Written by Penny Hawes and appeared in our July/August 2016 issue
1. Remember He’s a Prey Animal
One of the most important things you can remember to ensure the health and happiness of your horse is that horses are prey animals… and humans are predators. When you think about the horse/human relationship, it’s quite amazing that horses welcome us into their lives so completely. Understanding what it means to be a prey animal will go a long way toward helping you and your horse deepen your relationship. Here are a few key points to remember about prey animals in general and horses in particular.
• Horses have survived for millennia by running from what scares them. Given the perennial choice of fight or flight, horses will choose flight 99% of the time. If you’ve ever seen a horse freak out and pull back while tied, you may have noticed that once the rope/halter/fence/cross tie breaks, the horse stands still. It’s not that he necessarily wanted to run off, it’s that he needed to know that he could if necessary.
• Horses, like most prey animals, have their eyes on the side of their heads. This placement allows them a field of vision of 350° so they can see predators approach from nearly any direction. Useful as this is for a prey animal, it can have a downside for the horse/human relationship. Most of horses’ vision is monocular, so they have different fields of vision with each eye with only a small percentage of overlap. In practical terms, this means that when you ride past a scary object going in one direction, your horse isn’t being stubborn or stupid when he shies at it going in the opposite direction. He is seeing it as something completely new and different. Hopefully, walking a mile in your horse’s shoes will give you a bit of empathy for his behavior.
• Horses communicate quite clearly through their body language. Learning your hose’s language can help you interpret what he’s thinking, feeling, and about to do. Going back to the range of vision, horses that are relaxed will typically carry their head lower than one that’s extremely tense. The reason? When a horse’s head is carried low, his body blocks more of his field of vision that when it’s high.
The classic example of all of those behaviors is a horse that’s startled. The first thing he’s likely to do is tense his muscles (preparing for flight), raise his head and turn it slightly to the side to give him a clearer view of what might be creeping up behind him. He may trot forward a few steps and turn his body part way around to accomplish the same thing. However he plays it, he’s depending on his prey animal instincts and trying to stay alive the only way he knows how.
2. Remember He’s a Herd Animal
Along with his legacy as a prey animal, your horse has also evolved as a herd animal. Herds offer your horse social context which includes a defined place in the pecking order and the knowledge that he’s protected by the leaders of the herd. Horses thrive on routine and structure. Even though the closest your horse may ever come to being a wild horse is turnout in his paddock with boots and a fly sheet, it’s important to remember that he needs to understand his place in his herd, whether that includes other horses or just the humans that care for him. Like teenagers, horses may not think they want rules and structure, but generally everyone is happier when they know their place in the world.
3. Remember He’s a Grazing Animal
Horses, by nature are grazers. Their bodies, especially their digestive system, evolved to eat little and often, and to move about while doing so. While we may argue that domesticated animals are far better off than their wild peers because they don’t have all of the perils of living in the wild, it’s still critical to remember that their digestive system hasn’t evolved anywhere near as quickly as their living conditions, especially over the last few hundred years. The closer you can keep your horse’s environment to his natural living situation, the healthier he’s likely to be – both physically and mentally.
If your horse is able to be turned out several hours or more a day, that’s wonderful. If not, be creative in ways to keep him happy and healthy. Some ways to do that are:
• Use a slow feeding hay net. These nets have smaller openings and keep the horse eating his hay for a longer period of time. Lengthening his eating time, in addition to being better for his physical health, may help keep boredom at bay and prevent your horse from developing stable vices such as cribbing, weaving and stall walking.
• If your horse is doing heavy work and needs a large grain ration, split it into as many portions as possible. Two feedings are better than one, and four are better still.
• If your horse is in a stall or small paddock without ample grazing, consider a horse toy which delivers grain in small portions as the horse rolls it around with his nose. A caveat – try not to let your horse ingest a lot of sandy soil. If he’s in sandy conditions, using supplement, typically psyllium seeds, to help prevent sand colic is a good idea.
If your horse is fortunate enough to have plenty of turnout, there are still some other things you’ll need to take care of to keep him happy. We’ll cover a few of them in the next section.
4. Remember He’s a Dependent Animal
Another aspect of keeping your horse happy is to remember that he’s completely dependent on you. Shelter from the elements, sufficient food and clean water, veterinary care, hoof care – your horse is unable to provide any of this for himself. Despite their size, horses are surprisingly delicate, and inattentive care can be harmful or deadly.
Keeping a horse happy and healthy isn’t easy and it isn’t cheap. If you’re contemplating horse ownership, look well past the purchase price and understand that you are becoming responsible for an animal that can live into his 30s. If you’re not sure you’re committed, take lessons, volunteer at a rescue or try a partial lease before you put yourself and a very dependent horse in an unfortunate position.
5. Remember His IS an Animal
As discussed in the last section, your horse is completely dependent on you. It’s every horse owners’ obligation to remember that horses are not toys, tools, or vehicles which can be put aside when not in use. They’re living, breathing, sentient beings who need care and companionship — even when you’re not riding them.
Horses are amazingly beautiful, graceful, powerful and gentle. They’re generous with their love and forgiving of our faults. Those of us who know and love them are privileged to do so – and great privilege comes great responsibility. Your horse’s happiness depends on it.
Now that you’ve read our list, please visit our Facebook page, share your thoughts, and maybe pick up a few ideas from other horse owners. After all, a happy horse is what it’s really all about.