While all feral horses adopt the same social life, growing up in natal and bachelor bands in which they learn to co-exist peacefully through skilful communication, domestic horses are brought up in a wide variety of ways.
- EARLY LIFE
Lucky foals are born into herds of brood mares in big spaces, running and playing with others. Studies have shown that this early exercise is essential for the formation of healthy cartilage, tendon and bone. A natural environment also helps the foal develop proprioception, the knowledge of where his body and feet are, so he´s nimble, agile and able to balance himself.
The foal learns respect for space, how to communicate and how to interpret intention signals from other mares and their foals: his own mother is very permissive with him.
At the other extreme of the spectrum are foals raised alone with their mothers in small spaces, even stables, without challenges that optimize their physical and social development. These foals often give us problems when they grow up: they´re rude and clumsy, they don´t understand the principles of communication, they´re slow learners and they break down easily with hard work.
Potentially extremely stressful, weaning can affect a foal for the rest of his life. In many countries traditional weaning consists of shutting the foal alone in a stable, giving him rich food to overcome his lack of growth due to stress. Results: 50% have stomach ulcers, the rich diet provokes osteochondrosis, and many develop oral stereotypes like wind-sucking or tongue-sucking.
Low-stress weaning allows the foal to see, smell and touch his mother, though not to suckle. The foal must have company. In a stud farm, a high, strong mesh fence that separates a group of foals from their mothers is ideal. Another advantage is that the mares dry off quickly, for stress raises milk production.
At home, where there is only one foal, gradual weaning can be practised by shutting the mare in the stable with the top door open (if you shut the foal in, he´ll jump out) for increasing periods.
Geldings make the best companions for foals, for males naturally make strong bonds with their foals and most geldings retain this paternal interest and playfulness.
A feral horse eats between 13 and 18 hours daily, moving continually except in rest periods, in the company he chooses, ranging over hundreds of hectares. Food is everywhere: he does not need to compete for it.
Any form of domestic life, then, requires considerable adjustment on his part. When asked for adjustments beyond his capabilities, the result is stress.
Stables, without liberty, company or sufficient chewing time, are highly stressful for horses, which become nervous, excitable, depressed or develop stable vices. Stress affects fertility, the immune system, circulation, digestion and general well-being. Many have ulcers (50-75% of sports horses, 80-90% of racehorses). Many die of colic.
They also need to roll both before and after exercise, for instance in a sandpit.
- CORE TRAINING
Stabled horses need special attention to the invisible deep muscles that stabilize the backbone while the visible back muscles lift it. You can do carrot stretches to strengthen these muscles. In a field the horse strengthens them himself.
Systems of tracks can be designed to optimise the use of limited space and the health of the barefoot hoof in stable groups of horses. There are many examples in the Internet. It´s also useful for groups of riding school horses that work together, although group changes and mud can be problematic.
- GROPUS OF HORSES IN BARE PADDOCKS often show unacceptable aggression rates due to the impoverished environment, forced grouping and unnatural competition for focal food, which rewards aggression. Fighting is not a way of “working out the hierarchy”, for hierarchies form no part of their natural lives, but a symptom of poor welfare and inadequate living conditions. By observing which horses get on well together, using “slow feeders” so they always have forage without overeating, optimising and enriching their use of space, their welfare can be improved considerably.
This is particularly important in riding schools where, unfortunately, anthropomorphic parallels are often drawn between dominant chimpanzees and aggressive horses. The most aggressive horse is often called “the boss”, thought to “keep the others in order” or “tell them what to do”. Logically, then, the way to achieve a “submissive” or “obedient” horse is through aggression and force. Horses cannot understand this way of thinking, for they have no concept of punitive authority, though some of them learn to avoid pain.
Fields need regular maintenance to avoid the inevitable degeneration that happens when they are grazed by only one species of animal. See www.equisens.com
Naturally, stallions are the most sociable horses of a band, forming strong bonds with all others. Isolated, they suffer more than any other. Their desperation to contact others often leads to punitive handling, while their fertility suffers. When used exclusively for covering they often become aggressive, frustrated by repeatedly losing potential mates they should be protecting. Their welfare, character and fertility, then, are profoundly affected by their surroundings and management, and improve immensely with liberty and company.
Naturally the stallion is the protector of the band, and especially of his foals. The best position for a stallion´s corral is overlooking others that do not wander out of sight. He enjoys the company of his sons or other males with whom he has been raised, though in small spaces he may play too vigorously and have to live beside, rather than with, them. Or, like this stallion, he can live happily with a single quiet mare and her foal, a system that allows him to be kept in show condition. After covering a visiting mare he is content to return to his mate, which reduces his frustration on parting from the visitor.
Domestic stallions are often prevented from greeting other horses, which increases their determination to do so. Prevented by force, they learn to anticipate pain until they flatten their ears at the sight of another horse, allowing the interpretation that they want to attack others. Colts destined to be stallions should be allowed to meet other horses regularly in safe places, like over stable doors or in stock pens, so they gain the social education to continue doing so.
Meetings can at first be dramatic, with rears and squeals, but calm down rapidly if the handler does not get alarmed. Older stallions can als
It depends of the size, age, edad, race and work, but it is rules: