When you look at the picture included with this post. What do you see? At first glance, you’re probably thinking something on the order of “two horses in a turn out together, duh.” In actuality, what this photo represents is a great deal of angst for me, and in turn, a lot of thinking about why I felt the way I did about this situation, and how it relates to the horse industry as a whole.
The crux of the matter is this: I’ve owned The Horse in the blue blanket for 10 years. Up until this week, he had never been turned out with another horse. Yes, I am ducking, and putting on my flame retardant suit, because I know that for some of you those are fightin’ words. For others, you’re still wondering what the big deal is….many those who show extensively don’t turn your horses out with others either, for a variety of reasons, and if you do, it’s often alone. (Yes, I recognize that some also DO turn your show horses out with others, but that seems to decrease the more your financial or emotional investment (or some combination) has increased.
Let me see if I can clear it up some. Some of you may have noticed that I referred to this horse as The Horse. Capital “T” Capital “H”. I refer to him this way because yes folks, he is one special horse (to me). He has won a bunch, was a great Western Pleasure horse in his time (buttoning up the flame proof suit now), and is a Showmanship machine. He’s unique, with a ton of personality, and if he were a cartoon character he’d be Dennis the Mennace. I fuss over this horse like no equine professional ever should…and while I make a living helping others learn to manage horses, I always feel a bit inadequate when making decisions for this one. Including decisions like turnout. When I brought him home, he had been in a training barn, and was actively being shown. As far as I knew, he had not been turned out at all, and I wanted that to change. At the same time, I didn’t want him to get injured by another horse, in part because I didn’t want to lose him as a show horse, but truthfully, I didn’t want to lose him period. Horses play…horses kick…and horses break bones. Sometimes fatally. I didn’t want that for this Horse (or any, obviously, but especially not this one). He’s one of “those” horses that you only have a few of in your lifetime.
I know that some of you are now thinking that I have completely lost my mind. Some of you have horses that are always turned out with others, You consider it an abomination if they aren’t, and are seriously considering calling the internet version of animal control on me right now. In your mind, horses are herd animals that should always be with other horses, period, amen, the end. Anything else is cruel. But often, horses get used to the “habits” of their lives, and to do something dramatically different is actually stressful to them. And now maybe you’re starting to see where I’m going with this.
The fact of the matter is that I am very familiar with what are known as “The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare”, which were developed in the UK as a guideline for the care and stockmanship of animals (http://www.fawc.org.uk/freedoms.htm). Since then they are also the guidelines against which animal behaviorists and others measure standards of animal care. The five freedoms are:
1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
2. Freedom from Discomfort – by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
5. Freedom from Fear and Distress – by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
I think this is a pretty good list, frankly, and despite the fact that The Horse was not physically turned out in the same lot as another horse, he had plenty of company over the fence, between the stalls, and met all five freedoms pretty adequately (in my mind) even before the turn out with a buddy. The reason for the change in turnout was because he was playing over the fence with the gray horse, and there was some concern that one or both would be injured. Given that I am not actively showing The Horse at present, and he could stand to improve his equine social skills, the decision was made to try to put the two of them together. I prayed (A LOT) that neither would be injured, held my breath, and waited. When I arrived at the farm, The Horse was at the waterer, and his pal was playing with the horses in the next lot. Over the fence. Pretty uneventful all in all. A non-issue, as many neuroses are.
But what about my original comment about the greater industry, you ask? What this had me thinking about was some of the judgements that are made even within the Horse Industry (capitals again, so I mean the whole enchilada). I know that some have a real problem when horses aren’t turned out with others. Their world view simply will not allow them to consider the fact that sometimes the reasons that people don’t turn out horses with others, or that they keep them in stalls, or do any of a number of things, is that they LOVE their horses, and want the best for them. Yes, sometimes it is a business decision. I get that. But more often than not, they actually want to make certain that all 5 Freedoms, and hence good animal welfare is achieved…they care about their animals in ways that those who don’t actually know or talk to them will never fully appreciate. While we can’t “bury our heads in the sand” and ignore poor welfare when it happens, we need to actually talk to one another. (And by the way, there is a difference between animal welfare and animal rights. Look it up.)
In the end, perhaps a little more getting to know one another, and a little less judgement, and for sure a little less legislation without understanding the whole situation, is what this Industry needs.