...my treasures do not sparkle they clink,
they shine in the sun and neigh in the night...



What it means to be a horse in the 21st century

  • Ethology

(11th June 2012)

Being a horse today means, in the vast majority of cases, spending your life in a stable, often locked up in a stall for most of the day. Horses are kept in this way since it is considered necessary to have full control over them and to carry out specific feeding programs. Based on how much exercise the horse will get, we can calculate how much he needs to eat and plan his diet according to a nourishment technology designed to satisfy all requisites. Keeping horses in stables also allows full control over their state of health. Under the “vigilant” eye of human beings, any problem can be promptly treated with the modern therapies developed by veterinary science. Preventive measures for many diseases can also be implemented (worming and vaccinations, for example).
In modern stables, specific therapies for the hooves can also be provided, depending on the activity the horse will engage in, or the particular problems of his conformation. Moreover, for horses used in competitive events, personalized training can be carried out, based on monitoring the heartbeat and the concentration of lactic acid in the blood, just as is done for human athletes.
Through the most advanced innovations and technologies, our horses are ensured a high level of physical well-being. All this is possible with modern stable management methods.
But are we sure that this is really the best life we can offer our horses? Management of this kind is programmed and implemented according to the requisites of the human beings who supervise the life of the horse at every moment, and obviously the standard of measurement is a “human” one. Is it possible that, in this panorama, we are forgetting something?

A few years ago, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (Webster, 1994) listed the now famous “5 Freedoms” to which animals are entitled. The document drawn up by the Farm Animal Welfare Council is, in fact, a manifesto of Animal Rights. Let’s examine these rights one by one to see whether current systems of managing horses in stables are able to satisfy them.
The first freedom states that animals must be free from hunger and thirst. Since there is no doubt that keeping a horse a stable today allows us to furnish him satisfactory food and fresh water, this first freedom appears to be ensured by modern stabling systems. Unfortunately however, the horse is an animal naturally accustomed to graze for 16-17 hours a day; and this condition is almost never respected…as we will see later in more detail.
The second freedom states that animals must be free from pain, accidents and diseases. And this condition too appears to be satisfied in modern stables, where a horse’s state of health can be carefully supervised, preventing him from feeling pain and protecting him against diseases in the best ways provided by veterinary science.
It is with the third freedom that shadows begin to fall over modern stabling systems. The third freedom states, in fact, that animals must be free from discomfort, that is, provided with a satisfactory environment that includes shelter and room for repose. In the stable, enclosed in stalls, horses are undoubtedly sheltered from bad weather, from the cold and from abrupt changes in temperature. Moreover, the paddocks where they are allowed to spend a few hours outdoors nearly always provide adequate shelter. But the stalls in the stable are often too small. The British Horse Society recommends a minimum size of 3.6 x 3.6 meters. Although no precise data are available, it is certain that the greater the size of the stall, the more time the horse will spend resting in the sternal position. Today, 4 by 4 meters is considered the ideal size for a stall; obviously, the stables where horses are kept today do not entirely satisfy this third freedom.
The fourth requisite is freedom from fear and stress. And here things become more complicated. If we judge fear and stress by human standards, this freedom appears to be ensured in modern stables; but we have to remember that fear, and even more stress, mean something different for horses and for human beings, a point we will return to later.
In the last freedom above all, the management of modern stables shows all of its limitations. The fifth freedom is not a freedom from, but a freedom to, the freedom to follow natural behaviour patterns.
Scientific studies have clearly shown that horses kept in stalls in modern stables, as compared to those who live in nature, show altered behaviour. For instance, horses kept in individual stalls, with no social life and with programmed feeding, as in most stables, spend about 65% of their time resting in the standing position, three times more than horses kept outdoors in a pasture, who spend about 70% of their time grazing, while stabled horses spend only 15% of their time in feeding. And horses kept in a stable behave very differently also as concerns spontaneous moving about, social behaviour, etc. These differences seem to depend on social isolation and being confined in a stall, a condition that determines, due to physical restriction alone, a reduction in the environmental stimuli that act on horses, with consequent reduction in choice of activity.

But how important is the natural behaviour of animals in modern stabling conditions?
We now know that some requisites of animal well-being cannot be satisfied by the first four freedoms alone. The chance to behave according to natural tendencies is associated with positive feelings, and this now seems to be a major factor in the well-being of animals (and humans as well). Furthermore, being prevented from carrying out a certain activity that forms part of the horse’s natural repertory can result in a state of frustration expressed in disturbed behaviour, stereotyped actions and similar states of depression.

It is important to remember that the psychological need to behave in a certain way can continue to exist even if the biological need has been artificially repressed in the stable: for instance, modern feeding methods are able to satisfy all nutritional requirements, but the horse can still retain a psychological need for grazing, an activity he is prevented from carrying out. In a word, and this is linked to the fourth freedom, horses kept in stables can be subject to psychological stress not due to something that happens from without, but merely because they are prevented from behaving in a natural manner.

Considering how important it would be to allow horses to behave more naturally, it seems advisable to make some changes in stable facilities, management and training of personnel, with the aim of enriching the environment to satisfy the horses’ need to follow natural behaviour patterns.
Note that this can be done even through economically sustainable modifications, designed to meet the specific needs of individual stables; and this is a subject to be discussed in detail later on.

In conclusion, to make a final point, isn’t there a vast difference between how much is spent on feed and veterinary care (now truly avant-garde) and how much is spent instead to improve the psychological conditions of horses? Not that we should spare any effort to care for and feed our friends, but we should also devote greater attention and resources to their psychological well-being, because we owe it to them and because a horse living in a state of equilibrium, free from psychological problems, is a horse that gives more in every way. The first episode of our voyage through the world of horses ends with this thought.