Horse Ownership Responsible Sustainable Ethical
Every horse owner should have a commitment to look after their horse(s) in a responsible and ethical manner. Anyone who owns or cares for horses should understand at least the basics of horse care and welfare – by having a horse you take on a ‘duty of care’. Good horse care is essential for the well-being of a horse, they rely on us completely to get it right. We believe that as a bare minimum, an owner should be aiming to follow the principals laid out in the Five Freedoms and the Three F’s.
The five freedoms
The subject of horse welfare is multi-faceted. Yes, it is about confronting and responding to instances of neglect, wilful cruelty and ignorance. However it is also about looking at how we keep horses, how we train them etc. It is about challenging, and if necessary rethinking, traditional practices in light of what we know about horses today.
This subject is rapidly evolving and can be highly contentious. What was thought to be good welfare practice 10 years ago may no longer be the case. Opinions can be divided and while there will never be a consensus about what constitutes good horse welfare (or animal welfare in general for that matter), the bar is being raised and conditions continue to (generally) be improved.
It is easy to get bogged down and think that there is nothing that you can do on a personal level about horse welfare but instead of feeling overwhelmed and powerless take an interest, find out about issues and discuss these with friends. In doing so you are bringing difficult issues out into the open and helping to get people thinking (and hopefully taking action).
Many welfare issues are caused not through malice, but through a lack of education or understanding and we as a horse community must take responsibility for spreading knowledge and questioning some accepted practices.
Animal welfare agencies talk about ‘The five freedoms’. These are the five basic rights that all animals should have.
Translated into horse parlance these are:
- Freedom from thirst and hunger – a horse should have ready access to fresh, clean water and sufficient amounts of the correct foodstuffs. Horse feeding practices must take into account their requirements for a very high fibre diet as that is what they have evolved to eat. Preferably fibre should be available to a horse 24/7.
- Freedom from discomfort – a horse should have an appropriate environment to live in; adequate space, shade and shelter are important. Management systems must take into account normal horse behaviours. Horses are herd animals, meaning they are inherently social and require company. It is time to rethink outdated traditional management practices.
- Freedom from pain, injury and disease – a horse owner should know at least the basics of horse care and be able to recognise when a horse needs veterinary attention or is in need of a horse dentist, farrier or other horse health professional.
- Freedom to express normal behaviour – a horse owner should understand at least the basics of horse behaviour. This knowledge is important not only to provide suitable living conditions for any horses in their care, but also in order to train them humanely. Understanding horse behaviour is also essential for a rider or handler’s safety.
- Freedom from fear and distress – a horse owner should not place a horse in a situation where the horse continues to suffer stress/distress; nor should a horse owner use training methods that cause fear, pain or distress. By using humane training methods, horses can be trained effectively and safely.
The Three F’s
- Forage – Horses are basically a fibre processing animal. Their whole psychology (behaviour) and physiology have evolved to enable them to thrive on a very high fibre diet. Therefore a horse should have ‘ad-lib’ access to high-fibre, low energy/low protein forage.
- Friendship – horses are highly social herd animals that develop strong bonds with other horses. If we separate horses, we deny them this basic need which can cause behavioural and management issues for them as well as problems for our land. All horses need companionship and it is your duty as a responsible horse owner to ensure that this basic need is met. Horses ideally need other horses for companionship; lacking other horses, they will form bonds with other animals, cattle, sheep goats etc., but this is no real substitute for another horse. We as owners like to think that our horses bond with us, and they do to a certain extent, but beside the fact that we cannot live with them 24/7, we should never assume that we are a good enough substitute for another horse.
- Freedom – horses should be free to be able to make choices. Horses are often ‘micro-managed’ – kept in stables, given their food in weighed out amounts in nets and buckets, brought out just to ride or train. Sometimes every aspect of their lives is dictated by humans. They should have some choice in when they eat, sleep, socialise and, to a certain extent, where they want to be at different times of the day. We obviously have to make compromises due to the constraints of our boundary fences, but within these boundaries we can give our horses some choices whilst, at the same time, meeting both their needs and ours.
Feeding and watering
Horses need clean fresh water ad-lib (which means as much as they want – when they want). Feeding is more involved but not necessarily as complicated as it is often made out to be. Basically horses need to eat a high fibre diet so this should be the main component of any feeding regime (so ad-lib hay/forage if possible). On top of that depends on what extra nutrients the horse needs (if the hay or grass is deficient) and what extra energy the horse needs (if the horse is working hard). A horse should also be monitored for fluctuations in weight although it is normaland natural for a horse to weigh a little more or a little less depending on the season.
With The Equicentral System water and hay are usually placed in a central ‘loafing’ yard.
Horses are naturally active animals – or should be. Modern management systems often ignore this very important point. Lack of proper exercise leads to behavioural problems, obesity (and therefore more risk of Laminitis – a very serious equine condition), circulation problems, hoof problems etc. One of the best ways a horse can get adequate exercise is by grazing – because horses continually walk while they graze. Being with other horses adds to this because they keep each other moving. If a horse does not live out 24/7 or is not turned out every day for several hours then you need to create moremovement by exercising in some way.
