Over the years I have more than once, blamed a groom for forgetting to bolt the stable door when finding my horse loose on the yard. Then one day I witnessed my mare jumping out of her stable! Well that’s putting it more mildly than what really happened when my horse escaped.
To safely negotiate a stable door a horse needs to rear first, get two front hooves over the top then awkwardly jump/clamber out. The landing is equally as undignified as my mare landed on her face, cutting her mouth open in the process. If anyone still believes a horse will learn from pain and avoid injury, I can inform you this isn’t correct. I immediately put my horse back in her stable, and again she jumped out, smashing up her face further. This was somewhat problematic considering I was treating a foot abscess, but by my horse saying No I was forced to reconsider stabling her. Fortunately at the time I was at a yard that allowed unrestricted grass livery. I was able to section off a small area by the field shelter with electric fencing, and wrapped the hoof with duct tape to keep it dry.
The times I have been on stabled livery over the years my horse has always shown severe anxiety and aggression, particularly to equine neighbours or horses walking by. My mare would rear, then on landing double barrel just about anything behind her. She has destroyed walls, automatic water feeders and tack cupboards. She would also charge the sides of the stable and run her teeth down the walls and door. She probably appeared insane, and too dangerous to approach and handle. A novice may even assume my horse hates other horses when they see she reacts to other horses so aggressively. Yet this behaviour does not intimidate me because once I enter the stable she becomes a well-mannered horse that stands still while I tack-up, rug, groom or muck out. She has also always been turned out with a herd. What bothers me the most however is the anxiety she displays, and it’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing that I have caused it by stabling her.
My horse does not hate other horses and nor is she dangerous. I felt compelled to write this article after being told of a horse that displays similar behaviour when stabled. This particular animal is not turned out with other horses because the owner mistakenly thinks the horse must hate other horses, so assumes it’s a danger to them. The horse in my view needs to be turned out immediately, and probably left out. Much of this behaviour is undoubtedly caused by anxiety rather than aggression, yet the human is translating this behaviour as dangerous. The horse may perhaps show dominance when turned out, and either become the most dominant in the herd, or get its butt kicked…and won’t be. The horse will accept either, simply because it is completely normal and natural. But I can guarantee whatever happens its 100% better for the horse to be out with other horses, than left in a stable driving itself insane and injuring itself.
The problems caused by using stables, especially here in the UK are outweighing the benefits on a massive scale. It’s not using a stable that’s the main issue, but the length of time its being used for. The sheer lack of available turnout at many yards, especially over winter is causing stress, weight gain and respiratory, metabolic skeletal/joint disorders. Obviously owners are choosing to fully or partly clip their horse over winter to avoid overheating during schooling, competing or hunting. Yet the majority of non-competing/hunting owners may only ride in the school once or twice a week, especially during winter. Add up the hours that the rider is actually in the saddle, now compare it to the amount of hours the horse stands in the stable. Sometimes a clip is wholly unnecessary, and not worth the consequences of stabling a horse for long periods.
Horses are overly forgiving for all of our mistakes, their very nature is probably why we were able to domesticate them in the first place. In the same way a horse will hide pain, they probably hide anxiety as well. Only when those levels become too much to bear do they become noticeable to humans. In the majority of cases severe anxiety is wrongly diagnosed, and completely anthropomorphised by an owner. Instead of giving further thought to the situation or finding a solution, the animal is thought of as nasty and dangerous. I once knew of a horseman (I use that title loosely) that would carry a big heavy stick when entering a particular horses stable, and I would hear him hitting that horse. I was too young and timid to say anything. Beating a horse showing severe anxiety is, of course, the wrong solution and downright stupid and cruel. Humans that need to beat a horse do so because they themselves fear the animal.
Do not always identify aggressive, intimidating behaviour as dangerous because that takes no further thought, and only generates fear. There is always a reason (or many reasons), therefore there must be a solution. So in this case, the lady that is too fearful to turn out her horse because she assumes it hates other horses, should do the exact opposite of what she has been doing. Her horse will not write a polite letter, tell a teacher or call the Samaritans to ask for help, it can only communicate through body language.
Images: By kind permission from photographer Gary Odell