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  • Laura

What a horse needs

In the last post I talk about the importance of goal-setting in horsemanship, specifically in our approach to new, young, inexperienced, green or unfamiliar horses so that we set ourselves up for a productive and successful interspecies relationship with them. In this post, we will examine what makes our horse tick, what his general needs are and how to meet those needs through the way we handle and interact with him. Next, I will address some of the theoretical and practical aspects of creating a training plan based on your goals and the needs of the horse.

We ought to have an understanding of what the horse needs from our training and handling for him to be healthy, happy and well-adjusted. Additionally, it's imperative that we become intimately familiar with what motivates his behaviors and actions if we are to have any hope of exercising influence over them. Only by knowing and appreciating the horse's point of view can we develop a plan that will work for him (which is the only way he will work for us!). At the heart of everything we do should be the intent to meet the animal's needs, and our approach to our horses and their training should always originate from a place of empathy, deep appreciation, understanding and love.

Feeling empathy for a creature of another species may not come naturally to many of us. It's difficult enough to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and when those shoes happen to be made of steel and u-shaped it may be even harder! To help us develop empathy for our horse, let's take a look at the modern equine's situation and compare it to what his ideal (i.e. wild) life would look like.

Left to do as they choose, our horses would live outside 24/7, on boundary-less, open land, with nothing but grass and horizon as far as the eye could see. They would be comfortable that way because they could see that no predators were coming for them, their basic food needs would be met, and their natural protection from the elements would be enhanced by the ability to huddle together for more heat or to seek out naturally-occurring shelters when necessary. Their social needs would also be met, as they would be surrounded by an extended family-herd of around 15 individuals, all arranged in a hierarchical order from most to least dominant. Every member of the herd would have the comfort of knowing his or her place and would reap the benefits that their particular social position had to offer; for example, the members of the herd at the bottom of the pecking order would not have to worry about the responsibility of finding food, water or protection, while those at the top would know that if resources became scarce, they would have first access to them.

These horses would have nothing to do with humans, who are by definition a predator (see here for an explanation of our predator classification based on eye placement, which of course your observant horse is very likely to notice). They would spend most of their day eating and moving about, occasionally stopping for a drink or a nap. Their wandering and grazing could take them as far as 30 miles in a day, but only ever in a hurry if they were escaping a storm or a perceived or real threat, or were just feeling playful. One of the worst things a horse can have happen to him in this natural setting is isolation from his herd. Such an occurrence is a death sentence in the wild. As long as his basic needs are met, he rarely feels threatened, and he's with his herd, a horse's life is about as good as a life can be.

Now let's compare this to our average modern domestic animal. One of the most glaring differences between the domestic horse's situation with that of his wild counterparts is confinement. By our choosing, a horse lives in a much smaller space than he would otherwise, oftentimes segregated from the rest of his herd, and with no more of a view than the inside of a barn door, or at best, the inside of a fence. In the wild, horses would never choose to live where they couldn't see 360 degrees around them at all times to be able to see a hungry beast sneaking around their herd. Additionally, being kept in a stall alone or in a pen with one or two other horses does not suit his survival instinct that tells him there's safety in numbers. Nor does it suit his instinct to flee, like he would in wide open spaces to gain the speed advantage over his predators. Many of your horse's "inexplicable" behaviors (e.g. being "buddy sour") are simply his natural instincts telling him to restore his condition to one where he feels safe.

This confinement also means that your horse--who if left to do as he would naturally might travel upwards of 10 or 15 miles in a day--is limited to a fraction of that amount of exercise. That is until a predator (human) arrives to further confine his movement (with ropes and halters and bits) for a few hours per week and then makes this poor equivalent of a socially-stunted couch potato do a workout that's harder than anything he would ever have to do in the wild, all while supporting the weight of that predator on his back. Thinking about our hobby from this perspective makes it more obvious why our sweet little Sparkles seems less thrilled about our visit than we think she should be!

You may be thinking, "But you're wrong, my sweet little Sparkles just LOVES me! I bring her apples and kisses, and besides, she was RAISED in captivity and she knows nothing different." While it may be true that a horse raised in captivity might not have personal experience to compare his situation to, it's also true that for as long as we've been selectively breeding the horse in captivity, we've barely deviated from the wild prototype and their wild instincts are still very much intact. This is why even a horse bred and raised in captivity will maintain the same tendency to spook as one who's never seen a human in his life. And while it may seem that little Sparkles loves you when you're providing food, that's because food is one of her basic needs.

