Do you ever get frustrated with some of the nonsense you see people do “for” their horses? Things like hanging up barn decorations “for the horse” or choosing a special color blanket or making sure he’s never turned out in the mud? Well, you’re not alone. Horse Journal Performance Editor John Strassburger has had his fill, too, and wants to remind us that, well, “A horse is a horse.” Read on…
Not long ago, I was reading something on the Internet that was meant to an amusing tale about the “silly things boarders do.” But the further I read, the less I laughed, because I suddenly had an unsettling concern. I wondered, “Who are these people, and why do they have horses?”
Some of the highlights included: a woman who purchased greeting cards for her horse and read them to him on a regular basis; some folks who purchased stuffed animals for their horses so they wouldn’t “get lonely”; and someone who would only buy products in certain colors for her horse because she believed that the horse wasn’t happy in other colors. Really? Are they serious?
I often find myself saying (to anyone who’ll listen), “They aren’t poodles; they’re horses!” But more importantly, they aren’t people. You do your horses no favors if you treat them like “fur kids.”
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to educate myself about how horses truly live and behave. I’ve trained them, watched them, interacted with them, lived with them, brought them in to the world, and held them as they left the world. It never occurred to me, over all of these years, that someone interested in spending their life with horses would do anything differently.
But, more and more, I see people acquiring horses, even though they seem to be completely tone-deaf to their horse’s needs. They spend gobs of money needlessly on fancy barns or stalls and on supplements, clothes, special grooming items and more, when, in reality, their horses would be infinitely happier living in a field, muddy, dirty, hairy and hanging out with a few friends and eating grass.
These people cringe at the thought of standing out in the rain, so they think their horses would have the same negative reaction. “I like being warm and snug and dry indoors on a rainy day, so my horsie must like that too,” they worry.
What I think these people don’t understand is that not only is it silly to ascribe human emotions and behavior to horses (or any animal), but also that they’re doing a great disservice to that animal by doing so. You’re not respecting the fact that they’re not humans by treating them as if they were humans.
Horses evolved to be happy in fairly simple but exact set of circumstances—Mother Nature made them to move constantly in groups, eating forage almost all the while. Mother Nature also gave them a thick skin and fur o keep them warm in the cold or rain. They’re herd animals who are hard-wired to live with other horses. They aren’t meant to live in little boxes, isolated from their own kind, eating processed grains at times when we think they should eat. We humans started building stalls and barns hundreds of years ago for our own convenience—not because it was always better for the horses.
When we bring horses in to our human world, we take away almost every aspect of the lifestyle for which they’re best suited. Some of that can’t be helped—domesticated horses wouldn’t exist if they weren’t useful to us, and to be of use, they must be somewhat confined. Most of them adjust perfectly well to an unnatural life, but that confinement leads to changes in feeding, socialization, and even their natural growth of hair is altered. That’s why I believe that we have a duty to preserve as much of that optimal lifestyle as possible.
So when we shut horses up in their boxes and layer them in blankets, and feed them all manner of food, we mean it in a loving way, but to the horse we’re saying, “Hey babe, love ya, just want to change everything about you.” We’re meeting their needs as people, but none of those things have a thing to do with who a horse truly is. We ignore their true needs, even as we make ourselves feel better by meeting our needs for them.
Animals of all kinds have long filled voids in people’s lives, and that’s a perfectly valid reason to bring an animal into your life. But, the animal shouldn’t have to sacrifice its basic nature and general happiness because we aren’t very good at managing relationships with our own species. Share your life with that animal; don’t shoehorn them in to it and expect them to be something they are not.
Horses don’t ask to come in to our lives, so we owe it to them to make their lives with us as normal as possible.