an article in instalments. Part Three will be published on 15 July.

Last week, we finished by discussing dogma-driven, ego-driven and horse-centric. The dogma-driven rider is the one who, often under peer-pressure, resorts to the age old (mis-)conceptions of the horse in the traditional riding-world. The thoughts are with the horse, only tradition has put misguided human values on the lifestyle of the horse.

The ego-driven rider will often declare a love for the horse and claim care and responsibility; however, it is all to one end, that of the rider’s own performance and prestige. The poor horse is little more than a well-oiled machine.

Finally, we looked at the horse-centric approach. The appreciation of the real needs of the horse, as opposed to the human-perceived needs.

What is horse-centricity?

When we look at what we can do to make life better for our horse, from accommodation through feeding to tack and riding, the traditionalists will aways try to defend their actions with a series of what are becoming very tired arguments. Possibly the most cited is that ‘the horse was never meant to be ridden in the first place…’ So the first thing we need to do when defining horse-centricity is to dispense with the worst of these arguments.

  1. The horse was never meant to be ridden…Very true. There is no counter argument to this statement. However, despite the horse being more than capable of rejecting mans attempts to tame and ride him, he has shown a clear complicity with man; a complicity not found, for instance, in the zebras (we see a similar complicity with the wolf Canis lupus, from which developed the domestic dog Canis [lupus] familiaris, but not with the fox Vulpes).
  2. Today’s horse is not the early horse…Again, true; 50 million years of evolution has gone into making the horse what it is today. The modern horse first appeared around 5 million years ago and was found across the whole of the Northern hemisphere over 15,000 years ago. However, Equus was first domesticated a mere 5,000 years ago. In evolutionary terms, if the total existence of the horse can be compressed into the past 50 years, the modern horse arrived on the scene some 5 years ago and had populated the whole of the Northern hemisphere by about 5½ days ago; domestication happened during the last 44 hours and the application of horseshoes as we know them, started less than 5 hours ago. Few people reading this will have started to ride a horse more than half-an-hour ago!Clearly, there was a great deal more evolution before man’s intervention than has come after. Obviously with breeding programmes there has been an improvement, or more often degradation, in certain physical traits, but one thing remains, the horse is practically unchanged from the animal first domesticated less than two days / 5000 years ago.
  3. My horse prefers…(fill in owner’s preferences here)Your horse is fundamentally no different from any other horse. Even if you would prefer him to be! And his natural traits are really unchanged when compared with the early domesticated horse (see point 2). Almost invariably, it is the owner’s preferences which prevail, not those of the horse. The power of anthropomorphism is severely underestimated. We like to read something human into the behaviour of our horse in order to apply human values. Or we believe that human values and equine values are the same and try to enforce the former on our horses. Or simple ignorance; we know how we as humans react to certain conditions and so we expect our horses to be the same.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of arguments, but these three are probably the most expounded on the nature of the horse.
Boxed Horses Overview

Making life better

Many riders / owners make token gestures towards making life better. Riders / owners who are proud to have gone barefoot (praiseworthy in itself) but still stable their horses at night; ride bitless but still feed concentrates and bread… If we are to make the lives of our horses better, we must start with the fundamentals and work up.
  • Accommodation
    An oft uttered phrase is ‘my horse wants to go into his stable at night’. However, when we analyse this statement, we find that the horse is fed (concentrates) which, in effect, lure him into the stable. The real test is whether he stays in the stable with the door open when he has finished eating – highly unlikely.Another comment is ‘my horse gets restless when it gets dark’ and so the owner feels that he must bring his horse in. If we study the general behaviour of horses at dusk, we see that far from indicating a desire to seek shelter, it is a moment of general heightened activity. Horses that have never know a stable or shelter exhibit exactly the same behaviour. And it continues through a good part of the night.

    Coupled with the horse’s increased activity at dusk, is the owner’s own, human, fear of the dark. We are used to hunkering down, closing blinds, curtains and shutters when darkness falls; closing out the perils of the night. Reflect for a moment on this poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth:

On A Night of Snow

Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.

You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,

little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.

Stay by the fire, my Cat.  Lie still, do not go.

See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,

I will bring you a saucer of milk like a Marguerite,

so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet –

stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.

Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,

strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,

and more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar –

Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,

and things that are yet to be done.  Open the door!

