Updated: Jan 25, 2018
”Oh lets just turn all the horses loose and let them starve to death.”
”Or better yet, let's leave them in the tiniest mud hole we can find to grow slipper feet and develop rain scald. Before they starve to death.”
Anyone who has ever dared to question the practice of keeping horses locked up in their stable for most of their lives, will undoubtedly have been confronted with such creative suggestions for suitable alternatives.
Those who feel bad that they are not looking properly after their horses will invent crazy opinions and pretend they are yours to avoid having to deal with the implications of what you are actually saying.
”Horses need to be outside with other horses.”
Who said that? You are a hippie, a tree hugger, a PETA activist. Whatever you are, you can't be a normal person with normal views when you make insane suggestions like: ”How about moving your horse to a boarding facility where he can see the sky?”
Were we talking about another species – say, rabbits – then you could say these things and not be accused of lunacy. In fact, in the UK, they have a project called ”A hutch is not enough”. It's a campaign to persuade rabbit owners to actually care for their rabbits instead of merely displaying them in a wire cage or a wooden box in the back garden. Reading the site, you can learn useful things like:
”Rabbits are not designed to live in a confined space. In the wild they cover an area equivalent to 30 football pitches. They're not designed to live alone either - wild rabbits live in large social groups, foraging, grooming each other and huddling together for warmth. Rabbits living alone experience high levels of stress.”
If you kept your rabbit in a cage and were really confirmed in your convictions, you might be confused and unsettled by this statement. Hang on a minute. Are these people advocating that we should all put our rabbits in a mud hole and not feed them? Are they saying we should turn them loose? You'd be scratching your head and slowly turning paranoid, looking over your shoulder for the man from PETA. But at www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk, they just keep saying this stuff:
”Domestic rabbits are not fundamentally far removed from their wild cousins. They share the same need to run, jump, explore and share companionship with their own kind, so their accommodation must allow them to display these natural behaviours.”
There's a word you'll want to avoid at the dinner table if you wish to remain part of polite equestrian society. Because, as we all know, ”nature isn't kind either”. Case closed.
Nature is in fact cruel or at least pretty damned heartless. It's true. What is false is the way horse owners routinely use this fact to dismiss any criticism of their choices. As a rabbit owner, you'd never get away with that. The rabbit welfare people would tell you that you missed the point and possibly that you were an idiot (I imagine them to be direct and feisty like that). They'd explain how they weren't telling you that you have to actually return your rabbit to the wild (because that would be silly). They were telling you that you have to make sure your rabbit husbandry allows for expression of your rabbit's natural behaviours. Many rabbit owners apparantly respond well to that sort of talk. But not horse owners. Not always, anyway.
”Wait a minute. Are you suggesting in some backward way that we all return our horses to the wild?”
”Oh, so you think we should put them in a mud hole to grow slipper feet.”
I'm saying there are many good ways of keeping horses but none of them involve keeping them locked up with no chance to move around freely or form lasting social bonds with other horses. It's like keeping a rabbit in a hutch. It's not healthy. It's not moral. It's not a life – it's an existence. It's all for you and if you're reading this and getting annoyed it's because I'm getting to you and you know I'm right.
If rabbit owners could just snap their fingers and create an ideal rabbit habitat (try saying that ten times really fast after a couple of margaritas) – we have to assume they all would. But there's hammering and sawing and material sourcing and back garden excavation and all sorts of hassle and expense associated with making a better life for your rabbit, so some people can't be bothered. They make up excuses why they don't have to change anything. Well, I imagine they do if they are anything like their horse owning counterparts.
”Our rabbit has always lived in a hutch and he is fine.” (Our rabbit is unique in all the world in that he shares none of the needs or requirements of other rabbits – he can also fly)
”If we have to spend the Easter holiday building a rabbit home, we can't go to Magaluf and ride the water slides.” (When we say we love the rabbit, we're really just pretending because we actually don't feel for him at all)
”There is no room in the garden for a better rabbit home.” (On our list of priorities, petanque comes before rabbit welfare)
”We can't afford a decent rabbit house and companion rabbit” (We can't afford having rabbits at all, but we really want to and who's going to stop us?)
