Horses For Dummies
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If you want to achieve a profound bond with your horse, always put yourself in your horse’s place and try to comprehend the equine experience. Not only will you come to understand and appreciate your horse, but your horse also will come to view you as a protector and ultimately will grow to trust you with his very life.

The dilemma that humans and horses face boils down to a couple of questions:

  • How do humans deal with the horse’s penchant for fear and flight?
  • How do horses deal with this strange world so alien to anything they would have ever encountered in the wild?

Because of mankind’s greater brain capacity, the burden of bridging the gap between the reality of the domesticated horse’s world and what a horse’s instincts tell it falls on the human. Communicating to the horse that everything’s really okay, however, requires the human to understand the equine mind and to pay close attention to the horse’s modes of communication.

Developing a trusting relationship between horse and human can achieve miraculous results. Many, many horses trust their human caretakers so much that they tolerate all kinds of bizarre situations with minimal fear. Go to any horse show and you can see what we mean. The constant commotion and chaos that is a regular part of many horse shows would otherwise make every horse at the show go nuts. But that rarely happens. Instead, you see scores of horses calmly lounging around, quietly munching their hay, and performing beautifully in the show ring when it’s their time in the spotlight. These horses have grown accustomed to the human-dominated world in which they live and have developed a basic trust in the humans who guide their lives.

Other examples of how horse-loving humans have helped horses transcend the gap between primitive equine instinct and the modern human world can be seen everyday in stables and pastures around the globe. There you find horses that greet their caretakers with an obvious joy. Some horses become incredibly attached to just one special person. Even more horses truly love their jobs and are eager to come out of their stalls or pastures and do whatever work is asked of them.

The sections that follow cover just a few of the tasks that humans can undertake to develop trust with their horses.

Providing companionship

Horses are herd animals, and you can’t get around that fact. Just like humans, horses need to have regular interaction with members of their own species to maintain a healthy sense of well-being. For a horse, being alone means being vulnerable — so vulnerable that it can be a matter of life or death.

Depriving a horse of regular companionship is inhumane and tantamount to keeping a person in solitary confinement. Some horses can tolerate the situation better than others, depending on the individual personality of the horse. But none enjoy isolation. In fact, a horse deprived of companionship often becomes neurotic and develops stable vices, the equine equivalent to human nail-biting. Every horse needs to have some company, whether it’s on two or four legs.

One or more horses for a friend is the best scenario, but many horses can also find solace in the companionship of a goat, sheep, donkey, or other hoofed animal. Human companionship also means a great deal to horses. Some horses — usually ones that were imprinted on humans at birth — actually prefer human companionship to that of other horses. But with most horses, human companionship alone doesn’t fit the bill. Human companionship is better than nothing, however, and needs to be provided often to a horse that has no other comrades.

Chowing down

Horses evolved on grassy plains, and in nature, horses spend most of their time grazing. The equine digestive system supports almost constant consumption of low-grade grasses.

The equine brain also is designed for plenty of foraging and chewing. Grazing for a horse is the human equivalent to working, reading, or watching TV. For a horse, grazing provides not only nutrition, but also mental stimulation.

The ideal situation for a horse is to be in a pasture, where he can munch on grass for nearly 18 hours a day. A horse that can do just that is going to be a happy, well-adjusted critter that can give in to the natural urge to chew, chew, chew.

Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, providing a horse with pasture isn’t always possible. Many horses — especially those in more urban areas — live in small dirt paddocks or tidy box stalls, without access to grass. Sometimes, these grazing-deprived horses develop stable vices because they are bored and frustrated by their inability to express their natural urge to graze.

For horses that can’t graze in a field of grass, the next best thing is frequent feeding of roughage, like hay. You must feed horses a minimum of twice a day for basic nutrition. More frequent feedings are even better for their brains and help keep their digestive tracts working properly.

Whatever you do, don’t let your horse become overweight. Overweight horses are prone to serious health problems. If your horse is what those in the horse world call an “easy keeper,” talk to your veterinarian about how to keep him at a good weight while still providing him with enough roughage to satisfy his need to chew and digest.

Stretching out

Just as Mother Nature designed the horse to eat on a nearly constant basis, she also built the horse for nearly constant movement.

If you watch a horse grazing out in a pasture, you’ll see that with just about every bite of grass, the horse takes a step. In a 15-minute period, the horse moves quite a few feet from where he originally started nibbling.

