Ranging in size from a couple of hundred kilograms up to over a tonne in weight, the equine species is large. Throw in the fact that they have a very sensitive flight response and this can make them quite dangerous. And yet, we have managed to domesticate these beautiful creatures and achieve great feats with them. Although they are large, horses are quite delicate in nature and many things can go wrong with them and their health.
It is for this reason, that all horse owners and carers should set themselves a challenge: to learn as much as possible about this species and how to best care for them. As an equine owner or carer, it is important to educate yourself about the horse.
Domestication and the Five Freedoms for Horses
You may have already heard about the five freedoms for horses. If so, this can be a refresher! If not, it is worth noting that there are five things in particular that horses should have freedom to access and experience. It is our job as their carers to make sure this is possible.
1. Hunger, thirst and malnutrition
Horses shouldn’t know hunger or thirst. They should always have access to clean water and ample amounts. Likewise, they should be able to eat little and often. Horses have a digestive system that needs food to be constantly travelling through it. If not, they are prone to ulcers and digestive upsets. This can lead to colic and even death. It’s a big deal!
Malnutrition is often associated with a lack of good food. It means that the horse isn’t getting enough to eat – or not enough of the right things. Note that horses should have diets that are largely made up of roughage. That is, grass, hay or chaffs. Concentrated feed like pellets or grains should make up less than half of the horse’s diet.
2. Disease, pain and injury
All horses should be free of disease, pain and injury. When health issues arise, it is our responsibility to ensure proper care – and the right diagnosis is made. This is where vets can be invaluable. Knowing the vitals of your horse and how to recognise when things aren’t right are also extremely important for the horse carer.
3. Physical and thermal discomfort
Horses shouldn’t have to experience physical discomfort, or uncomfortable temperatures. Note that horses prefer to be colder rather than hotter. A temperature of around 15 degrees Celsius is quite comfortable for them.
Providing horses with access to shade and shelter from the sun and wind can greatly improve their comfort. Rugs are another option against the elements.
4. Fear and distress
No horse should live in fear or distress. This can happen if they’ve experienced a traumatic event. It is our responsibility as their carers to keep them as safe and as comfortable as possible. Horses are creatures of routine. Going about things in a calm manner – and in the same manner – consistently will help to address these concerns.
5. Expressing normal behavioural patterns
Horses are naturally gregarious animals. That is, they like to socialise, and feel safer in a herd. As much as it is possible, allow them to interact in herds. If they must be kept separately, help them by making it possible for them to see other horses and even touch them. This will reduce stress levels.
Horses should also be able to consistently move, eat, drink and groom each other. These are all natural behavioural patterns for them and they’re important.
Domestication and the Five Freedoms
We’ve now had a chance to look at the five freedoms in a bit of detail. Let’s consider a scenario:
A horse is stabled throughout the day and overnight, except for when it is ridden for an hour at a time that best suits its owner. The horse is fed two hard feeds a day with some chaff and has access to a bucket of water that is topped up twice a day.
How many of the five natural freedoms do you feel that this violates?
Firstly, the horse is not guaranteed consistent food and water. There is no mention of hay ad lib so that the horse can graze all day long. And the water bucket needs refilling, so it has the opportunity to run out. Secondly, the horse is restricted in expressing normal behavioural patterns. It isn’t able to socialise with other horses or move about freely and is only able to exercise at a time that suits the owner – not when the horse wants to move.
It is possible for domestication to remove many of the freedoms that horses need and are entitled to. As owners and carers educate themselves about what is important for the horse they can change their management to better suit them.
It is our responsibility to ensure appropriate equine welfare. Having a working knowledge of what is considered acceptable for horses helps us to implement these conditions.
A Call to Action
It is important to learn as much as you can, as often as you can. Now that you’re aware of the five freedoms – or have been reminded of them – what can you put into place to help the horses under your care? If you can change your management of them, adjust their housing or introduce tools that will make life more comfortable – and natural – for them, then do it!
I’d love to hear what you learned from this article and were able to make more positive for your horses. Set yourself a goal in 2017 to learn as much as you can about horse health and care and to implement the new knowledge you’ve acquired.
Christine Meunier is an equine author and educator with a Bachelor of Equine Science. She writes educational but entertaining horse books and a blog about equine related vocations around the world. You can find her on her website Equus Education and on Facebook.