an article in instalments. Part Three will be published on 15 July.
Last week, we finished by discussing dogma-driven, ego-driven and horse-centric. The dogma-driven rider is the one who, often under peer-pressure, resorts to the age old (mis-)conceptions of the horse in the traditional riding-world. The thoughts are with the horse, only tradition has put misguided human values on the lifestyle of the horse.
The ego-driven rider will often declare a love for the horse and claim care and responsibility; however, it is all to one end, that of the rider’s own performance and prestige. The poor horse is little more than a well-oiled machine.
Finally, we looked at the horse-centric approach. The appreciation of the real needs of the horse, as opposed to the human-perceived needs.
When we look at what we can do to make life better for our horse, from accommodation through feeding to tack and riding, the traditionalists will aways try to defend their actions with a series of what are becoming very tired arguments. Possibly the most cited is that ‘the horse was never meant to be ridden in the first place…’ So the first thing we need to do when defining horse-centricity is to dispense with the worst of these arguments.
Coupled with the horse’s increased activity at dusk, is the owner’s own, human, fear of the dark. We are used to hunkering down, closing blinds, curtains and shutters when darkness falls; closing out the perils of the night. Reflect for a moment on this poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth:
Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.
You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,
little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.
Stay by the fire, my Cat. Lie still, do not go.
See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,
I will bring you a saucer of milk like a Marguerite,
so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet –
stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.
Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,
strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,
and more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,
on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar –
Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,
and things that are yet to be done. Open the door!
Another subject of anthropomorphism. We eat two or three times a day (better three but there will always be someone who says that they cannot face that most important meal of the day, breakfast…); so we consider that our horses should too. So we feed them concentrates morning and evening – but not shortly before we ride because that can cause colic. A handful of hay should keep them going in between meals, particularly at night when locked up in the stable. But this is not what nor how the horse feeds. The horse has a relatively small stomach which obliges it to eat regularly – twelve to fifteen times a day. It needs this regularity both to keep the fires stoked and to protect the stomach. The protective lining of the horse’s stomach is only partial. Two-thirds of the stomach wall is not protected and vigorous activity on an empty stomach will cause splashing of stomach acid onto the unprotected lining. This in turn can lead to ulceration. Feeding concentrates does give an energy boost —although we will see that this is short-lived and counter-productive— but it does not satisfy the hunger nor does it provide any protection for the stomach lining. What it does do, is work like a drug, or equine Red Bull. Research done by the University of Bordeaux in November 2007 showed that sugar is 96% more addictive than cocaine. And in concentrates, there is a large quantity of sugar in the form of starch; this is excluding the many feeds that also contain molasses… Like humans, the horse has an appendix; only in the case of the horse, it is a sack called the cæcum and is, relatively, much larger. This appendix is one of the major powerhouses of the horse’s digestive system. It contains vast numbers of bacteria with the principle role of breaking down the cellulose in the horse’s —normally— grassy diet. From this, sugars are slowly liberated giving energy to the horse in a regulated and almost constant manner. The pH or acidity level of the cæcum is ±7 or neutral. When we feed pure sugars, in the form of molasses or starch-rich grain, these are liberated far more rapidly, giving the horse a rapid energy boost – similar to Red Bull – but also one which dissipates as rapidly as it is built up – again, similar to Red Bull – creating a yoyo effect. Furthermore, these directly accessible sugars alter the pH level of the cæcum, raising the acidity to ±3 killing off the natural bacteria that would normally break down cellulose. This has a serious deleterious effect upon the natural endurance capabilities of the horse. Now we have an animal that is stressed, suffering from ulcers, reliant upon shots of rapid sugars for short bursts of energy and suffering lethargy the rest of the time.
† a change of diet must never be done instantly; the transition from a concentrates diet to a correct herbivorous diet must be done gradually over a period of at least 4 weeks.
As many an ego-driven rider / owner says, the horse was never meant to be ridden…so why do we insist upon riding? I’m not advocating complete abstinence but surely there is more to the horse-human relationship than brushing-down, saddling-up, getting-on and riding-off! A recent French survey showed that over 90% of horses in riding schools hated being groomed to the point that some were violently aggressive. This cannot be right. Grooming should be that moment of intimate contact with the horse, a moment of relaxation. But for that 90% of horses, it is a sign that they were about to be put to work. Having spent hours locked up in a 9m² box, the new prospect is to be ‘locked-up’ under a saddle, with a bit in the mouth and heels kicking in the ribs, being bored to tears in the ring for the next hour. And what then, a quick brush-down, if we are lucky, a hose-down if we are really lucky, and back into the box for a few more hours… What a life!