We constantly promote human rights; strive for ‘equality’ for all (even though in reality that doesn’t happen – I’m sure I will write on that controversial topic at some point) and in many countries (focusing on the UK) there are animal rights laws that state basic welfare rights to which a pet should be cared for; The Five Freedoms are:
- FREEDOM FROM HUNGER AND THIRST. by ready access to fresh water and food.
- FREEDOM FROM DISCOMFORT. by providing an appropriate environment including shelter.
- FREEDOM FROM PAIN, INJURY OR DISEASE.
- FREEDOM TO EXPRESS NORMAL BEHAVIOR.
- FREEDOM FROM FEAR AND DISTRESS.
These rights become convoluted when you scale up to farm animals and even more so with equines that find themselves in this strange ‘in between’ area, where they are considered neither pet or livestock. The fact that there is such a massive money making industry surrounding the horse means that people can often find themselves striving for success and financial gain at the potential expense of the horses welfare.
The whip continues to be permitted despite that in countries like Norway the whip has been banned for many years with no negative impact on the industry and research shows hitting the horse (using Positive Punishment) does not increase the jockeys chance of winning.
You might ask what is wrong with the whip? or be like myself many years back thinking that carrying one without the intention of using it is fine. It seems to have this power to get your horse to ‘behave’. However this lack of misbehaving is based on fear; the horse’s survival depends on their correct reaction to fearful stimulus.
I certainly don’t want my relationship with my horses being based on fear.
People may argue their dominance theories but all the latest research explains that horse herds are fluid and do not have a linear hierarchy.
My point is that we have taken away the animals right to say no and communicate their feelings: horses are kicked, smacked and forced by escalating pressure to comply, if they ‘mess around’ or become ‘stubborn’ they get punished more, and then we wonder why they don’t want to be caught or try to bite and make grumpy faces when being tacked up.
In the last few years of my horses ridden life, I took to asking him if he wanted to ride, the answer was not always yes; when he started lifting his back feet when I prepared to get on I knew something was wrong. Many people advised me that he was ‘behaving badly and I should get on and give him a good kick’, but knowing the honesty he had always shown me, I called the vet, he had become very stiff and pairing that with other evidence he was diagnosed with arthritis. Evaluating his conformation now he has been retired for a while, we can assume (not wanting to put him through invasive investigation) he most likely had a sacral injury… further reading has suggested that many sacral problems accompany ‘kissing spines’ and he is indeed very stiff at the withers, unable to flex all the way to his belly with his nose and with no noticeable uplift when he is asked and stimulated to lift his back and draw in his abdominal muscles. See my Conformation & Action dissertation for images and evaluation of the horse discussed.
I know it is not practical within many equine industries but I would love to see horses asked if they wanted to ride or not, they could be taught to communicate clearly using two different boards as the researches in Norway did with asking horses if they wanted to be rugged. Many people using Positive Reinforcement find their horses eager to interact, train and ride. Perhaps if more people were to use these or explore scientifically proven methods, we could reach a more harmonious horse-human collaboration.
Not excluding other animals – Dogs are probably the next to get a bad deal in this way; when they show some insecurity or guarding behaviour of their food, we label them ‘food agressive’ or taunt them by making them wait for their food until we tell them they can eat, or we try to remove their food halfway through! (think I might bite anyone that took my food away from me mid way through eating… in addition think how impatient and annoyed we feel when a restaurant is taking a long time to bring out our food) If a dog has such obsession with food it is likely they have experienced some sort of prolonged hunger or insufficient food type.
A study I watched showed how, compared to dogs, wolves were far better at sharing, another potential side effect of domestication, just like breeding for certain visual preferences has meant they can not communicate efficiently with each other any more.
My plea to humanity is that we respect the non-human animals we share our homes with and listen to their wishes before assuming our needs are superior therefore must be adhered to and we impose on them our agendas.