One of the bonuses of my job is the interesting, innovative new people I get to meet and learn from. One such person is Mariette van den Berg, BAppSc., MSc. (Equine Nutrition), RAnNutr, a registered equine nutritionist working on her PhD in equine nutrition and foraging behavior at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. Originally I met Marietta in fall of 2012 when I was in Australia participating in a national conference on horses and land management. I was the keynote speaker sharing my American experiences in horse keeping. Marietta was at the same conference speaking on her current research with nutrition and pasture.
Marietta joined me this past September to experience some of my Horses for Clean Water events in the Seattle area. We toured several horse properties where I have worked with the land owners. She attended a workshop I taught on track paddocks and slow feeders as well as a farm tour highlighting mud, manure and pasture management.
In return, Marietta introduced me to the idea of horse welfare, along with the idea of enrichment in a horse’s life. While using the word “welfare” sounds like the horse being "on the dowel,” it actually refers to a horse’s overall well-being, not just whether they are getting food and water.
Horse welfare means managing horses in a way that is best and most natural for the horse, based on equitation science. “Think of horse keeping like zoo keeping,” Marietta said to me. At first the thought was abhorrent to me, but after talking with her, I got what she meant: horses are derived from wild animals, and as such they have specific needs. If we can design their facilities with those needs in mind then perhaps they will be happier, with less vices or bad attitudes.
For the most part, fine zoos are no longer about keeping animals in cages; they build elaborate settings for animals complete with live plants and scenery that is as much like their native surroundings as possible. Carnivores are encouraged to hunt for food hidden in their areas. Giraffes get their feed from feeders suspended high up, much like the treetops they’d eat from in the wild. Birds have cages big enough where they can fly – some are exercised in free-flight outside. Horses, too, can have pens designed to be more like their wild background.
One of the organizations that Marietta is affiliated with is ISES (International Society for Equitation Science)*, whose mission is "...to promote and encourage the application of objective research and advanced practice which will ultimately improve the welfare of horses in their associations with humans." One of ISES’s stated aims is: “to encourage, where appropriate, the assimilation of scientific knowledge so as to facilitate its use in relation to practical problems concerning the way horses are trained, managed, housed and cared for.”
While I'm not completely sure what all this will look like, I am sure that we can all explore this concept together with the goal in mind of utilizing as much suitable stimulation and "enrichment" as is possible for our horses. What it doesn’t mean is turning out a horse on grassy pasture 24/7; this would be to the determent of the pasture, would degrade water quality, and most importantly, the resulting muddy and overgrazed pasture would be extremely unhealthy for the horse. Horses were designed to live on dry ground, grazing sparse feed here and there.
So I'm wondering, what exactly does horse welfare and enrichment mean to you? Let’s journey together to explore this. Email me your thoughts and ideas. Watch for an article I have coming out in a future issue of The Horse magazine on innovations in confinement area horse keeping. Check out the article below for ideas to eliminate winter horse boredom now, and, if you want to make some permanent changes to your horse's environment, sign up for HCW's new online classes starting in January for some fresh ideas on managing your land to improve your horses welfare.
One of my equine veterinarian friends once said to me, that if we treated our horses more like dogs, they’d be a lot smarter and a lot more bonded with us. Maybe he had something there?
Until next year, enjoy the holidays with your furry friends!
"There is nothing like a dream to create the future" - Victor Hugo
* To learn more about equitation science:
- International Society for Equitation Science (ISES)
- Australian Equine Behaviour Centre
- Equitation Science, by Paul McGreevy
Plus: Tip Sheets on these and other horse keeping topics will be available on the newly designed HCW website, debuting later this month - stay tuned!