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.
Recently, in a horse industry related Facebook group I am part of, someone essentially made this statement. This was in response to a conversation about Western Pleasure horses, that (as such conversations typically do) had spun wildly out of control. In a big fat hurry. For whatever reason, the only part of the whole sordid affair that actually stuck with me was this comment…”she wasn’t being negative, just honest…” I’m sorry. What? Is this what our world has come to? People can say whatever they want, anywhere they want (including social media), about anything they want, because they are being HONEST? I beg to differ.
First of all, one can be honest and negative at the same time…people do it frequently in this “reality show” world we live in. For whatever reason, folks seem to like to make wild, uneducated statements, or take perfectly good and civil conversations off the rails, and then wait to see how many “likes” they get for being a jerk. Unfortunately, they often do it in real life, where there is no actual “Like” option. Oftentimes their friends (or groupies) will chime in for the desired effect to some degree, but there is another group…anyone else involved or in ear (or eye) shot. At minimum, someone might lose a few Facebook friends…but sometimes depending on how they choose their words, they quickly lose the respect of people that don’t even know them. Not really something you want to do in the horse industry very often, because while it’s big, it’s not that big.
What the horse industry needs is for people to realize that we are all part of the SAME industry, and we need to present it as something in which others would want to participate. No matter your breed, association, level, discipline or activity. Equine activity participation numbers are dropping in many areas, and that is heartbreaking. Maybe it’s the economy and maybe it will turn around, but NOT if we continue to treat one another (and one another’s horses) with disrespect. Let’s face it, horse people…”horse people” have a reputation for being difficult to work with…truthfully we come by it honestly sometimes. And that needs to change if we want to bring others into the fold and continue to have a successful industry in the long run. People spend enough time bickering at work or school, and dealing with bullies or other forms of stress and tension…for the vast majority (though not all), horses are supposed to be a stress reducing, quality of life improving outlet. For others, they are one’s personal livelihood. (Rewatch that Tom Cruise classic Risky Business for a refresher on what you DON’T do to another man’s livelihood) If we want our industry to succeed in the future…we need to come up with more positive ways of doing things. Recently, Laura Stevens had a great article on GoHorseShow.com on random acts of kindness at the horse show . These are the kinds of things we need to think about, and do…maybe you could even some up with a few more….
Not being negative. Just honest.
I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for 6 or 8 months. A place to share random thoughts (sometimes very random) on the things I’m interested in. A little “out of the box thinking” if you will. Naturally, anyone who knows me knows that horses, horse judging, and the horse industry in general will likely be regular topics, hence the “Out of the Box Stall” title. It would not be unusual for me to write the odd post about corgis, too. I may also post about about sport and performance psychology, from time to time. Or maybe even thoughts on getting out of you own “box stall”. It’s hard to say for sure…but I had to start somewhere, and this seemed like a pretty good place.