What Would YOU Call It?

My fellow horse-lovers, we’ve been duped. Misled. Brainwashed. Deceived.

The established horse industry would like us to believe that “common practices” in equine management are based on the best interests and safety of our beloved horses. But is this really true?

YOU be the judge.

For just a moment, I ask you to try to forget everything you’ve been told or taught about the “proper” or “accepted” way to keep horses. I also ask you to try to forget your own personal and professional stakes that are tied to the horse industry as it currently operates.

Instead, let’s all just look at things from a purely COMMON SENSE perspective, as rational human beings… and of course, as animal lovers.

Most of us have felt conflicted, at some point in our lives, about they way zoo animals are confined in enclosures. But when it comes to zoos, at least we can take comfort in the knowledge that accredited zoos are highly regulated to ensure minimal standards of care for captive animals. In fact, anyone who wants to do a simple Internet search can find The Zoological Association of America (ZAA)’s Animal Care & Enclosure Standards, which are intended to provide for a safe and healthy environment for both animals and people. The standards contained in this document are VERY specific, including the size of enclosures that are acceptable for various types of animals, the cleanliness and safety of the facilities, the types of fencing that must be used, and safety precautions that must be followed whenever there is direct public contact with the animals, etc. Whether you personally agree with these minimum standards or not, they are, at least, enforceable.

By comparison, the closest thing to any formal document regarding “standards of care” for horses in the equine industry is the American Association of Equine Practitioner (AAEP)’s “Principles of Equine Welfare” which is, essentially, a short list of very non-specific and entirely un-enforceable ideals (which appears not to have been updated since 2006). Furthermore, there is no overall accrediting body overseeing the care and treatment of domestic horses in the United States.

Much of the “confusion” and “indecision” about the proper ways to keep and care for horses is born out of the legal debate around whether horses should be categorized as “livestock” or “companion animals”. In the United States, the laws governing care and treatment for companion animals is vastly different from the laws governing care and treatment for livestock.

In his article, Brief Summary of Horse Laws, Craig Smith explains, “Horses occupy a unique place in American law, as well as our society at large. They are used as beasts of burden on farms, displayed for their beauty at competitive shows, and treated as family members by many families around the country. Because of the variety of roles horses play in our society, the law’s treatment of them covers a wide range of often competing goals. Some laws treat them as livestock, while others describe them as precious national symbols and extend significant protections to them.”

For the most part, humans entrenched in the horse industry fight hard to maintain the designation of horses as livestock. These articles by Katherine Blocksdorf and The Utah Farm Bureau Federation clearly outline some of the key reasons why. If you look carefully at these arguments, you will see that they are based entirely on HUMAN interests, not on the interests or welfare of the horses themselves.

While not an enforceable law or ordinance, The Animal Welfare Institute’s Basic Guidelines for Operating an Equine Rescue or Retirement Facility specifies that “a stall measuring 10½’ x 10½’ is the recommended minimum for the average 1,200 lb. horse.” Meanwhile, the ZAA’s guidelines related to enclosures for equids (e.g., zebras, asses) and large non-cusorial bovids (e.g., wild cattle, African buffalo, bison) require, at minimum, “for one or two animals, a paddock enclosing 1,250 square feet, 6 feet high. For each additional animal, increase paddock by 25 percent of the original footage.”

Sadly, many horse stalls don’t even have windows or adequate ventilation.

Why is it that the zoological association feels that a single zebra averaging less than 900 pounds needs a paddock of at least 1250 square feet to live in while the Animal Welfare Institute feels a horse averaging 1200 pounds needs only a 110 square foot stall?

Now let’s look at this issue from a slightly different perspective. Most dog lovers believe it is inhumane to keep dogs (even though dogs are smaller, more highly domesticated animals than horses) locked up in small kennels, tied to trees or staked on short tethers. In fact, there are many state laws and/or local ordinances that regulate this. For example, according to the Cumberland County SPCA and Animal Shelter the local ordinance there reads: “If your dog will be outside on a chain or cable you need to make sure to have the proper length. The chain or cable needs to be three (3) times the length of your dog from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. So if your dog is 3 feet from nose to tail you will need a chain that is 9 feet long.”

Meanwhile, an average horse is about 8 feet long. If we were to apply the (still very restrictive!) “3x” rule to horses, the minimum size for a stall or other contained area for a horse would be 24×24 feet or 576 square feet. Yet if you look for information about recommended stall sizes for horses you will consistently find this information:

A 12×12 horse stall size is considered “ideal” for a 1000+ pound horse.