A horse in a stall becomes not only physically and socially stunted, but intellectually stunted as well. His anxiety about being isolated and confined will become neurosis as he also starts to feel bored and unstimulated. He may develop some undesirable stable vices, such as cribbing, wood chewing, weaving, or windsucking. Eventually, a horse who almost never gets to leave his stall will become afraid to do so. A horse in his natural setting will continue to learn and adapt during his entire life. A horse who never exercises his intellect will eventually lose the ability or the desire to learn altogether. New studies also indicate that horses may experience the equivalent of depression in humans, causing them to become non-responsive and listless.

What I'm suggesting is not that we just give up owning horses altogether, but rather that we take a more sympathetic approach to our animals and that we realize why he may act the way he does. The law requires only that a person provide for a critter's most fundamental needs, such as food, water and shelter. Ethically, however, this is as unacceptable as it would be to merely provide your children with sustenance and a roof. As the one responsible for isolating an animal from everything its instincts tell it to do for survival, the owner is also the one responsible for ensuring that all of its needs are met and not just the nutritional part.

Now that I've talked about the difficulties of domestication for our equine partner and how these difficulties affect his behavior, let's look briefly at how we may minimize these impacts so that he can be as happy as we like to think he is. I am not going to go into basic equine care 101, here; it will be assumed that you are already at least minimally informed on matters of horse maintenance. Rather, I will look at a few of the points of his welfare that are most often overlooked or misinformed.

Probably the most important thing you can do for your horse's sake is to stop thinking like a human and start thinking like a horse. Put yourself in his horseshoes and try to see life through his eyes. For example, while 40 degrees fahrenheit might be cold to YOU, this doesn't mean your well-insulated friend is in need of a coat, nor should he be denied his turn out. Even in the most inclement of weather, all horses benefit from turn out. In fact, sometimes they need to be turned out more on the cold days since that's when colic is most likely to set in, and as I've always said, "motility is tied to mobility!" A quick romp in a communal pen with some buddies is not only good for his body, it's indispensable for his sanity. As humans,we are inclined to look at a nice, draft-free stall inside of an illuminated and heated barn with privacy from the neighboring animals as wonderful housing for our four-legged friend; however, given the option, most horses will choose to spend their time outside, or at the most in a three-sided lean-to, huddled up with others for warmth if needed. In short, if we start to realize that our comfort is not indicative of our horse's comfort, we are on the right path to better accommodate his needs.

Give your horse a schedule that he can rely on. Realize that you and you alone are his "herd" and interacting with his herd is indispensable for his sense of safety and wellbeing. Come to the barn as close to daily as you possibly can, and if that's impossible, consider arranging for a half-lease or if your horse is safe enough and your resident trainer is in need of more lesson horses, consider loaning him out for lessons on the days you can't make it. If you are not able to make it out to the barn at least four or five days per week, then maybe you're in a bad position for horse ownership right now. This isn't to say you must ride every time you come out to the barn, but a horse thrives on having some sort of routine, and it's best for his brain if he can expect to see you every day and at least be handled minimally, even on the days you're not riding. You can get creative with how to spend this time with your horse if you're not currently pursuing riding goals, because while routine is good, a stale routine is not good and might actually be setting you up for more trouble than if you had no routine at all!

So while what you do with your barn time isn't all that important, how you do it is very crucial to building the relationship you want with your animal and providing him with the structure he needs. Set your expectations early and maintain and reinforce them through every interaction with your horse. As big and imposing as they may seem, horses are actually quite insecure creatures and they benefit hugely from having structure and knowing what's expected of them. You can't expect to have a healthy relationship with your horse if you are at the barn distracted some days, letting him get away with pushing you around and stepping on your toes, and then another day you are feeling a little grouchy because of something that happened at work and you let yourself get mad at him for the same behavior. Monitor your moods, leave your baggage at the barn door and provide a safe, consistent haven for your horse in every interaction you have with him.

Realize that creating this safe, consistent haven doesn't imply letting him do whatever he wishes. Horse herds have very hierarchical tendencies, with someone being the leader at all times as a matter of survival for every individual in the group. Since there is a leader there must also be a follower. The follower has it pretty easy (even though he gets "picked on" by those above him on the social ladder); he has no responsibilities, he mustn't lead the others to sustenance or away from danger, nor does he have to remember where the best watering hole is located. Studies have shown that even horses who seem to have dominant personalities and demonstrate an apparent desire to be in leadership positions still experience a certain level of stress associated with being in charge.

The horse's opinion is that someone must be the leader and if he's not sure who that is, then he will step up into the position out of necessity, although not out of desire. In your herd of two, he will be much happier knowing that he does not carry the responsibility of being the leader. As the human, you are much more suited to the position of leader than he, considering the two of you are within a world created by your species. If you ever end up out in the plains and have no idea how to function in that setting, then you can consider restructuring your herd dynamics, but in the meantime, it is you who must be the fair, benevolent and knowledgeable leader!

For more on how to become the best leader for your horse, and why this is important, read my next post.

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