Life behind bars. (Konnyi mir (The Horse World), November/December 2004)
What is the most common answer of Russian horsemen to the question “Why cannot you compete with foreign riders?” It’s “Their horses are different”. Is it so? And why? Why 99 % of our young, talented horses with great potential become complete invalids with a pack of psychological problems in a couple of years? Though as a rule they start their career in a perfect shape and in good health, and they have every prospect of success.
However everything is simple. Approximately 50 per cent of success depend on rider’s and trainer’s skill, ability and knowledge. But the other 50 per cent depend on the management – the conditions of horse care and keeping. Problems within both spheres ensure those lowest results of our sportsmen.
Taking into consideration that it’s horses that pay for these results – and pay by their own pain, sweat and blood – I cannot ignore this issue and say nothing about it. I am sure that many people really wish their horses well, but simply do not know that are they doing.
I’ll say nothing here about the harming effects of the equestrian sport; they’re evident as they are. I won’t discuss problems of dressage and training as well. But what I am trying to do is to draw your attention to one of the most important aspects of horse’s well-being, which is usually lest aside in our country because of people’s ignorance and egoism. I would like to note that all stated below is not only my personal opinion. All the competent horsemen think the same way.
Horse care must always and everywhere meet the requirements of the civilized countries’ code. So the situation will change only when you change the management rules at your stable and try to understand what your horse needs for a normal life.
You need to understand that horses that are kept at stables are deprived of the natural habitat, and that we demand too much of them. People curtail their rights, rarely try to learn their language and, actually, imprison them.
People use horses to suit their own selfish ends, in sport, in riding schools; they make money on horses or simply get pleasure from ownership, and never think that horse owes them nothing. If it turns out that no one will refuse using horses by his own will, then at least we must make their life happier and stop hurting them.
I’ll try to explain in some words why it is no necessary to change our stable management rules and to get rid of old soviet stereotypes.
One day in the life of a horse
Imagine that you’re locked in a stuffy cage as large as bed. Locked there in for years. You have to answer the nature’s call right there under yourself, it constantly stinks. But you have to sleep right in the same place; the ammonia smell irritates your eyes and lungs. Someone feeds you twice a day (note that in the natural habitat horses graze almost constantly). Most probably you’re suffering from gastritis or cough, your legs hurt after the yesterday’s training but the groom on duty will hardly understand your position. There’s no one you may complain to. The stench and sultriness are horrible. The situation is hopeless. While being cleaned you are tied in the stable aisle without any possibility to move if you, for example, feel pain or it tickles. They cry at you and slap you with a curry comb.
Once a day you’re taken out to take a breath of fresh air. But when squinting in the sun you decide to fill your chest with normal air, you feel sharp pain from a harshly tightened girth. And you go to work. During an hour they ride on your back without any break, picking your sides with spurs and punishing you with bits in the mouth for any resistance. I do not want to speak about the riding itself. The horse feels absolutely no pleasure in this. You can hardly meet a sportsmen or amateur who would understand anything in horse anatomy or physiology, muscle, joints, heart functioning etc. Almost all horses suffer from improper actions of an ignorant rider. 90% of saddle-horses have pathological changes in their musculoskeletal system - injured backs and joints. When they’re under saddle they’re constantly feeling pain.
So imagine that with all this going on you cannot say anything and have no right to complain. Your natural reaction to pain is looked upon as a rebellion and you’re punished even more. After work you go to the same cage as large as bed and all your amusement for the day is over.
So you spend twenty three hours in a sweat-box and an hour is dedicated to tortures. Do you like such a day regimen? What is the name for such existence?
However this is yet not the worst variant. Everyone knows how to cope with stable vices. If a horse being stabled for twenty three hours tries to make something inappropriate, it’s punished for its bad behavior cruelly and immediately. If a horse starts to wind suck they put a special collar on its neck. If it starts to weave – they get it tied on a short leash for all night.
No one wants to think about the reasons for such behavior, that the horse is suffering physically and mentally and that’s why it starts acting like a madman rocking on the edge of his bed in an asylum, trying to ease his mental pain a little bit.
The great Parelli once said that if all sport horses were people they all would be already in a madhouse…
All stable vices are caused by simple reasons. You should understand this and improve the situation. It’s not so difficult. Try to feel the emotional state of your horse. Just do it.
Before horses began to be used in sport and for pleasure riding they rarely had such stable vices as they had to work too hard and they were simply unable to do anything else and had no time for it.
These vices display mental suffering which is due to horse’s imprisonment and social isolation. Horse’s mental state and some aspects of its behavior mostly depend on horse’s way of living and environment. The best way would be to keep horses in small groups in a field, but taking into consideration the cost of many horses and the high possibility of traumatism in such conditions as well as the absence of nearby pastures, winter conditions, insects, greases etc., we keep our horses stabled 22-24 hours a day. Here we can see a certain regularity: the higher a horse’s cost and the more “sporting” a stable is, the more seldom horses are allowed to communicate with each other and walk in paddocks, though it’s these horses that need such rest most of all, they need this physiological relaxation in company of their congeners.
The cause of such substitute behaviors or stable vices is stress. A horse cannot drink valerian drops or give itself an injection of acepromazine. But the nature is wise and it gave the horse a possibility to ease that depressive state. That means to acquire stable bad habits.
If we look at the problem from the physiological side we’ll see that with the help of stable vices a horse stimulates the excretion of endorphins what has a calming effect and damp down the feel of discomfort and suffering. Horses become addicted to this auto-excreted drug and it solves partly their problem.
I won’t weary you with listing of all the stable vices here. I am sure that every person who was once at a stable could name a dozen of them. And it’s a well-known fact that if a horse grazes in a field with other horses, all these bad habits disappear.
In our climatic zone a solution could be found in the American barn system of horse housing. Horses are kept in groups in a large barn. They are able to communicate with each other and live a kind of their own life, so they need not to acquire bad habits.
Horses often come into conflict with each other and when they have no possibility to sort out their relationship with other horses and to define their hierarchic rank, they began to conflict with people: to establish the dominance. Here comes another type of vices: biting, kicking, bucking etc. Such behavior is looked upon as direct aggression and a horse is severely punished though it only acts in accordance with its instincts.
A horse deprived of communication with other horses suffers as well from lack of tactile contact. When we prevent our horse from biting we suppress one of its instincts - horse’s personality. You should understand that if a horse bites you aggressively or attacks you then your horse is a dominant leader and you are a subordinate. Try to gain its trust and respect, however you’ll never succeed in it applying force. And don’t you ever punish your horse. In your horse’s eyes you’re a predator. You may make him to be afraid of you but never to respect you.
It’s good if your horse bites in a friendly way, however it may be quite painful. But never slap a horse on its face to break of that habit as many people do. Every time a horse will draw back its head as it won’t understand why it gets that slap in response to a friendly movement. You’ll never become its friend.
We are responsible for our horses’ physical and mental health. So we have to conform to the following rules.
No one will do all this instead of you. You won’t achieve any good results till you don’t change your horse keeping rules. If you are unable to provide your horses with all the necessary things, why do you buy them then? To tell your friends about your sport achievements?
Or do you buy a horse and pay for its keeping just to work with it for an hour and then go away with a clear conscience leaving it locked in a cell for the rest of the day? Can you really feel pleasure from such love?