An average (15h) horse can be “comfortable” in a 10×12 or even a 10×10 stall.

Miniature horses or ponies can be “comfortable” in an 8×10, or smaller, stall.

Not only are these recommended enclosure sizes completely ludicrous by pretty much ANY rational measure, the use of the word “comfortable” in the descriptions is clear evidence of the brainwashing I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. Only someone whose brain and eyes aren’t functioning properly would blindly accept these standards as “ideal” without questioning them seriously. And yet, generally speaking, horse lovers readily accept (and advocate for) this lifestyle for their horses.

We humans instinctively know that animals need companionship.

We feel upset and angry when we see dogs or cats or rabbits or hamsters (or even zoo animals) that are forced to live in isolation. All living beings need regular interaction and/or physical contact with others to be healthy, vibrant and happy. Even in the human world, the worst punishment (aside from death and active torture) we can enact on others is forced isolation.

And yet, as horse owners, not only do we ALLOW our horses to be subjected to overly restrictive and isolated living conditions, we actually pay MORE for our horses to have the “privilege” of being kept in stalls or to have their own “private” paddock vs. requiring boarding facilities to provide them the freedom they deserve to live in minimally-adequate sized turn-out areas, with companions.

So, now that I’ve prompted you to momentarily step outside of your “institutionally brainwashed way of thinking” about horse-keeping, what would YOU call our industry’s accepted standards regarding how horses are kept?

I’m not going to tell you what I call it. But I will tell you this:

We can do better. We should already be doing better. And, our horses deserve better from us.

If you agree, there are ways horse owners can help instigate change, even without the power of a regulating body behind us. All we need is the power of choice because in the horse-industry, money talks:

  1. Only choose to do business with boarding facilities that offer horses the type of living environment they deserve (i.e. pasture board with FREELY accessible shelter, adequate companionship and NO extended confinement in stalls or other isolated spaces unless medically necessary).
  2. Opt to build run-in shelters on your own property rather than a barn with stalls.
  3. Choose to speak up. Have the courage to talk openly about why stall confinement is not an appropriate living condition for horses. Every time you stay silent you contribute to the continuation and spread of mis-information (i.e. brainwashing).
  4. Choose to listen to your own inner guidance and common sense. Don’t believe it when people try to tell you that a few hours of “turnout” or “forced exercise” counter-balances the physical and emotional damage your horse is suffering during all those other hours of stall confinement.
  5. If you believe your horse “likes” to be in his stall, choose to ask yourself why. Is this the only place he/she gets fed meals or treats or “good hay”? Is this the only place he/she can escape the elements or bugs? Is this the only place he/she has access to clean/cool water?

It’s time for those of us who love horses to start behaving like rational, responsible adults when it comes to horse-keeping. The horse is one of the most amazing, magnificent, forgiving and harmonious beings alive. If this weren’t true, we’d never be in this predicament.

Just because we have the power to legally categorize (and treat) horses as livestock while expecting them to behave like companion animals… doesn’t mean we should.

Shame on us.

It’s Time For a New Horse-Racing Tradition!

I’m not going to lie. I hate the horse-racing industry. But I also hate how hateful and judgmental the debate about horse racing causes many people to become.

On the one hand, I’d be relieved beyond belief if I woke up tomorrow to news that the Kentucky Derby was cancelled and the horse racing industry was being shut down forever. On the other hand, it would mean that thousands of horses and thousands of employees in the industry would find themselves suddenly displaced and facing grave new dangers. The truth is, shutting down the horse racing industry in one fell swoop would be a devastating decision; one with incredibly complex consequences that none of us are prepared to deal with effectively. It would also do nothing to address the very real problems in other sectors of the horse industry.

On this eve of the annual Run for the Roses, I’m acutely aware that for many horse lovers like me, the decision of whether or not to watch (or attend or bet on) The Kentucky Derby can be a difficult one. This is because, whether we admit it (even to ourselves) or not, at some level, most of us feel torn.

Let me explain. I’ve loved horses for as long as I can remember. But I grew up a suburban kid with no direct access to horses except for ten magical days of summer camp each year. The rest of the year, I collected Breyer model horses. I learned how to draw and paint horses. I read every book about horses I could get my hands on. I named my bike Midnight and pretended we were galloping down the streets of my neighborhood together.