Given a true choice, it is very rare that a horse should remain in an (open) stable for any amount of time; likewise, the horse will often shun the ‘comfortable’ bed of straw. The idea that the horse needs a good night’s sleep like we do, still permeates the equestrian world; in fact, a horse ‘sleeps’ somewhere between 2 and 2½ hours in every 24 – and rarely a night. Owners will cite the instance that their horse is ‘still’ lying down —sleeping…— when they come into the stable in the morning. Again, the reality is very different; the 2 to 2½ hours is never in one go. The maximum a horse will actually sleep, lying down, in one go, is about 25 minutes. And for the most part, the other 2 hours is made up of a few minutes snatched here and there, often standing. The preferred time for this long sleep is the morning –just the moment when the owner arrives and says ‘look!!!’. We can also pose the question, why should the horse, and animal of open spaces, be happy cramped in a space that for him is little more than a telephone cell? Why should the horse, a gregarious animal that also uses companionship as a defence, be happy to spend the long hours of the night alone with nothing more for company than his own excrement? Again, many owners cite that the modern horse has ‘adapted’ to this sort of life. Again, I would say, open the stable door, give the horse free rein and see what he choses himself. There will be very few horses that stay in and bed themselves down for the night. The horse has not adapted; in his 50 million years of evolution, he has not had enough time to – it is not in his nature; it is man who forces this perceived adaptation.
The original reason for stabling horses was simply a question of military logistics. For a mounted regiment, catching all the horses before preparing them for action was a time-consuming action clearly contrary to military precision and preparedness. The order to leave in 30 minutes would have been impossible to fulfil if the horses had to be caught first. Thus stabling. But today, we don’t need to be saddled-up and ready in 30 minutes. We have time; those of us that don’t should seriously consider their relationship with the horse and whether they are suited or not. A frequently seen result of this forced adaptation is the stable vice: the crib-biter, the air-sucker, the head-shaker; the horse that appears aggressive whenever anyone approaches. Another result, less seen but certainly felt by the horse, is the stomach ulcer; it is reckoned that around 80% of all horses suffers from stomach ulcers – the vast majority being those stabled. This problem is further exacerbated by incorrect feeding (routines); more of that later. So our horse should be outside. All the time. ‘But he will destroy his field…’ then he needs more space. And if it cannot be provided then maybe consideration should be given to the question, hard as it may be, of whether it is fair to keep a horse at all. But often, much can be resolved with good management. One of the biggest problems related to perceived lack of space is that often horses get small paddocks due to the owner’s —and at times the livery yard’s— reluctance to put more than one or two horses together in a field. Lack of acceptance of another horse is often cited as the reason. Logical, if you are forced to live with someone you don’t get on with, you too would show a lack of acceptance. For this reason, the minimum number of horses together in one enclosure is three; this provides for a greater group dynamism since rarely is there a single dominant, and even less so when there is at least one mare involved. Ideally, up to twenty horses could be grouped together in one field and will naturally form two to three groups. And disagreements will be minimal because the groups will be self-defined and not forced. Advocating the lack of a stable does not mean advocating a complete lack of shelter. But shelter does not need necessarily to be covered shelter. Very often, horses with covered shelter will be found outside in the driving wind and rain…but more often than not, up against a protective hedge or, particularly in hot weather, under the shelter of a tree. So goes the old story of the horses out in the snow. A passer-by remarks that the poor horses are being neglected, left out in the cold…to which the owner responds ‘is there snow on their backs?’ ‘Yes, yes,’ replies the passer-by, ‘at least 5 centimetres…’ ‘Oh, that’s alright then.’ replies the owner. ‘They’re obviously not losing any body heat…!’
  • Feed

    Another subject of anthropomorphism. We eat two or three times a day (better three but there will always be someone who says that they cannot face that most important meal of the day, breakfast…); so we consider that our horses should too. So we feed them concentrates morning and evening – but not shortly before we ride because that can cause colic. A handful of hay should keep them going in between meals, particularly at night when locked up in the stable. But this is not what nor how the horse feeds. The horse has a relatively small stomach which obliges it to eat regularly – twelve to fifteen times a day. It needs this regularity both to keep the fires stoked and to protect the stomach. The protective lining of the horse’s stomach is only partial. Two-thirds of the stomach wall is not protected and vigorous activity on an empty stomach will cause splashing of stomach acid onto the unprotected lining. This in turn can lead to ulceration. Feeding concentrates does give an energy boost —although we will see that this is short-lived and counter-productive— but it does not satisfy the hunger nor does it provide any protection for the stomach lining. What it does do, is work like a drug, or equine Red Bull. Research done by the University of Bordeaux in November 2007 showed that sugar is 96% more addictive than cocaine. And in concentrates, there is a large quantity of sugar in the form of starch; this is excluding the many feeds that also contain molasses… Like humans, the horse has an appendix; only in the case of the horse, it is a sack called the cæcum and is, relatively, much larger. This appendix is one of the major powerhouses of the horse’s digestive system. It contains vast numbers of bacteria with the principle role of breaking down the cellulose in the horse’s —normally— grassy diet. From this, sugars are slowly liberated giving energy to the horse in a regulated and almost constant manner. The pH or acidity level of the cæcum is ±7 or neutral. When we feed pure sugars, in the form of molasses or starch-rich grain, these are liberated far more rapidly, giving the horse a rapid energy boost – similar to Red Bull – but also one which dissipates as rapidly as it is built up – again, similar to Red Bull – creating a yoyo effect. Furthermore, these directly accessible sugars alter the pH level of the cæcum, raising the acidity to ±3 killing off the natural bacteria that would normally break down cellulose. This has a serious deleterious effect upon the natural endurance capabilities of the horse. Now we have an animal that is stressed, suffering from ulcers, reliant upon shots of rapid sugars for short bursts of energy and suffering lethargy the rest of the time.