This regular movement provides exercise for both the horse’s body and mind. Energy is slowly released as the horse moves steadily around the pasture. Take this same horse and put him in a box stall or small paddock, and you have a horse that feels cooped up.

For the horse that must live in small quarters without the freedom to move about and graze, daily exercise is of vital importance. Every day, your confined equine needs to be taken out of the stall and walked for at least half an hour, turned out into a larger paddock to run around, or be ridden at least 45 minutes. If the horse doesn’t receive adequate exercise, not only will he be prone to developing leg problems, but he’ll also have plenty of pent-up energy. The horse often expresses his overabundance of energy through stable vices (see the next section) or through misbehavior when he finally does get out of his stall.

Taking some stable vice advice

Horses that are kept by humans in a way that is very unnatural to how they evolved (cooped up, unable to eat with frequency, lacking mental stimulation) sometimes develop neurotic behaviors. These stable vices, as they are known, are the equine equivalent to nail-biting and hair-twisting. Horses with theses problems need more stimulation in the forms of more frequent feeding, more exercise, more companionship with other horses, and/or more room to move around.

After a horse develops one of these habits, it’s hard to break, even with a change in environment, so prevention is key:
  • Cribbing: Cribbing is a bizarre but all-too-common habit, and seems to be the equine version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The cribbing horse grabs a fence post or barn door in between his teeth, arches his neck, and sucks air into his stomach. This air sucking creates a head rush that becomes addictive. Cribbing is not only a sign of extreme boredom or stress, it can be harmful to the horse’s teeth. Devices exist that are meant to curb this behavior, but in our opinion, you’re better off addressing the source of the problem, which is a lack of stimulation. When it comes to cribbing, prevention is more effective than a cure. Provide your horse with enough exercise and stimulation so that he doesn’t get into the cribbing habit.
  • Wind-sucking: Similar to cribbing, wind-sucking involves the horse taking hold of a horizontal surface between his teeth and sucking air into his stomach. Sometimes the horse doesn’t take hold of anything but just sucks air into his windpipe. Usually the result of boredom, wind-sucking is a hard habit to break. Providing a horse with plenty of roughage (hay or pasture) to eat and daily exercise can discourage the habit.
  • Weaving: A horse that weaves stands in one place, shifting weight from one foot to the other in a rhythmic motion, back and forth, his head swaying from side to side. Weaving horses are pitiful to watch. Weaving is not only a sign of extreme boredom, but can also be a symptom of anxiety. Weaving is almost always a stall problem that usually goes away when the horse is moved to a pasture or a bigger paddock.
  • Pacing: A pacing horse walks endlessly around his stall. Horses that exhibit this behavior usually are showing discomfort with confinement. In most cases, horses that pace are the ones kept in box stalls. Horses in paddocks occasionally pace, too, especially if they have a neighboring horse they don’t get along with. Pacing is a horse’s way of saying “Get me out of here!” Move the horse to a more open environment if possible.
  • Bolting feed: Bolting feed means eating too quickly, something that horses sometimes do when they are feeling overly hungry, anxious about the security of their food, or simply anxious in general. This manner of eating usually happens with hay pellets or commercial feed because these feeds are easier to bolt than hay. That said, some horses are capable of bolting hay, too. It’s not healthy for a horse to bolt his feed, because the food isn’t thoroughly chewed or moistened. This situation can cause a blockage in the esophagus, or in the intestines, where it can lead to colic. Feed the horse more often. Put medium-sized stones in the feeder along with the pellets or commercial feed to slow down his eating (as he’ll have to pick around the stones). If your horse bolts his hay, use a slow-feeder to keep him from being able to take in too much hay at once. Be sure to also create a more secure environment for the horse so that he’s less worried about another horse taking his food.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Connie Isbell is a former editor and writer atAudobon magazine, as well as the editor of numerous pet books. Audrey Pavia is the author of many books on pets and animals, including the bestselling Horses For Dummies and The Rabbit: An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet. She has been a frequent contributor to numerous pet publications, editor-in -chief of Horse Illustrated, and senior editor of The AKC Gazette.

Audrey Pavia is the former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine and an award-winning writer of numerous articles on equine subjects. The author of seven books about horses, she has also contributed to Thoroughbred Times, Horse & Rider, and many other animal magazines.

Janice Posnikoff, DVM, is a highly respected equine veterinarian with over 20 years experience. She is a graduate of the Western College of Veterinarian Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

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