De Kinderen Opsluiten

IncarceratedThis week, a study by Nottingham Trent University (UK) reached the mainstream British media. The study told us nothing new – but it did manage, with this media coverage, to suddenly reach a much wider audience. Essentially it was a study into the well-being of horses and the effects of stabling.
The study showed that stabled horses have higher cortisone levels – cortisone is the stress hormone – than horses kept in paddocks and fields and also makes the point that much of our reasoning behind stabling horses is based upon our own human views of comfort and safety. But – probably unsurprisingly – there was immediately a backlash from owners, at least in the MailOnline coverage, that this was all nonsense and their horses positively love to go indoors.
So, is the study bunk, and do our horses “love” their boxes, or has Trent Uni got a point? And what are the ethics –  something neither party has really looked at?
Like the majority of prey animals, horses seek safety in numbers. They form herds to reduce their chances of being singled out and caught by a hunter. But a horse in a stable does not have a “hunter” to single it out so it should be happy alone, right? Wrong! The herd instinct is an evolutionary factor – you don’t breed it out in a few generations. In fact, genetically, the horse today is just about identical to its first domesticated forefather 5,500 years ago. Furthermore, the horse does not have a prefrontal cortex in its brain that allows for reasoning. This means that a horse cannot go into its box thinking “oh, this is safer than out in the field”; in fact, if the horse was capable of reasoning like a human, I for one would not expect it to put up with being locked up for large parts of the day!
So we can agree that the horse is a herd animal and will benefit from some contact with others of its species – “but my horse can see other horses when it is in its box”. Horses may not have the higher reasoning powers of humans but they do have greater sensitivity to each other – and their surroundings – than do humans. Horses don’t just need to see each other, they need to touch, to smell, to groom. Just as we do with good friends. With horses, seeing is NOT believing; proximity, touch, smell, sound are so very important in the equine experience. It is one of the reasons a horse will run if it sees a plastic bag flapping at 500 paces; but introduce the horse to the bag and they could become good friends!
“But he loves his box, he goes in all by himself” – quite possibly true. Firstly, despite being a scaredy pants (see previous paragraph), he is also inquisitive by nature. It is that which gives the horse a successful interspecies relationship with humans. So if the horse is given the possibility to explore in an (apparently) safe environment, it will do so. If the entrance to stalls or boxes is in shadow, the horse will often have much less difficulty in going in than when the entrance is in sunlight – horses have fairly restricted vision, not in peripheral observation but focus and vision upwards and light sensitivity plays a big role too (horses are essentially nocturnal*). The horse will also not see the door and think it is going to be locked up – open is open.
The other – often overlooked – reason why a horse will show willingness to go into a box is addiction and craving. The vast majority of horses that live in a stable are fed commercial food. This contains starches and – despite labelling to the contrary – sugars in very unnatural quantities for the horse. Sugar (of which starch is really just another form) is addictive; a study in 2007, highlighted again last November, showed that sugar is substantially more addictive than cocaine†. Because of this addiction, there is a craving for sugar which the horse may be able to satisfy by going into the box where there is usually another shot.
So, what about the ethics? The majority of owners will say they love their horse and want the best for it – even the major racing trainers and owners, despite the atrocious treatment their horses are actually receiving. Keeping their horse “happy” is often a very large expenditure for the average owner: a good stable, clean bedding, quality food, rugs, blankets, inoculations, regular shoeing… The individual’s attention paid to equine welfare is often far greater than that paid to child welfare. And yet, if we were to treat children as we treat our horses, we would be committing atrocities in our quest to do the right thing. To continue with the analogy: we would be feeding our child Cadbury’s Creme Eggs as its main meal, but only once a week; he would get a lettuce leaf every three days as a snack between “meals”; he would be wearing thermal underwear, an Aran pullover and a duffel coat in the summer; we would make him work delivering newspapers (on foot) from the age of three, all the time with a pencil in his mouth which he could only take out when he was finished; and when he got home, we would lock him in the toilet – which unfortunately, he can’t get to flush – and throw his food in with him.
This may seem an exaggerated analogy but sadly it is not far from the truth, and if it was a child being treated like this, then the social services would be down on the parents like a ton of bricks. And yet for horses, we accept it as “normal” to treat them in this way.
 
* Numerous studies of free-roaming horses have shown greater activity during hours of darkness
† Lenoir, M. Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward PLoSOne, 2007, 8 : e698

6 comments to Locking up your Children

  • Alison Gilbert

    Excellant article, very well said!

  • Sophie O'Hara Smith

    A very well written article. I wish horse and hound would print it!

    • Jane Matthew

      Hear hear Alison and Sophie. Most people I know keep horses in for their own convenience. It’s one thing to allow a horse access to a box or similar for shelter but quite another to shut it in. It’s the same sort of attitude as keeping a horse turned out on it’s own. Cruel and selfish.

  • Laura orr

    It doesn’t take much to eliminate stalls and the need for bedding, or rotate fields by simply opening a gate, or having thrush-free rock crushing feets, because they did their homework on rocks. Life is better, easier and cheaper now and I can grow old with that…..

  • Jack

    “The other – often overlooked – reason why a horse will show willingness to go into a box is addiction and craving. The vast majority of horses that live in a stable are fed commercial food. This contains starches and – despite labelling to the contrary – sugars in very unnatural quantities for the horse. Sugar (of which starch is really just another form) is addictive; a study in 2007, highlighted again last November, showed that sugar is substantially more addictive than cocaine†. Because of this addiction, there is a craving for sugar which the horse may be able to satisfy by going into the box where there is usually another shot.”
    Your heart is in the right place, but your emphasis is wrong. While many commercial feeds are too heavy on high glycemic carbohydrates, many have changed to use beet pulp, rice bran and flax seed. Fat in the diet helps to mitigate against the insulin spike that can be created by carbohydrates and research from the U of Kentucky has shown a higher fat intake (higher than what was traditional (10 to 12% instead of 6 to 8%), is healthier for the horse..
    Grass is a mixture of fat, protein and carbohydrates (and minerals and vitamins) and depending on several variables, the sugar/fructan content varies over a 24 hour period. Grass can be as problematic as commercial feeds and a helluva lot harder to fix.
    Horses evolved in an eco-niche that was poor quality feed. They are used to eating small amounts all day long. They sleep up to four hours a day and never all at once. The rest of the time they spend eating. Without having to move twenty miles a day to find food and water, how to feed a horse becomes problematic. It’s a unique problem that traditionally has been ignored, the cost of which has been millions of horses dying before their time.
    Stalling a horse is very damaging physically due to preventing the horse from moving enough to keep things functioning well. This also keeps blood from being pumped out of his hoof, stresses the tissue there by lack of oxygen and nutrients, puts stress on his heart which in turn impacts all of his internal organs. Add to that the psychological stress and you have a double whammy which leads to a lot of horses dying before they are 20.
    There will be much shouting and squealing as these people who think this research is rubbish are dragged into reality and made to see that horses have a biological/physiological nature and ignoring that costs the horse his life.

  • Clare

    In an ideal world all horses would live 24/7 out at grass with natural shelter to protect them from the elements but this is not always possible. My mare has never been fed sugary foods but was struck by laminitis several years ago due to grass! Therefore the only way to manage her condition is to stable her part of day. She comes into a haynet & a sugar free feed but is still happy to be in. She has grass during the day so isn’t hungry either. I hate to see horses locked up in stables 24/7 but also horses left out 24/7 in unsuitable pasture with no shelter or additional forage when needed is awful as well! The article doesn’t mention the bigger picture!

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