We do not only exert our control over the horse, restrict his movement, and control his life through training and riding but also in the way that we keep and manage horses. We design their lives to our benefit and convenience. While it is necessary to confine them, it is also important to remember who they are and what they are designed for. Most horses in captivity are kept behind fences or in stalls, but they are designed to roam freely, move in straight lines, and travel great distances with a unified herd. We keep them in tight spaces and often separate them from contact with others. This goes against every grain of their natural instincts.
As horse owners, we need to recognize that we are the ones who hold all the power and control the entire circumstance of our horses. We take possession of their bodies in every sense – we literally own and manage their lives. Horses have no choice but to live in captivity and in relation with humans. They must interact with and depend on us to care for them and provide everything for them. They rely on us to act in their best interest. Common stable management practices often cause emotional distress for the horse and are geared to human’s ideas of comfort and safety rather than the horse’s.
The typical stall is akin to solitary confinement for the horse – or arguably worse. Horses are social creatures designed to graze, roam, run, and see across large expanses of horizon. Horse feel safe in a herd with the ability to sense danger from afar so that they have time to respond. They are claustrophobic by nature. The twelve foot by twelve foot stall has become the standard for an appropriate, “spacious” box stall. Compared to the amount of space that they are designed to live in, the box stall is a bit like putting a human prisoner into a refrigerator box. Horses should be in constant motion foraging for grass with other horses, and we lock them up into a space where they can’t even take a full step forward without having to turn around. They are forced to stand still, alone, surrounded by walls. Many even have bars preventing the horse from looking out.
Why has this become the norm? Did we choose this size stall because it is big enough for them to fit in it with room to turn around and lie down? So that we can pack the barn full of horses? So that the horses remain clean and conveniently attainable to take for a ride? To keep them safe? If you designed a barn for the comfort and welfare of the horse it would not be filled with rows of stalls. That is not a fair way to keep an animal that is constantly in motion in a herd. Stalls rob the horse of their true nature and serve to disempower them further.
Perhaps part of it comes from our own point of view as den animals. Humans like warm, cozy spaces because they make us feel safe. I always remember tucking the horses in at night in the winter and thinking how cozy and lovely it was in the barn. It made me feel good. Those horses were probably itching for wide open space, movement, and freedom. They likely would have preferred to huddle together under the stars in the brisk winter night.
As a result of this type of equine management, many horses do not get enough exercise or consistent social interaction to feel safe and remain healthy on all levels. There are the physical ramifications of living in a stall or a barn – hoof issues from standing in their own waste, respiratory issues from poor ventilation, muscular problems from always standing or moving in a circle, and digestive issues from infrequent feeding. There are also mental or emotion issues that develop.
In college, we covered an entire section on stable vices such as stall walking, weaving, and cribbing that are a result of boredom and stress. Those in turn manifest as physical ailments as well. We then have to manage all of those issues and look for ways to alleviate the symptoms that we caused by locking the horse in a comfy stall. If we looked at it through our horse’s eyes we would see that they would likely prefer to not be kept that way in the first place. If we changed our approach we could bypass all the time, expense, worry, and stress that we devote to mopping up the problems we create.
Horses that get to live out on pasture part time or full time run into different issues while in our care. They are still confined to a small space according to their natural instincts. Now they can see over distances but cannot flee or roam. Horses must live behind fences so there is little we can do to alleviate this issue, but it is important to be aware of it. Some horses are turned out alone and never receive the opportunity to socialize and really be a horse. We worry that they will get injured in a herd environment but we are torturing them by keeping them cloistered away. Regardless of how valuable your horse is, he is still a horse and should be treated as such. They rely on the herd in a reciprocal manner to feel safe, to play, and to groom one another. Interaction solely with humans is not enough to satisfy their social nature.
In the modern-day world of horses, those that are turned out with others for all or part of the day are placed into a herd as determined by the human care taker. Naturally, horses would live in herds with multiple bands and choose, to some degree, who to live with. They have stable social groups without frequent change in the membership of the herd. In a lot of barns, pasture mates are new and different all the time. It is common to buy and sell horses or keep horses in boarding facilities where the residents are forever rotating.
This instability within the herd creates stress for the horse and is what causes the constant bickering amongst domestic horses as they are always trying to find their place in the herd. There is no way for them to settle in and bond with one another. Often when they do, the humans make another change to the pasture rotation schedule, introduce a new horse, or take a horse out of the mix. This throws the entire pecking order into another upheaval. Furthermore, we change their natural way of being through the practice of separating mares and geldings.
Our horses must live in confined spaces. That is the reality, but are there ways, through compassion and understanding, to improve their circumstances? Through captivity and confinement we take away a lot of their freedom, power, and choice. A disempowered horse that is well cared for and loved is still a disempowered horse. The horse does not choose his life or his fate. Can we find ways to minimize the stress that horses endure while living in our care? Can we help maintain balance and restore some of the power that is robbed of them through a life reliant on the human world?