It’s easy to see a horse for what they represent to us rather than what makes them individual. Language rich in anthropomorphism ascribes personalities that exist only in our fairy tales. Of my few rules, number one is human respect for the horse. That’s not just respect for their needs but respect for their evolutionary history.
what’s in it for them?
This is the question many of us might have asked ourselves; it’s a good question. Keep asking it.
Domestic horses continue to try to adapt to the conditions we keep them in. In spite of the common thought that we offer them love and luxury by rugging and providing deep bedded stables many of them struggle to adapt. Not least because we provide everything. Anyone for pizza in your bedroom, toilet and drinks within arm’s reach? Barely room to swing the proverbial moggie and often solitary confinement for hours on end?
It’s hardly surprising that at times they find adaption hard and with seemingly few benefits.
So how can we facilitate adaption? Using simple methods that help mimic the horse’s natural way of life, the life that the wild horse (that still exists deep inside the domestic horse) would live.
I hear many screaming at me now…but he stands at the gate, he wants to come in, he loves his stable…oh yeah and you and I can find umpteen reasons to support this but the truth is that they are creatures of habit and if we do something daily it forms a habit. Not all human habits are good for horses so they try to adapt, some horses are more successful adaptors than others.
This leads to the questions that always hang in the air at consultations…why my horse? Why does her horse cope? How does my other horse cope? Why did he cope last week? And it leads to the answer, well it depends.
It depends on so many factors from evolutionary and inherited factors (genes and epigenetics if you want to Google some geek) to what happened at weaning, what happened 2 years ago or maybe what happened one hour ago. Horses, just like humans, are a product of their innate inheritance and their life experiences. There is no single blueprint. We and they are individuals.
Of course it would be amazing if we could all keep our horses running as a herd on some rewilded area. I am extraordinarily grateful to my wonderful friend Larri for providing a closer to natural mixed herd where my boys live (check it out here). But if you don’t have the facilities or means to provide a more natural free ranging life it doesn’t mean you can’t help adaption to domesticity.
It’s not about having incredible facilities but what you do with them. I have friends and clients managing small areas wonderfully well for their horses and ponies. In future I will write a more detailed post on ways to enrich the life of a domestic horse and make the most of what you have.
Some simple measures help fulfil the essential maintenance behaviours . Company, food, water, shelter, sleep, grooming (self and each other), peeing/pooping and movement in line with a natural life being the bare minimum. Enrichment takes these a step further. Choice of food and where/how it can be consumed, a range of surfaces and shelter, safe access drinking areas that encourage movement, brushing posts for grooming.
Very often attention paid to environment and enrichment can make a big difference to behaviour. Days filled with interesting food and company can improve adaption potential. It changes the pizza munched in a bed with direct toilet access to a choice of tasty food (enough for everyone and more) served in different rooms with mates to share it with. A much better scenario is emerging but it is still very much man-made and choice is limited. The instincts and problem solving abilities utilised by a wild horse are pretty much redundant.
If horses learn to adapt to an environment that suits their basic needs better then the job’s done. Or is it?
Even in stimulating and enriched environments there is something missing. An element of natural life that we can stimulate further. Brain training. Problem solving. The equine equivalent of Sudoku or crosswords or language learning. In removing situations that require problem solving (by providing food, water, shelter etc) we need to remember to add it back in by way of brain training. Coupled with a programme of physical wellbeing and exercise a training plan based on puzzle solving games can really help behaviour change.
Beginning with simple tasks of touching novel objects, standing on novel surfaces and manipulation of an object with nose or hoof can develop into more complex behaviours. Ultimately shaping these to resemble more closely those behaviours we have traditionally known like leading and riding.
Whilst I’m not suggesting that horses have to be trained physically or mentally on a regular basis I do believe, that for some horses, abandonment to an impoverished environment should not be the default. As always it is about considering the horse before you. Thinking through their needs and designing schemes to enrich their lives that will no doubt enrich yours!
If you would like help in designing a more fulfilling lifestyle and training programme for your horse, or you have enrichment ideas you’d like to share with me for a future post, please get in touch via my website, Facebook or comment on this post, I’d love to hear from you!