an article in instalments. Part Three will be published on 15 July.
What is horse-centricity?When we look at what we can do to make life better for our horse, from accommodation through feeding to tack and riding, the traditionalists will aways try to defend their actions with a series of what are becoming very tired arguments. Possibly the most cited is that ‘the horse was never meant to be ridden in the first place…’ So the first thing we need to do when defining horse-centricity is to dispense with the worst of these arguments.
- The horse was never meant to be ridden…Very true. There is no counter argument to this statement. However, despite the horse being more than capable of rejecting mans attempts to tame and ride him, he has shown a clear complicity with man; a complicity not found, for instance, in the zebras (we see a similar complicity with the wolf Canis lupus, from which developed the domestic dog Canis [lupus] familiaris, but not with the fox Vulpes).
- Today’s horse is not the early horse…Again, true; 50 million years of evolution has gone into making the horse what it is today. The modern horse first appeared around 5 million years ago and was found across the whole of the Northern hemisphere over 15,000 years ago. However, Equus was first domesticated a mere 5,000 years ago. In evolutionary terms, if the total existence of the horse can be compressed into the past 50 years, the modern horse arrived on the scene some 5 years ago and had populated the whole of the Northern hemisphere by about 5½ days ago; domestication happened during the last 44 hours and the application of horseshoes as we know them, started less than 5 hours ago. Few people reading this will have started to ride a horse more than half-an-hour ago!Clearly, there was a great deal more evolution before man’s intervention than has come after. Obviously with breeding programmes there has been an improvement, or more often degradation, in certain physical traits, but one thing remains, the horse is practically unchanged from the animal first domesticated less than two days / 5000 years ago.
- My horse prefers…(fill in owner’s preferences here)Your horse is fundamentally no different from any other horse. Even if you would prefer him to be! And his natural traits are really unchanged when compared with the early domesticated horse (see point 2). Almost invariably, it is the owner’s preferences which prevail, not those of the horse. The power of anthropomorphism is severely underestimated. We like to read something human into the behaviour of our horse in order to apply human values. Or we believe that human values and equine values are the same and try to enforce the former on our horses. Or simple ignorance; we know how we as humans react to certain conditions and so we expect our horses to be the same.
Making life betterMany riders / owners make token gestures towards making life better. Riders / owners who are proud to have gone barefoot (praiseworthy in itself) but still stable their horses at night; ride bitless but still feed concentrates and bread… If we are to make the lives of our horses better, we must start with the fundamentals and work up.
An oft uttered phrase is ‘my horse wants to go into his stable at night’. However, when we analyse this statement, we find that the horse is fed (concentrates) which, in effect, lure him into the stable. The real test is whether he stays in the stable with the door open when he has finished eating – highly unlikely.Another comment is ‘my horse gets restless when it gets dark’ and so the owner feels that he must bring his horse in. If we study the general behaviour of horses at dusk, we see that far from indicating a desire to seek shelter, it is a moment of general heightened activity. Horses that have never know a stable or shelter exhibit exactly the same behaviour. And it continues through a good part of the night.
Coupled with the horse’s increased activity at dusk, is the owner’s own, human, fear of the dark. We are used to hunkering down, closing blinds, curtains and shutters when darkness falls; closing out the perils of the night. Reflect for a moment on this poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth:
Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.
You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,
little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.
Stay by the fire, my Cat. Lie still, do not go.
See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,
I will bring you a saucer of milk like a Marguerite,
so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet –
stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.
Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,
strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,
and more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,
on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar –
Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,
and things that are yet to be done. Open the door!
Another subject of anthropomorphism. We eat two or three times a day (better three but there will always be someone who says that they cannot face that most important meal of the day, breakfast…); so we consider that our horses should too. So we feed them concentrates morning and evening – but not shortly before we ride because that can cause colic. A handful of hay should keep them going in between meals, particularly at night when locked up in the stable.
But this is not what nor how the horse feeds. The horse has a relatively small stomach which obliges it to eat regularly – twelve to fifteen times a day. It needs this regularity both to keep the fires stoked and to protect the stomach. The protective lining of the horse’s stomach is only partial. Two-thirds of the stomach wall is not protected and vigorous activity on an empty stomach will cause splashing of stomach acid onto the unprotected lining. This in turn can lead to ulceration.
Feeding concentrates does give an energy boost —although we will see that this is short-lived and counter-productive— but it does not satisfy the hunger nor does it provide any protection for the stomach lining. What it does do, is work like a drug, or equine Red Bull. Research done by the University of Bordeaux in November 2007 showed that sugar is 96% more addictive than cocaine. And in concentrates, there is a large quantity of sugar in the form of starch; this is excluding the many feeds that also contain molasses…
Like humans, the horse has an appendix; only in the case of the horse, it is a sack called the cæcum and is, relatively, much larger. This appendix is one of the major powerhouses of the horse’s digestive system. It contains vast numbers of bacteria with the principle role of breaking down the cellulose in the horse’s —normally— grassy diet. From this, sugars are slowly liberated giving energy to the horse in a regulated and almost constant manner. The pH or acidity level of the cæcum is ±7 or neutral. When we feed pure sugars, in the form of molasses or starch-rich grain, these are liberated far more rapidly, giving the horse a rapid energy boost – similar to Red Bull – but also one which dissipates as rapidly as it is built up – again, similar to Red Bull – creating a yoyo effect. Furthermore, these directly accessible sugars alter the pH level of the cæcum, raising the acidity to ±3 killing off the natural bacteria that would normally break down cellulose. This has a serious deleterious effect upon the natural endurance capabilities of the horse. Now we have an animal that is stressed, suffering from ulcers, reliant upon shots of rapid sugars for short bursts of energy and suffering lethargy the rest of the time.
As many an ego-driven rider / owner says, the horse was never meant to be ridden…so why do we insist upon riding? I’m not advocating complete abstinence but surely there is more to the horse-human relationship than brushing-down, saddling-up, getting-on and riding-off! A recent French survey showed that over 90% of horses in riding schools hated being groomed to the point that some were violently aggressive. This cannot be right. Grooming should be that moment of intimate contact with the horse, a moment of relaxation. But for that 90% of horses, it is a sign that they were about to be put to work. Having spent hours locked up in a 9m² box, the new prospect is to be ‘locked-up’ under a saddle, with a bit in the mouth and heels kicking in the ribs, being bored to tears in the ring for the next hour. And what then, a quick brush-down, if we are lucky, a hose-down if we are really lucky, and back into the box for a few more hours… What a life!