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Enrichment means providing captive or domestic animals with a better housing situation and stimulation that replicate more closely what they would have available to them in their natural setting.

The notion of enrichment for captive animals is a relatively new concept that started in places where animals are on show, such as zoos and wildlife parks, but it is now more common for domestic animal owners, managers and farmers to think in this way.

For example, through scientific study, farmers have learned that enrichment can improve productivity and, therefore, improvements have been and continue to be made in these areas.

Of course, not all farmers needed such studies to know this, but scientific studies are very helpful if they can prove to people who believe otherwise, that animals do better when they have access to more positive environments .

The reason this movement started in zoos is because the animals are on public display. As society evolves, a faction of that society becomes more interested in animal welfare. This has driven the changes that are now commonplace in zoos in the western world.

For example, it used to be commonplace to chain elephants to the ground for long periods (or even permanently), or to keep lions separately in small cages.

Depending on your age, you may be able to remember a trip to the zoo when you were young and seeing elephants confined in this way, or a lion pacing backwards and forwards in the cage. These examples are no longer considered an accepted practice in the western world and, therefore, huge changes have come about in the way zoos approach animal welfare.

The horse world has been slow to make such changes, mainly because it is so steeped in tradition. Much of what happens to horses and, in particular, how they are housed, is not in the public eye. There are also many myths about what horses need and want. For example, we tend to anthropomorphise horses, and in particular, thinking that, like humans, they want to be in a warm, safe enclosure at night. Perhaps this is further enhanced by the fact that our other domestic animals – cats and dogs – do enjoy a warm comfy bed to sleep in as we do.

What is actually the right thing to do for our horses, is providing them with simple shade/shelter but also allowing them free access to the outdoors (preferably with other horses). Yet to the uneducated, this can sometimes seem harsh and even cruel. On occasions, when some horse owners do enrich their horse’s lifestyle by keeping them outside in groups for longer periods and avoid rugging them unless absolutely necessary, the general public and even other horse owners who do not understand what horse actually needs, label them as being cruel.

Equine welfare agencies are regularly contacted by people who feel that a certain horse or horses are not being cared for properly, when in fact the opposite is sometimes true.

Most horses would prefer to be outside being horses.

Please note, we are not totally against the use of rugging or stabling, just the over use of them. There are some situations when we feel them to be necessary. For example, horses live much longer in a domestic situation and there comes a time, as they get older, when they struggle to keep warm without help. Also, certain breeds of horses, when kept in climates that they have not evolved to be in, can struggle to maintain body condition. This does not mean though that rugging, in particular, should be used instead of shade and shelter.

Horse-centered enrichment:

Grazing

Increase in the time spent grazing. All horses should be allowed to graze as much as possible. There is no better feed for a horse provided the grass is high-fibre, low sugar and starch.

If the grasses are ‘improved’ or high sugar and starch grasses developed for cattle, then careful management will be required to reduce their sugar and starch intake to a safe level.

Fibre

Increase of fibre in the diet. If you do not have enough available grazing, or the grasses are inappropriate for horses, then feed as much hay as possible.

Select high-fibre low sugar and low starch hay, and feed it ad-lib (free choice or available 24/7). This means that the horse spends more time chewing and swallowing saliva which is what the horse is meant to do.

Contact with other horses

Increase the time spent in contact with other horses at pasture. And make sure it’s actually in with another horse, not just on the other side of the fence from one. Allowing horses to interact over a fence is usually far more dangerous than putting them in the same area together due to the risk of fence injuries. Horseplay is rough, although not usually as rough as it appears to us humans.

All animals, including humans, use play as a form of development and to strengthen bonds. Even horses that appear to be low in the social structure will still choose to stay with other horses rather than be alone. In fact, separating two horses that seem to have a strong dislike from each other (to us humans), may cause them to become frantic. You should, therefore, always aim to keep your horses in a herd.

Movement

Increase in movement. Create an environment which enables and encourages more movement. Movement is so important to a horse, millions of years of evolution have resulted in a grazing athlete that thrives on movement. When you take on horse ownership, remember that horses are meant to move a lot!

Increasing movement for your horses may mean a change of management system for the entire property.

Find out more about The Equicentral System, a horse and property system that we have developed and advocate, which increases movement in horses while, at the same time, allows better land management. A win-win situation.

Unrugging

Minimise rugging. Rugs should only be used when necessary, rather than because you like to see your horse warm, clean or wearing the latest fashion. It is very easy to fall into the trap of over rugging, simply because so many other people do it.

As mentioned previously, we now have a ludicrous situation where an owner is more likely to be seen as cruel for not rugging their horses, when they are actually far better off without one.

Remember that the over use the rugs can have implications, from over-heating to influencing weight gain or loss which may lead to health concerns such as laminitis.

Freedom

Maximise turn out and minimise the time spent in confinement. Make sure that horses are only stabled or confined when necessary. Remember, horses can give the impression that they ‘like’ being stabled when in fact, they do not.

Stables in particular, are often no better than cages, especially those that prevent horses from even touching each other.

Confining horses is sometimes a ‘necessary evil’ for many horse owners because they may not have much choice if they do not own their own land. Even if they do, they may not have enough land to turn horses out during wet conditions, for example. In this case, aim to make sure your horses have, at least, some time outside each day, preferably in the company of other horses.

This could be an arena or surfaced area with other horses. If you are on your own horse property and already have stables established, consider changing them to a more horse-friendly design.

This could mean turning a row of stables into an open-fronted run-in shed. If you are building stables, and you are sure that you need them, consider leaving part of the stable wall open above chest-height so horses can interact with each other.

