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.”
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:
- 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).
- Opt to build run-in shelters on your own property rather than a barn with stalls.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.