Again, we must look to the military for the answer to why we feed our horses such a poorly adapted diet. Quite simply, it is far easier to transport sufficient quantities of concentrates to feed a mounted regiment than to transport forage. If we care for our horse, we will ditch the concentrates† and move over to a correct, adapted diet. But this is not just a field full of grass; the horse needs variety just as we do. There should be access to different grass sorts, to thistles, dandelions, even leaves on the trees and bushes – ash, oak and brambles are particularly liked. Care must be taken with yew and sycamore. Yew is highly toxic and certain varieties of sycamore carry a fungus which causes atypical myopathy. Also ragwort and St John’s Wort should be regulated. Generally, the horse will not eat these plants, their toxicity often being paired with an unpleasant taste, but should nothing else be available or, in the case of the sycamore, or the ragwort when dried and mixed in hay, the horse may accidentally ingest these plants. Ragwort in small quantities will have little effect but its toxin is cumulative. It is also an invasive plant and if not kept under control can take over a field in a couple of seasons.
Sometimes horses will intentionally eat something that they normally would not, in order to purge themselves : fern is generally seen as toxic but horses are known to purge themselves of worms by ingesting small amounts of fern. Finally, many owners consider that their horses need supplements – extra vitamins, trace elements etc. This is a huge marketing trick by the bio-industry. With a correct diet —see above— they should want for nothing. All the vitamins they need, they either get from their food or they synthesise; trace elements likewise. If your horse starts licking earth, then a mineral block or salt-lick can be given (do not bother with pink salt, it is certainly no better than ordinary salt and may even be worse – certainly it is not environmentally responsible since it has to be transported from the Himalayas) but is not really essential. Giving other supplements is not advisable since they are likely to disrupt the general balance of elements. It should be realised that too much of certain elements inhibits the take-up of others; and iron should never be given unless under veterinary advice. So, in summary, no concentrates, no supplements; access to natural varied grazing 24/7.

† a change of diet must never be done instantly; the transition from a concentrates diet to a correct herbivorous diet must be done gradually over a period of at least 4 weeks.

  • Activities

    As many an ego-driven rider / owner says, the horse was never meant to be ridden…so why do we insist upon riding? I’m not advocating complete abstinence but surely there is more to the horse-human relationship than brushing-down, saddling-up, getting-on and riding-off! A recent French survey showed that over 90% of horses in riding schools hated being groomed to the point that some were violently aggressive. This cannot be right. Grooming should be that moment of intimate contact with the horse, a moment of relaxation. But for that 90% of horses, it is a sign that they were about to be put to work. Having spent hours locked up in a 9m² box, the new prospect is to be ‘locked-up’ under a saddle, with a bit in the mouth and heels kicking in the ribs, being bored to tears in the ring for the next hour. And what then, a quick brush-down, if we are lucky, a hose-down if we are really lucky, and back into the box for a few more hours… What a life!

Horses are naturally curious, they like change – even if only for a short while, to return to the group afterwards. They also like to go unridden at times. This is yet another moment of intimacy that the rider / owner and horse can share. Confidence in each other but without the need to perform. The horse, reassured, following its owner – maybe even without a lead-rope – being allowed to eat the grass from the verge along the way. A horse that is not incarcerated will generally be more complicit but giving the horse the pleasure of freedom will only enhance his complicity the next time you want to ride out. Especially if the ride is relaxed and outside. And if you take your horse for a walk, don’t worry about the comments that he should be ridden, the questions whether he is tired or ill…it is not just owners that are ignorant of the horse’s needs. Explain… Maybe even more important than walking your horse, is not walking or riding him if he clearly does not want to. The horse is an individual too. You may have arrived at the wrong moment; he may be feeling a little off colour. Why should he be any different from us? We do not always ‘feel like it’. It will not be every time. Tradition says that you should never allow a horse to refuse. If he refuses to jump, to cross a bridge, to ford a stream etc. then you must not give up until he does, otherwise he will have won. And if he wins, he will continue to refuse… This is another myth. The horse is not an unwilling partner. If he refuses, there is a reason. There is no point in forcing him against his will, or possibly his fear. That is more likely to make him continue to refuse.
Next week, the final instalment looking at how to put horse-centricity into practice. Publication on 15 July 2020.
This article is also available on the Equine Independent website