In the same way, responsible horse ownership rarely comes without sacrifices. Unless you are obscenely wealthy, it probably forces you to work hard, freeze, suffer sleep deprivation and/or accept that the inside of your car looks like the scene of some heinous crime against an unsuspecting scarecrow.
As a responsible horse owner, perhaps you have to get up really early in the morning. Perhaps you never get to go away for the weekend. It's very possible you never have another pair of brand new shoes. Maybe you can get away with just sacrificing that lovely tack room at the boarding facility with the not so lovely turn out possibilities. You may have to bring your own coffee and toilet paper to some unglamorous destination in the middle of nowhere so your horses can roll in the mud. You may have to do without an indoor schooling area. You may have to spend time commuting, picking up poo, unfreezing pipes, chiseling dried mud off your horse, soaking hay, shifting straw and mending fences which you would have otherwise spent looking cool in shiny leather boots, actually riding your horse. But hey... that's kind of the deal if you want to own a 500 kilo rabbit and feel good about it. Here at Epona.tv, we salute you for making the right choices.
There are just too many reasons why a hutch is also not enough for a horse – even horses that cost a lot have to be allowed outside. Not for an hour and a half by themselves with just enough space to take a photograph to post to Facebook to convince your friends, fans and other impressionable minds that your horse ”gets to be a horse” (as if locking him up makes him something else) – no, horses really have to be allowed to live outside. If not 24/7, then at least for the majority of time. They don't need to ”return to nature” - but they need their needs met and those needs were designed by nature. They are not defined by what you find it convenient to provide.
Domestic horses need fresh water and a suitable diet. They need their feet done and to be monitored and treated for parasites when necessary. When they are ill, they need appropriate veterinary care. Horses need a safe and dry place to sleep. And they need other horses with whom they can form lasting bonds. These are the basics. You don't get a medal for providing them.
Horses also need fresh air. Not for an hour a day but most if not all of the time. And a stable – no matter how fancy and even if it has windows for each horse to stick its head out of – is not as good as being outside.
Horses need to forage almost all the time. And they need to eat off the ground. Even if you feed them on the floor in the stable, that is not as good as feeding them outside or letting them graze a suitable pasture.
Horses need to live in such a way as to not cause chronic stress. We find it quite amazing that it still has to be pointed out, but what many horse people and even some professionals and horse media still refer to as ”vices” are in fact symptoms of chronic stress.
Your horse does not windsuck or weave to get on your nerves any more than the sad looking elephant in the shabby zoo does his demented, woeful side to side rocking to annoy his keeper. Do not ”treat” these cries for help with chains, straps, electric shock or anything else that is only going to punish the symptom. Take charge of your horse's welfare and get him to a place that doesn't drive him nuts.
”Yes, but when I turn out my horse, he just stands by the gate and waits to come in”
”Oh but my horse doesn't get on with other horses”
”I have a stallion and we tried turning him out with other stallions and it just didn't work”
I hear you. I also think that 99 per cent of these cases could be resolved if the owner could be bothered to work on the problem instead of just giving up at the first sign of convenient equine open air dissatisfaction.
But that leaves that 1 per cent. Of course there are going to be horses who have been so poorly socialised or who are so damaged by intensive husbandry practices that they can't be helped. We get it. It wasn't your fault. He was like that when you got him. Don't worry – I'm not having a go at you. I'm having a go at the general picture.
I'm having a go at people who have taken it upon themselves to own a horse without bothering to find out about even his most basic natural (!) needs. Or worse, those people who are well acquainted with the natural needs of horses, yet for selfish reasons choose to ignore them. Those are the people who need to wake up.
”Oh but I live in the real world where everyone doesn't have access to all day turnout in a large field with other horses.”
Yes. Go tell that to the rabbit people and notice carefully what you sound like:
”I live in the real world where a hutch is plenty enough because I simply don't feel up to providing more.”
”I live in the real world where it's okay to keep my dog in a crate 22 hours a day because I don't want him chewing my shoes and I have to go to work and get some sleep.”
Dude. That's not the real world. That's some weird fantasy world where it's okay to neglect an animal as long as its proper care and maintenance is too much for you to manage. The next time someone calls your choices into question and you feel like attributing the view to that person that horses are better off in mud holes with slipper feet, consider the possibility that you are wrong and that you know it. Consider making a change. Consider what it would feel like to be the owner of a happy rabbit. Naturally.