Let horses be horses

Increase the time spent behaving like a real horse. If you are aware that your horses live in relatively stressful conditions, aim to let them have regular time-out sessions. During these times, let your horses go without rugs, let them get muddy, interact with other horses etc.

Even very valuable horses can and should be allowed access to other horses. Quiet, unshod, smaller horses make great companions for large dressage horses for example. Just make sure they are introduced safely and properly.

Think of this in terms of your own time off. You would not like to go without your holidays, friends or general relaxation time, so don’t expect your horses to.

Keep reminding yourself that your goals are very different to the goals of your large hairy herbivore. A more relaxed, ‘happier’ horse will, ultimately, be sounder, stronger, safer, healthier etc., so it will all be worthwhile in the end.

Give them agency

Increase their opportunities to make their own decisions. This may not sound like such an important factor, although if you are familiar with our work, you will hopefully appreciate the impact decision-making has on our horses.

Domestic horses kept in traditional management systems are not able to make many, if any, decisions in their day-to-day life. For some horses, literally every step they take is governed by a human. This is the case of a fully stabled horse that is only exercised while being trained, in an arena for example, or a horse walker.

By changing the management system, horses can be allowed to make choices, such as where they want to stand (e.g. in the shade or out in the sun, in the shelter or out on the pasture), which other horses they spend time with, etc. This is a huge deal for a horse.

One of the reasons we are so passionate about the Equicentral System is that it allows horses to make their own decisions as much as possible.

Let horses be horses as much as possible.

Being horse-centered

It is a human characteristic to look for human traits in many things, ranging from inanimate objects, such as the car, to animate creatures such as our pets or other animals.

Humans can then use this misinformation as a reason for treating these objects or creatures in a certain way. This is not usually done with malicious intent, quite the opposite, but the problem is that while it can be fun for humans to anthropomorphise, sometimes it is not very helpful and can even be harmful in the case of animals, especially when it disregards an animal’s needs and replaces them with human needs. It is important instead, to try to view the horse from their perspective.

Anthropomorphising can be useful in certain contexts, like fostering empathy a desire to care and protect our animals, but it’s important to remember that all animal species have their own unique ethogram that has been shaped by millions of years of evolution in order to ensure species survival. (An ethogram is a catalogue of behaviours which is unique to one particular animal species.)

These traits have been shaped in response to their natural environments, not their man-made ones. Therefore, what works for us, does not necessarily work for them.

The Five Domains

To assess the level of welfare of captive animals and monitor their management, today’s best Zoos and wildlife parks use the Five Domains Model of Welfare Assessment. (See Cristina Wilkins’ interview with Prof. Emeritus David Mellor.)

The five domains model is based on setting standards of care in four physical domains – nutrition, health, environment and behaviour and horse-human interactions, and adding as many positive mental experiences as possible.

The model allows us to set minimum requirements of care plus it encourages us to improve on those by thinking of ways to enrich the animal’s quality of life.

In the case of horses, quality of life starts by making sure they are provided with what they really need, and for this, we can turn to a simple mantra known as ‘The Three F’s’ – Forage, Friends and Freedom.

The three F’s

Forage

Horses are basically fibre-processing animals whose whole psychology (behaviour) and physiology have evolved to enable them to thrive on a high-fibre diet. Therefore, a horse should have ad-lib access to high-fibre low energy and low-protein forage.

Friendship

Horses are highly social herd animals that develop strong bonds with other horses. If we attempt to separate horses, we deny them a basic need which can cause behavioural and management issues for our horses, as well as creating problems for our land.

All horses need companionship and it is your duty as a responsible horse owner to ensure that this basic need is met. Horses need other horses for companionship.

Lacking other horses, they will form bonds with other animals, cattle, sheep, goats, etc., but there is no substitute for another horse. We as owners, like to think that our horses bond with us, and they do to a certain extent, but most of that is ‘cupboard love’ as we provide the feed, and we should never assume that we are a substitute for another horse.

Freedom

Horses should be allowed to make choices. Horses are often micro-managed, kept in stables, given their food in hay nets or buckets, brought out just to ride or train; every aspect of their lives is dictated by humans. They should have some choice in what they eat (variety), where they sleep (space and comfort), who they socialise with (stable groups) and, to a certain extent, where they want to be at different times of the day.

We obviously have to make compromises due to the constraints of our boundary fences, but within these boundaries we can give our horses some more opportunity for positive experiences and choices whilst, at the same time, meeting both our needs and hours.

The Equicentral System

In a property designed as an Equicentral System, there is a central loafing area connected to a number of pastures, with one pasture available at any one time while the others are resting.

In an Equicentral System, the horses can choose, as a herd, whether to graze, walk to the ‘water hole’ (the trough in the central area), snooze in the sun or the shade, etc., instead of having us deciding when the grazing bout will start or finish.

Loafing or standing around together, is of top priority to horses. They will often disregard other comforts in order to be able to stand next to each other. This is demonstrated when horses are kept separately in ‘private paddocks’ where they will ignore shade/shelter in order to stand next to each other on either side of the fence.

Having hay available in the yard means horses can top up on low sugar and starch fibre and choose to eat or rest. If you provide them with a suitable, comfortable surface like shavings or deep sand, the horses will also lie down and get better quality rest.

These are just a few of the many ways the Equicentral system makes it easier  to enrich your horse’s lifestyle.

To learn more visit www.equiculture.net.

Jane and Stuart Myers

Jane and Stuart Myers are the dynamic duo behind www.equiculture.net - an educational movement informing on responsible, sustainable and ethical horse-keeping. Together, they have co-authored several books and recently launched an online course bringing Horse Management into the 21st Century.

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