The first question is why do we need anything other than the customary practice we’ve built up over the years? And the answer would be that many of those practices are remnants of a past that was radically different from today.
You only have to go back a little over a 100 years and the horse was still the single most important utility in human society. Large numbers of horses were used commercially, for transport and draft in and around towns and cities, requiring them to be kept locally and intensively. Large numbers of military horses were concentrated in cavalry line accommodation to allow for daily group training or immediate deployment.
Those conditions of use and the utility value of horses joined together to produce an attitude that was completely different to that of today: the following quote is from a recent book by Ann Norton Greene: By century’s end, the people driving the horses were in most cases mere employees, who thought of horses as company property. As managers demanded the hauling of larger and larger loads, the employees sometimes abused the horses to satisfy them. (1) Pretty much the whole focus of horse management during the age was how the greatest use could be made of the horse – and, once the horse is confined in a building behaviour becomes of less importance, except where it either interferes with or restricts use.
Go back further in history and we come to a time in which many horses were kept extensively by nomadic or semi nomadic peoples. Their survival required that they knew the horse in a very different way. Without fences and walls and gates your ability to manage and maintain a herd of horses for the use of your immediate or extended family depended entirely on how well you understand their behavior. Each day your primary task was to make certain the herd had sufficient feed and water, or you could expect them to voluntarily relocate! With the horses constantly moving they tended to stay far fitter and healthier, and there was far less need to protect the tough durable hoof that such movement produces. But competing stallions, geldings and mares need to be effectively managed, and in such a way that organized cavalry maneuvers can be mounted rapidly. Very little of the knowledge from this older past has trickled down, often because it was held by people with no written language – which is a great shame. There may be a lot more useful lessons to be learnt from those more distant times than from much closer history.
And so here we are at the present. We have a very different environment to that of the 1800 or 1900s. The commercial and military use of horses across the developed world has all but vanished. There is no longer the necessity for large groups of horses to be kept so close into towns and cities that they need to be managed intensively and in confinement. By contrast there are greater pressures on real estate, which, for a space hungry animal such as the horse, is a major threat. There are also developing concerns over the environment, requiring that we think about how horses fit into the larger, sustainable, picture. Plus there is the growing movement of people that want to connect with animals in a more open, respectful, practical and ethical way.
Arguably what we need is an up to date and complete philosophy suited to these present needs, rather than a mish-mash of customary practices from the past that reflect a different reality. Behavior based horse management (BBHM) is one attempt to create one.
You’ll note that the word ‘natural’ is completely absent so far – and for good reason, since the meaning is so very open to perception. For example ‘natural behaviors’ would likely refer to those found in an ethogram of a particular feral or semi-feral group – in a single, specific, environment. But whilst free expression of those behaviors has often been seen as synonymous with ‘good welfare’, the behaviors a native pony may need to carry out in the New Forest, or a brumby in the Australian outback, are not necessarily going to be the same as those of a fully domestic horse living in the suburbs of an industrial city. In each case what the horse needs is to carry out a package of behaviors that allow it to become functionally adapted to its specific environment. How natural or not those behaviors are, or by what standard they’re ‘naturalness’ might be judged is really irrelevant.
In any case for most horses it’s the human element within their environment that has by far the most powerful impact. And if the horse is going to survive in a domestic environment its ability to interact with people successfully is essential. There are behaviors that might work for feral horses but that don’t fit the majority of domestic environments. Encouraging the expression of a behavior from the ‘wild’, but that has a negative effect on the ability of the horse to function well in a domestic environment makes no good sense, no matter how ‘natural’ it might be.
BBHM operates on a principle, shared with conservationists and the organic movement (2), that what is needed is a caretaker, whose role is defined as “a human who assists animals in their daily interplay with their environment”. (3)
So the caretaker’s role is to assist the horse to adapt functionally, and fortunately horses are very adaptable creatures. Even so, there are going to be environments to which it is simply not possible for the horse to adapt, and in which it fails to function well. What makes sense in that situation is to acknowledge the reality, and move the horse out and into one where successful adaptation is possible. Across the remaining range of environments how much work the caretaker has to do will depend; in some the horses are going to need a lot of assistance to get through each day, in others far less.
So what would ‘successful adaptation’ mean? Let’s consider a horse kept primarily for riding. The horse will need to be healthy, and both physically strong and fit enough to carry the rider’s weight in comfort and safety. The horse’s senses need to be operating efficiently so that the horse is able to make decisions while being ridden that impact on rider safety. The horse needs to be well rested and in a well balanced emotional and psychological state in order to interact well with both the rider and the riding environment. Effective communication must exist between horse and rider, plus a co-operative attitude in which the horse carries out the movements that are communicated to it willingly – and for that to happen the attitude of the horse to that particular person, and really to people in general, has to be good. And obviously the adaptation should have some duration – so however the horse is kept it has to be sustainable over an extended period.
If they are to assist the horse to adapt functionally caretakers have to be able to design and manage environments that reliably produce the desired outcome. And for it to have widespread value it has to be done at a reasonable cost.
A majority of the horses that are slaughtered each year have failed to adapt in some way. Physical problems such as with feet from insufficient movement, or lower leg lameness’s from being put into work too early, allergic reactions to housing, obesity and other systemic issues from feed problems, plus the raft of psychological problems; dangerous or anti-social behavior, stereotypies, work intolerance, anxiety and depression. The aim of a philosophy like BBHM is to facilitate successful adaptation to the benefit of all involved – horse, people and the greater environment.
By Andy Beck
1. Norton Greene, A. (2008) HORSES AT WORK – Harnessing Power in Industrial America. Harvard University Press.
2. Algers, B. (1990) “Naturligt beteende – ett naturligt begrepp?.” Svensk Veterinartidning.
3. Segerdahl, P. (2006) Can natural behavior be cultivated? The farm as local human/animal culture. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2007) 20:167-193