Horses are prey animals that now live with one of their old nemeses: us.
As recently as 10,000 years ago, humans were one of the predators that hunted and killed wild horses. Scientists are certain that humans actively hunted horses for food before domesticating them.
And why wouldn’t they have? A horse is a large animal that yields a lot of meat and material with just one kill, making it a valuable resource.
In fact, many scientists believe that overhunting may be partially to blame for the horse’s extinction in North America some 10,000 years ago!
Modern life is a bit of a conundrum for the horse.
The human creature, which at one time was identified as a dangerous predator in the evolution of equines, is today asking for trust, companionship and willing participation from the horse.
Not just that, we’ve also taken the horse out of its natural habitat, a way of life that its brain and body evolved over millions of years to exist in, and placed it in a modern world full of things that haven’t even had time to properly register in our own, let alone horses’, evolutionary development.
This environment has also rendered a lot of the survival instincts of the horse unnecessary. But that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped working.
Coexisting comes down to one question.
How can we make sure to always set our horses up for success?
This means understanding your horse’s natural instincts and the kind of situations that kick them into survival mode.
And it means consistently and systematically training your horse to learn how to deal with anything that they might encounter in their modern environment.
Because, trust me, your horse has the duck-and-run part of survival down. What he doesn’t know is that he has the capacity to choose a different response when he meets a car or sees a flag blowing in the wind for the first time.
The responsibility of bridging that gap from living on the plain to living modern life is on us.
And by developing a trusting relationship you can achieve miraculous things with your horse.
Most horses trust their human companions and caretakers so much that they’ll put up with just about any kind of situation, no matter how bizarre, with minimal fear.
To see this in action, you just have to attend a horse show.
The level of commotion and constant chaos would easily be enough to drive any horse there crazy.
Instead, what you’ll mostly see are horses calmly lounging around, quietly grazing their hay nets and napping while waiting for their turn to go work. And then they get in the ring and perform everything their riders ask of them or at the very least they do their best.
This is only possible when the horses have grown accustomed to living in a busy, human-dominated world and have learned to develop a basic level of trust in the humans guiding their lives.
Even if you aren’t an eventer, all you have to do is peek in at any stable anywhere in the world to see horses excitedly lift their heads, perk up their ears and whinny with excitement when they hear their owners approaching.
Some horses will become very attached to one person and for a deep bond.
And yet more horses love their jobs and are eager to get to work – whether that’s heading out on the trail with their owner, getting their head down in the dressage arena or going to work as police horses in the city.
When you want to achieve that profound relationship with your horse, you need to always put yourself in his shoes and try to understand the experience from his perspective.
Not only will you understand your horse better, but your horse will also see you as leader and protector and turn to you in uncertainty.
1) Horses must have a herd
You can’t get around the fact that horses are herd animals and require the company of other equines to have their species-specific needs met.
In a pinch, you can construct a herd out of other species, but other equines work best.
Horses need regular interactions with others of their own kind to maintain a healthy sense of well-being. Because for a horse, being alone means being vulnerable – and that’s a matter of life and death.
Low-level stress is as lethal for horses as it is for humans and will create secondary and tertiary problems if not addressed.
Depriving a horse of companionship is inhumane, comparable to putting a person in solitary confinement.
Some horses deal with it better than others, much depends on the individual’s personality, experience and temperament.
But no horse enjoys total isolation.
In fact, horses that are deprived of companionship tend to become neurotic and develop severe symptoms.
Every horse needs a companion, even if it’s just one. Horses can and do find comfort in human companionship but people don’t fit the bill of species-specific companionship for a horse.
2) Horses must eat
Your horse evolved to live on grassy plains where he’d spend most of his time grazing.
Your horse’s digestive system is built for near-constant consumption of low-grade grasses. His brain is also designed for constantly foraging and chewing.
For a horse, grazing doesn’t just provide nutrition, it’s also mental stimulation.
Grazing is to a horse what a leisurely Sunday afternoon is to us.
Ideally, your horse will have access to pasture and grazing for about 18 hours every day. A horse who has this is a healthy, happy and well-balanced horse that has his constant urge to chew and move around easily satisfied.
Unfortunately, many horses in the modern world don’t have access to a pasture for most of the day, if at all.
When horses are forced into immobility and scheduled feedings, they will often develop symptoms of boredom and having their species-specific needs unmet.
We call these “stable vices” suggesting that they’re malicious and that horses do them just to be annoying.
This is never the case. Stable vices always have an underlying cause that needs to be addressed. Stable vices are always a symptom of something else, most often boredom and frustration at not being able to express the natural urge to graze and interact with other horses.
When you can’t provide your horse with near-constant grazing – even when you have a paddock it may not be suitable for grasses to grow or the grass may have too much sugar in it – the next best thing is frequent feeding of roughage.
Horses require feeding several times a day for their guts, brains and bodies to work well and prevent the development of problems and disease.
3) Horses must move
Because Mother Nature designed horses to be grass-eating machines, so she also designed them to move around all day long so as to prevent any single area from becoming over-grazed.
If you watch your horse out at pasture, you’ll notice that with every bite of grass he takes a step.
In just 15 minutes he’ll move around quite a bit. Set up your phone to record a time-lapse video to see how much ground he can actually cover in just a short amount of time!
This regular movement provides exercise for both his body and mind.
Energy is slowly released as he uses it for moving around at a steady pace. When you take that same horse and confine him to a small box stall or tiny paddock, he’ll quickly start feeling cooped up.
The horse who must live in small and confined quarters without the freedom to graze in a large field and constantly be in motion, daily exercise is vital.
Every day your horse will need to be taken out of his small space and walked, exercised, ridden or turned out into a paddock with sufficient space for him to run around in.
Taking your horse out for a ride or other kind of exercise is his gym and will keep him healthy.
A horse that doesn’t receive sufficient exercise is more prone to developing leg and hoof problems as well as stable vices. He’ll also have lots of pent up energy and will become difficult to handle and manage when you finally do take him out.
Symptoms of an overabundance of energy is easily classed as “misbehaviour”, but don’t be fooled!
Horses don’t misbehave just for shits and giggles, there’s always some underlying issue that’s not being addressed when a horse displays behaviour that isn’t species-typical.
A lack of training, inadequate exercise, poor quality feed, pain-related issues are all possible underlying causes so make sure you do your due diligence.
Horses are smart creatures and make wonderful companions when their species-specific needs are met, but your horse didn’t choose to come and live with you, so make sure you make his life as pleasant and enjoyable as possible!
Horses have come a long way from their natural habitats of the wide-open plains. Yet they’re smart creatures that have learned how to coexist with people, the least we can do is meet them halfway.
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