BARKS from the Guild November 2018

Page 40


Social Relationships in the Domestic Horse

Kathie Gregory examines ways of catering to a group of horses without compromising the individual as well as allowing horses to choose their own friends as part of management


strategy, welfare, and safety

n my previous article, I discussed social structure and looked at how horses group together in the wild when they are free to live as is natural to their species (see Equine Social Structure, BARKS from the Guild, September 2018, pp. 39-41). This is important information for improving equine welfare, but how do we apply it to horses in the many different domestic situations they find themselves in today? Many horses are not at liberty to live as nature intended, and many facilities are not equipped to cater for that scenario either. Of course, the ideal situation would be to maintain a group of horses together who have developed their own friendships. The environment would be sufficient to provide natural cover, or in the absence of that, a field shelter or indoor space large enough for the group to shelter from the weather, and enough outside space to support the movement, activities, and nutritional requirements of the group. This might be ideal, and true to how horses should live, but it is simply not always possible. There are many considerations and restrictions that contribute to horses not living in the ideal environment. Horses are regularly homed in areas that lack adequate land for the number of horses kept. Recommendations for how much land a horse needs to graze differs with opinion, one general view is 11⁄2 – 2 acres per horse. However, this is an approximation based on grazing time, while also feeding hay as part of the diet. If a horse is to be turned out 24/7, then another view suggests at least an extra acre is required. This perspective is more about focusing on the minimum requirement to provide some approximation of a natural diet, rather than focusing on the question of how much land is necessary for the horse to have a good quality of life where his needs are met to a high standard of welfare and ethical considerations. So does this mean that people should only consider keeping horses if these ideals are able to be achieved? It sounds like an easy question to answer, but nothing is ever as black and white as it seems. If horses are to be kept in natural conditions, then surely they are not kept, or managed at all, but are free-living, rendering the management aspect of domestication mostly obsolete. However, how does that fit in when people have specific requirements of horses that need to be met at specific times? As anyone who keeps their horses on large areas of land knows, they do not always come when called! If the horse has something better to do, then he may choose to do that instead. For those of us who own horses for pleasure, we just try again later. But how can that work in businesses dealing with their clients’ expectations of a successful result? What of the horse that does not like his job or handler? He is even less likely allow

Where possible, horses that have developed friendships will benefit from being turned out together. Horses form strong friendships in their social environment and friendship is extremely important to the psychological welfare of the horse. 40

BARKS from the Guild/November 2018

© Can Stock Photo/Virgonira

Allowing horses to choose their own friends and who they want to spend time with is valuable information for management strategies and welfare

himself to be brought in from his environment. How can businesses who need to get things done within a specific time frame manage to do so if they have to first find and bring the horse off the fields before they can start their work? And returning the horse to the fields after each activity he is required to do may mean he is taken on and off the fields several times a day, which means every job will take longer, and the horse may not wish to be moved about that many times. Businesses would also need to manage the different dietary needs of horses, the specific requirements of owners, and safety issues. That is quite a lot of individual considerations that mean the horses in their care cannot all be managed in the same way. Whatever species or culture we look at, the problem always is, how do you cater for a group without compromising the individual? At present, the ideal of leaving horses to roam free is just not viable in many situations, even if the land is available. The solution is to move over to working force-free, where each horse is eager to interact with people and do his job, and interactions between horse and human are based on mutual agreement. Unfortunately, this scenario is a long way off, but by looking at how horses are managed now, we can put measures in place to reach that goal. Horses form a vital part of human life which cannot just be wiped out, but this still leaves us with the dilemma over just what constitutes an adequate level of welfare and ethical management practices. There are so many different ways people and businesses are involved with horses.