For kids like me, The Kentucky Derby (and the entire Triple Crown series) was a precious gift. Every spring, I anticipated and then devoured the pre-race information printed in the sports section of my local paper, including stories and photographs of the horses and graphics of the silks each jockey would be wearing. There was no such thing as the Internet or Equestrian TV or the Total Horse Channel back then. The only opportunities I had to watch REAL horses in “live time” were when the big races or international show jumping competitions got aired on one of the three primary network television stations.

As a child, I didn’t understand that there is a dark underbelly to the equine industry. And even if I’d known, I don’t think I would have cared. I just loved watching the horses. There wasn’t anything on television that I got more excited about than the Triple Crown. I was seven years old when Seattle Slew won the Crown in 1977. And then Affirmed did it again in 1978.

Spectacular Bid (Bob Coglianese Photo)

In 1979, my heart broke into a million pieces (along with every other horse lover’s in the nation) when the amazing grey colt, Spectacular Bid, fell short on his magnificent quest to make it three Crowns in a row. But then the very next year my wounded heart got healed as I cheered the mighty filly, Genuine Risk, to victory in The Kentucky Derby. then I watched her give all the boys a run for their money in both the Preakness and the Belmont. What a role model that feisty red-headed filly was for young girls like me!

You get the picture. Horse racing was a life-line for me, just as it was for many other young girls and boys who had no other access to horses. I honestly can’t imagine my childhood without it. To this day, my heart is emotionally hard-wired to pitter patter in excitement as I watch the pre-race shows. And I know I’m always going to feel tears running down my face as the most amazing creatures on earth somehow find yet another gear turning into the homestretch and racing headlong toward the finish-line.

But as an adult who is now also an experienced horse woman and who has seen first-hand the ugliness of the horse-industry (which is, in no way, limited to horse racing alone!), I have many other emotions as well. I cringe at the unbelievable physical and emotional demands these animals are burdened with at such a young age. I find myself needing to turn away when I see their tongues lolling and mouths sawing during the pre-race parade.

I shake my head when I see the metal shoes holding their cracked and split hooves together, knowing that selective breeding for speed and stamina has resulted in the horrible deterioration of the hoof structure among Thoroughbreds. I’m disgusted by the equipment that’s deemed acceptable for controlling the stressed-out, scared horses and that’s used to keep them focused on the job at hand. I know that many of the horses have probably been drugged to mask pain, if not today, then on other days. And, of course, I follow the devastating statistics about the number of equine deaths at U.S. tracks.

So, what are we horse lovers to do tomorrow in the face of these challenges? Do we simply turn off the TV and naively hope that if enough people choose not to watch or support horse racing, the industry will shut itself down or self-monitor? Do we say hateful things (in person or on social media) about those who are involved in, or support, the industry? I say no. I don’t want you to do either of those things. I actually want you to watch the races tomorrow. I want you to NOTICE what is happening – good and bad. I want you to learn more about the industry. But I also want you to do something else. I want you to help me start a NEW tradition related to horse racing:

Every time we watch a horse race (or any other competitive horse event), either on television or in person, and we see something that makes us cringe… let’s vow to take a deliberate POSITIVE action toward creating a better future for horses. There are lots of options to choose from: you can make a donation to an equine rescue group or an equine-assisted therapy/learning program that is providing homes for horses that are no longer viable competitively; you can take a course or seminar about the humane treatment, training and management of horses; you can lobby for positive change in the horse industry. Or, you can simply support a small business like mine: Unbridled, LLC.

I’m doing my best to advocate for horses (and the people who love them!) and I’m working hard every day to pave the way for a NEW approach to making a living with horses – one that is as good for the horses as it is for the humans!

In fact, to help you get started with this new tradition, I’m going to make it super easy for you to take one positive action RIGHT NOW (that’s also really fun)! My newest online learning experience called Change is the Only Constant launched on May 1st. I’m extending the deadline to enroll to this Sunday so you can take advantage of the pilot price (just $99!).

Obviously, this is a self-serving suggestion. But it’s so much bigger than that! I’m happy to be the one working hard and doing the heavy lifting to create a viable new heart-centered model for businesses in the horse industry of the future. I owe it to all the amazing horses that have touched my life in large and small ways, many of whom paid heavier prices than they needed to. But I can’t succeed without the enthusiastic support of other horse lovers like you.

So, will you do more this weekend than just attend a Kentucky Derby party, watch the race or wish for change? Will you join the dynamic discussion I’m leading about what WE can learn from horses about becoming better humans? Click here now!