It’s time to take a fresh look at the industry standard.

When it comes to horse care, we are often faced with conflicting information. This is especially true if we enjoy training and advancing in equine sports, yet also want to keep our horses in a more natural way.

Students wanting to know more about horse care look to the leaders in a particular sport. However, what you often see there is a model for a training business, not a model for optimal horse care. It’s time to take a fresh look at our industry standard in order to better serve our horses, and reduce the confusion amateur horse owners often feel. Professionals need to be models not only of their sport-specific techniques, but also of dedication to the living creatures that serve them so well.

Professionals need to be models not only of their sport-specific techniques, but also of dedication to the living creatures that serve them so well.

The training business model

A typical professional training-based facility often looks like this: the horses are in stalls with solid walls. There is minimal (if any) turnout. When horses do go out, they are often put individually in small paddocks. Having shoes is the norm, and is often the default as soon as a horse is of riding age.

As someone who spent a couple of decades training and competing out of a facility like this, let me say: I get it. I understand the logic. If your business involves individual lessons or horse training, you have to fit as many horses as possible on the property in order to make ends meet. Many horses come in for short periods; there is no time for them to acclimatize to a herd setting, and often they have never been in a herd. Horses are expensive and no one wants to see them get kicked by other horses, especially when they are all wearing shoes. Decisions at these facilities are based on “protecting” the horses. The tendency is to want to enclose them in “bubble wrap”.

These barns may have high quality grain, supplements, world-class veterinarians, farriers, and cutting edge sports medicine. They may be very safe places in the sense they are well maintained. Yet they are lacking something horses really want: ample opportunity to move, a forage-based diet, socialization with other horses, and healthy feet kept free from shoes unless absolutely necessary.

Training facilities like these are a necessary and hopefully temporary compromise. But they should not be the model for ideal horse management. We need to keep track of the bigger picture of our horses’ lives (see my article in the May/June 2017 issue of Equine Wellness, called “Keeping a whole-horse perspective in sport specific training”).

When facilities like the ones described above are the industry standard, situations like the following can occur. A student purchases a beautiful young horse and a beautiful property with beautiful fields and a barn. She brings her horse home and puts him in a stall where he sits all by himself all day. Just like he did at the training barn.

A perpetual cycle

It may seem as if horses need to be kept like this. For example:

  • Horses not used to turnout can go a bit crazy when first released. It’s scary, so they get brought in, only to perpetuate the cycle. If the horse injures himself in turnout, the turnout itself is blamed, rather than the fact that he may have been standing in a stall for 23 hours before going out.
  • Other horses may seem to “desperately want to come in” after only a short period of turnout. People see this as evidence that the horse “prefers his stall”. In the majority of the cases, however, I see it as evidence of human-caused insecurity arising from the horse not spending enough time outside.
  • Horses that have never had exposure to herd situations don’t have social skills and will therefore seem “unable” to go out with others. This also needs to be seen as aberrant, not normal, behavior.
  • Many horse’s feet become unhealthy, weak and under-run when in shoes. If the shoes do come off, they are sore. This is seen as evidence that horses need shoes, rather than as a consequence of wearing shoes.

Let’s look at solutions

For owners

Horse owners need to understand their horses’ natural and basic needs – a safe, calm, comfortable environment that offers them the opportunity to move 24/7; socialization with other horses; variety; a forage-based diet; and regular hoof trimming – with shoes or boots added only as necessary.

Owners need to be confident, adamant and proud about providing these things to their horses, and not think this lifestyle is only “second best” to a fancy stall in a fancy barn.

If you have horses kept at training facilities or boarding stables as described in this article, just know there are always others choices you can make. Perhaps the facility does not have to be your horse’s permanent year-round home. Perhaps there is some way you can acclimate him to turnout. Perhaps there is some way to allow him some variety, play and socialization with other horses.

For professionals

The average professional also needs to understand the horse’s natural and basic needs, and to see his/her management style for what it is – a necessary and temporary compromise that comes from the current business model.

You probably can’t suddenly throw all your clients’ horses out in a field together, but even just thinking of the horse’s whole life experience may inspire some changes.

If horses were shoed only for an absolutely necessary reason, rather than at a certain age, then they could be turned out in a group without worrying about the risk a horse with hind shoes could pose to others in the herd. Additionally, the cost of letting horses keep each other company may be lower than the cost of vet bills stemming from the stress horses experience when they’re kept in stalls. There may also be cost benefits to keeping horses in pastures rather than stalls.

You can also change the business model. You can move beyond the model that says you have to pack as many horses and students onto your property as possible. You can move away from a “work an hour to get paid for an hour” model and serve clients on a deeper level that leverages your time. With more time and space in your business, horses enjoy a healthier lifestyle, students become empowered, and you enjoy a better lifestyle too. (I will cover this in my next article: “Empowered Teaching & Learning”.)

Our responsibility to the horse

Students look to the professionals in their field to be the models of what is best, which means professionals have a huge responsibility. It’s true, horses don’t write the checks, but it is to them that we are ultimately responsible. We owe our horses that.

Keeping horses in our crazy human world is always a compromise. All we can do is our best. We want to protect our horses. We just have to be careful that our “bubble wrap” doesn’t end up quietly suffocating them. The reality is that simply pulling a horse’s shoes and throwing him into a herd situation could be disastrous. Most horses will need good management while making the transition.

“We want to protect our horses. We just have to be careful that our ‘bubble wrap’ doesn’t end up quietly suffocating them.”

There are no simple or quick answers, but the horse industry needs to have this conversation. Perhaps the best way is to start is by simply asking our horses: How could I do a little better?

Karen Rohlf, creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for her student-empowering approach to teaching, her ability to connect with a wide range of horses, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view. 

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