BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
Every single one of the horses caught my attention, in terms of equine behaviour there was a lot to observe. Most of the behaviour was instigated by a human walking through the gate that led to the paddocks. All seven horses whinnied and most of them ran to their own fence-lines. Being early December the grass was almost depleted – snow and a few hard frosts will ensure the paddocks will soon be decimated. The horses were overly spooky, they only needed a very minor excuse to take flight while kicking up their heels. One of the horses was continually walking the fence line, creating a track that had turned to mud. Those very worn muddy tracks appear in every field, at every yard every winter. Instinct is telling the horse to move on to pastures new, but being restricted by fencing, the legs continue to walk a journey that leads to nowhere. The behaviour in all these animals is driven by a lack of food, they are either hungry or are aware resources are becoming scarce.
On yards all over England this time of year liveries will be complaining their horses are rude, impatient, even feisty. People find themselves frantically clutching lead-ropes while their horse drags them either to the field, or to the stable. Others are dreading having to deal with several kicking, spooky horses at a very muddy gateway while trying to retrieve their own horse out of the field. The majority of these owners will understand that their horse is feeling hungry. The majority of these owners will also very likely do something about the situation, by giving the horse more food.
This is a mistake.
If an owner has taken veterinary advice on the volume of food the animal should be getting on a daily basis, they should not feed extra. People are essentially being bullied by their horses into feeding them more. It’s taken years for me to accept something that’s been in plain sight, but have struggled to really accept it could be true. But there is no denying that some owners intentionally make their horses fat. Rather than increase their horsemanship skills and knowledge in handling horses, especially over winter, owners make life easier on themselves by placating their horses with food.
I’m fine with horses walking the fence line. In an ideal world horses would be free to roam, but I can’t arrange that. While walking the fence line horses are exercising and breathing fresh air as opposed to being stood in a dusty stable, not moving and gorging on hay. I’m also fine with my own horse kicking up her heels and bombing around the paddock while I’m placing hay in it. If she attempts to intimidate me while I’m completing this task, she will be sent away to sulk in a corner until I’m finished. Everything will be completed in a calm and safe manner.
If a vet has categorically stated the horse should have 18 lbs of hay every day and two hard feeds, owners should not feed extra. While fat and lazy horses may be easier to handle, they will also be unhealthy, unhappy and die before their time from any number of equine ailments that are caused by over-feeding. More owners sign up for riding lessons than horsemanship courses, they learn to ride, but lack the skills to handle their horses from the ground. If behavioural issues are being amplified by a horse identifying a lack of food resources, feeding them more is not the answer.
Horses are smart and, once they have learnt that their behaviour will prompt the owner into providing more food, they will continue to ask. They will not have periods where they feel so full that they wait until supper to eat again, they won’t get on the scales in the morning and decide to curb their expanding waist line. They will not look in the bathroom mirror and pinch their love handles, join a gym or start jogging. They will literally eat themselves to an early grave, so don’t give into their demands. Let them roam around barren fields, let them walk the fence-line and allow them to kick up their heels.
Provide hay over the winter, but only the appropriate daily amount. If your horse is becoming impatient and intimidating you, this ladies and gentleman is a true horse. You are peaking behind the veil of domestication and seeing what a horse really is. An animal that is overweight, lethargic and probably sick is not a true horse. Are owners ready to admit they can only handle the exact opposite of true horse? Strive to handle that natural behaviour, take charge and be the herd leader, rather than scuttle off and grab another armful of hay. Your horse has trained you the human…allegedly the smartest animal on the planet?
Livery yards, owners and ultimately horses would benefit greatly from holding group clinics with an equine vet regarding winter care, nutritional needs and exercise. All owners should have a weigh tape in their grooming kit, know how to use it, and monitor their horses’ weight. All owners should learn groundwork skills in order to deal with any issues that may arise.
Do this, or go to your bathroom mirror and take a good long look, and ask yourself whether you really should have a horse?