With The Equicentral System the horses should get a good amount of exercise depending on how much time they get to graze. Remember: grazing = walking.
Domestic horses may or may not need rugging. They may be unable to move around enough to keep warm. Older horses and thin-skinned horses may need extra warmth. Horses that are allergic to insect bites usually need rugging for protection. However, rugging is a controversial subjectas many horses are rugged when they do not need to be and rugging in hot weather can certainly be a welfare issue. When a healthy horses horse is able to move around and is able to access shelter then rugging is not usually required. You need to be careful that you are not being pressured into rugging just because others think you should!
With The Equicentral System rugs are not usually required because the horses have access to shelter.
A domestic horse is often prevented from doing the things that would help them to take care of their own skin. Rugging prevents mutual grooming and slows skin shedding among other things. Separating horses obviously prevents mutual grooming. Even though you may not think of this as grooming, your horse certainly does! If possible allow horses time to carry out their own skin care routines – this involves taking rugs off for regular periods if you choose to use them, keeping horses in herds so that they can mutually groom and providing surfaces that are good for rolling!
With The Equicentral System the horses live in a herd, preferably unrugged and take care of their own skin.
Shade and shelter
In hot weather, shade is important, in colder/wetter weather, shelter from the cold, the rain and snow and the wind. Most of the time shade/shelter are one and the same (i.e. a simple roof will do both as will vegetation). Horses generally prefer to be under or behind something to actually being inside a building. Horses usually spend a significant amount of their time utilizing shade and shelter, it is very important to them, and yet often horses are often kept in paddocks with neither. This is definitely a welfare issue. On many horse properties adequate shade already exists – but may not being used properly. Good design means that expensive buildings are utilised effectively.
With The Equicentral System the horses always have access to shade/shelter and can decide when they want to use it.
Companionship is vitally important for horses but modern management systems often try to disregard the fact that horses need other horses. Like other grazing herbivores they are a herd animal. In the wild they live in a ‘home range’ as part of a herd. A home range is an area that contains the resources (water, food, shelter) that the herd needs – the size of the home range is totally dependent on the availability of the resources. In a home range the group makes decisions about where they want to and when. It is usually possible to make small changes to a domestic horse’s ‘lifestyle’ that results in them being able to live more ‘naturally’.
With The Equicentral System the horses have a ‘home range’ and can access their resources as and when they need them – as a herd.
Irrespective of if a horse is shod or barefoot, they all need good, regular hoof care. The domestic horse is unable to wear down their hooves as nature intended. Shoes completely prevent that wear from occurring. Even barefoot horses, unless they are getting just the right amount of movement, on just the right surfaces, still do not get enough wear to the hooves and need specialist attention. After all the old saying ‘no hoof, no horse‘ is very true. Without good hooves, and the good circulation that goes with them, a horse cannot function well at all. Aim to learn as much as possible about your horse’s hooves so that you can make informed decisions about their care.
With The Equicentral System horses move more than in traditional horse keeping systems, usually over a variety of surfaces, this helps enormously with hoof health (particularly if unshod).
Domestic horses usually eat different types and different quality food to their free-living cousins. Free-living horses eat more fibrous/abrasive plants. Domestic horses tend to eat less abrasive plants and they often eat grains too which create different chewing and wear patterns. They also tend to live a lot longer, so they need their teeth to last for a long time too. Therefore good, regular dental care is an essential part of horse care. Make sure you get the help of a qualified equine vet/dentist to take care of your horse’s teeth.
With The Equicentral System the horses are usually eating a high fibre/low sugar diet. This helps with dental care.
This subject can be very confusing for horse owners. There is so much conflicting information out there. You need an effective ‘worming’ program and this needs to be backed up by good paddock/pasture management. The better your land management the less you need to rely on chemical anthelmintics (chemical ‘wormers’). There are lots of ways that you can vastly reduce the parasitic ‘worms’ on an area of land. These include, cross/mixed grazing, harrowing, pasture rotation, dung beetles, chickens, manure collection, composting, vermicomposting, using egg counts etc. By using some or even all of these strategies you can make a huge difference to parasite management.
With The Equicentral System parasite/manure management become much easier. Pasture rotation is the main feature but it is also easy to implement the other strategies listed above.
Gear selection and fitting
The correct selection and fitting of gear is very important if you want your horse to work with you without being uncomfortable or in pain. Much of the horse gear for sale today harks back to a time when horses were used simply as a tool for work. The use of some of that gear needs a rethink in light of modern horse management/welfare.
It is not always a case of the most expensive being the best. Good gear will last you a lifetime and serve both you and your horse well. But you need to make the right choice. Gear should be fitted/checked by an expert if you are not experienced – otherwise your horse may start to behave ‘unpredictably’ through no fault of their own.
Basic health assessment
All horse owners/carers should know how to do a basic health assessment of their horse so that they know when to call a vet. Learning how to check the hydration status of your horse, take the temperature, check respiration and other vital signs can be fun and gives you peace of mind. It is also very useful information to be able to give a vet over the phone if necessary. Find out if there is a course near you that you can access.