places (they will not go into a cave when it rains)
- have no day/night rythm like humans do
- eat small portions many, many times a day
- don't eat concentrated foods, only roughage, and have a varied diet
- can vary their body temperature very well and can adapt to huge temperature differences
- function well without shoes on their hooves
- have a life expectancy of 30-35 years (if not eaten by wolves or such).
Horses can adapt amazingly well to changing conditions. This is an Arab who was born in California, USA and lived there most of his life - now enjoying a nap in the Norwegian snow.
Where do our traditions come from?
Many of the things we do with horses today are done out of tradition: 'because we always have done it like that'. It is important to remember that much of our horse knowledge today is heavily influenced by cavalry traditions (even simple things as always getting up from the left side). In the cavalry, the horse was a tool, to be used to defend a country if necessary. Horse welfare was not the main priority.
The same traditional way of doing things does not serve our horses today very well. Many riding horses get slaughtered at a relatively young age. Lameness, hoof problems, respiratory problems and colics are common. That should not be a surprise: being in a stable many hours a day, with some big portions of concentrated food, and with shoes and blankets on, is a very unnatural way of living for a horse.
There are still some groups of horse that have a more natural life style: very young horses, horses that are not working anymore, ponies, and horses that are only used for recreational purposes ('backyard horses'). And many of those horses seem to have a lot less problems than the big and beautiful, extremely well-groomed sport horses in professional stables... Usually genetics get blamed for that - but is that true?
The best horses - the worst living conditions?
Ironically the horses of which we expect the most - the well-bred sport horses - get the most unnatural living conditions. No one would expect a human athlete to sit in a very small room (no bigger than a toilet) for most of the day and then to go out and perform, preferably with ski boots on. But we do expect that of thoroughbreds, jumping horses, dressage horses etcetera.
There are many explanations why people do this, but none of them really make sense.. such as:
- 'My horse runs around like an idiot when I turn him out, I'm afraid he will hurt himself - so he cannot go out.' Solution: If the horse is out all day and night he will not run around like an idiot anymore.
- 'My horse can get kicked by another horse, therefore he cannot play with other horses.' Solution: Take the shoes off, then that risk is much, much less.
- 'All the really good riders and trainers do it like that.'
This last one is very interesting - because it is not true. To give just one example: Reiner Klimke was one of the most successful dressage riders of all times. He won six times gold and two times bronze at the Olympics, was World Champion six times and European Champion eleven times. These are his words on the subject (more than 20 years ago..):
'Any activity in fresh air is advantageous for conditioning a dressage horse. Lots of exercise without serious work makes the horse content and its mind well-balanced. Whe should always remember that horses have a strong innate desire to move, and the stall inhibits this desire and affects the psyche. A horse allowed out only for a daily hour of riding and forced to spend the other 23 hours in a stable is so strongly inhibited in his natural life cycle that he can hardly be expected to develop his true performance abilities. Trainers should remind themselves of this from time to time.'
'Ahlerich, the making of a dressage world champion'
Half Halt Press, 1986
Natural living conditions create relaxed horses that are ready to deal with almost anything...
'I cannot emphasize too strongly that when barefoot, the hoof will adapt itself to the average conditions of the surfaces upon which it finds itself.'
James R. Rooney, DVM
'The Lame Horse'
'I was quite happy in my new place, and if there was one thing that I missed, it must not be thought I was discontented; all who had to do with me were good, and I had a light airy stable and the best of food.
What more could I want? Why, liberty! For three years and a half of my life I had had all the liberty I could wish for; but now, week after week, month after month, and no doubt year after year, I must stand up in a stable night and day except when I am wanted, and then I must be just as steady and quiet as any old horse who has worked twenty years.'
Reiner Klimke on Biotop