By Louise Reynolds
Social Media has a lot to answer for, oh yes, it is a really good way to keep in touch with customers and for us ordinary people to gain free expert help if we look in the right places and join the right groups. However, it is also a breeding ground for anxiety and guilt. Seemingly innocuous statements can have us losing sleep and feeling like failures.
What are a horse’s needs?
Keeping a horse can be a challenge, especially when we have one horse, a limited budget, and are restricted to what we can change on a livery yard. The winter just gone was the wettest that I can remember and many horses may have been denied any turnout for months. Then, just as we’re coming out of the dark, the new dark cloud of lockdown descends and we might have been asked to turn our horses out so they need less care, at a time when grass is really stressed as it’s spring, it’s dry, and laminitis can be a high-risk factor.
Facebook has posts about how bad it is to keep your horse in a ‘prison’ for 23 hours of the day and how they should be out 24/7 in a mixed herd able to live as naturally as possible. In actual fact most of us keep our horses somewhere in between those two. It is a compromise and to some extent a limitation imposed by yard rules, our work and home life. I hope we are agreed that spending most of their time in a stable is not ideal for horses: For an animal that has evolved to travel several miles every day in the company of a few herd members, being held inside a small room, even a large airy one, does not go very far to meeting his needs, in terms of movement or company.
What are a horse’s needs? There has been some discussion over the years and often Maslow’s Hierarchy has been modified to define what a horse needs to be able to function at his best. I’ve found a great article by Catherine Bell from the IAABC (International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants) Journal to kick off this discussion.
In short, a horse needs Friends, Forage and Freedom; giving him an element of choice from day to day will help improve his mental wellbeing and overall health. This may be from choice of companions and providing foraging opportunities, to giving true choice in training sessions.
Horses do form pair bonds and herd stability is important so then perhaps the changes that occur understandably in a livery situation could have an adverse effect on your horse’s emotional state. So, is it best to keep them separate or to have a big herd, the dynamics of which are bound to change every time a new horse is added or one leaves?
On my yard I have tried to include a mare with new groupings, including my own small herd, but her needs are so specific that it has been difficult to do – she is an Arab, lives on fresh air, and will get very angry at other horses over food, she has relatively little as it has to be weighed and put out several times a day, any grass at this time of year can cause her to become very uncomfortable and bad tempered. So, she lives on her own, next to my herd, they stand together to doze, and can groom each other over parts of the fencing. It’s a compromise; not ideal, but she is thriving, and is hacking over long distances barefoot, which she has not been able to do before, with no soreness. “No foot, no horse” is a very true adage, so this is an excellent indicator of her overall health.
All horses are individuals; yes they have common needs, but each react to their environment in different ways.
Don’t beat yourself up about the way you keep your horse. Whether you are recreational or a competitive rider, or a non-rider, make sure you understand what your horse needs to avoid.