The Three F’s, Interlocking Needs
As we touched upon in the first two parts of this three-part blog series ‘The Horse’s Manifesto’, friends and forage are two of the top three species-specific needs of the horse. This last post will cover what I like to refer to as the third of those three ‘F’s’ –freedom. I hope to introduce the idea that these three needs are actually hard to isolate individually, and could instead be looked at as one very important, intertwined need of the horse. Each need – friends, forage, and freedom – is like a cog, turning the wheels of a machine. Take one away, and the machine won’t operate as intended. The same could be said for the horse; horses need friends, forage, and freedom to operate and live happily and healthily. Removing one will have a negative effect on how the whole horse operates.
Freedom isn’t just a lack of fences; freedom is defined as ‘a state in which somebody is able to act and live as he or she chooses, without being subject to any undue restraints or restrictions’. In their natural state, horses have the freedom to choose how involved they want to be with herd mates, they have the freedom to graze as desired, and they also have freedom to move as they wish (roll, play, rest, mate, mutually groom, wander etc.) Freedom entails personal choice; when examining best practices for caring for horses, it is important that we look at what their species-specific personal choices would be, and not just impose ours on him.
Wild at Heart, and in Body
Unlike many of our modern-day dog companions, even the most well-bred and highly trained equine athlete still retains the same instincts and needs of their wild cousins. The horse’s instincts and need for freedom have not been bred out of him. At heart, the horse is still a prey animal, who prefers wide open spaces where they can keep an eye open for potential danger and be able to put distance between themself and any threats. Their physical build is also designed for avoiding danger:
The shape of their head, with eyes placed high, and on either side of their face, allows them a full view of their surroundings while they graze
They lack horns or sharp teeth with which to protect themselves, and instead, rely on their powers of perception and fast responses to sudden movement as their first line of defence.
Their lower legs lack muscling, in part to allow their limbs to move swiftly through space, and faster propel their great muscular bulk and heavy fermentation chamber of a GI system
And also, unlike many of our modern-day dog companions, most horses would survive just fine tomorrow if we opened the gates and set them free – contrary to what some owners would believe.
Horses are nomadic wanderers by trade. They do not stay in the same area, depleting the resources present, before moving on. Horses are designed to eat a few bites, and take a few steps, eat a few bites, and take a few steps. They are not territorial animals, and don’t generally enter into conflict with other bands of horses over territory. The territory of feral horses will often overlap, and any conflict seen within that overlapping territory usually has more to do with maintaining the integrity of the herd.
Feral horses wander between 10-30 miles a day, depending on resources available within their territory. By comparison, Australian researchers found that confined domesticated horses averaged only 4.5 miles of travel, even when living in a 39.5-acre pasture. Stalled horses turned out in a paddock moved even less – just 0.6 miles on average. Gulp! From a health perspective, this lack of movement has serious consequences for the horse, both mentally and physically.
Physical and Behavioral Implications Of A Lack Of Freedom
From their GI system down to their hooves, the horse relies on freedom of movement to stay healthy. Unfortunately, many modern horse-keeping practices impose confinement on the horse, and limit the amount of movement and freedom available to him. Physical issues that can result from lack of adequate movement and over-confinement can include hoof pathology, colic, laminitis, respiratory illness, obesity, ill health relating to elevated cortisol levels and more.
As stated earlier, freedom doesn’t just entail movement: lack of freedom to choose to interact socially, or eat ad-lib can result in both physical and behavioural issues. Lack of free-choice access to forage is a common cause of gastric ulcers, and oral stereotypic behaviour such as cribbing. As we learned in part two of this series, Forage, the horse has evolved to process cellulose-rich forage for the majority of their day. Being denied the freedom to do so is just one possible cause to predispose a horse to crib. Stereotypic behaviours are behaviours which are repetitive, and seemingly serve no purpose. They can be oral, such as cribbing, or locomotory, such as weaving or stall walking; they are generally an indicator that the horse’s 3 F needs are not being met in some way. Stall walking and weaving stereotypies can develop when horses are denied the freedom to interact socially or to move as desired. Stallions denied the freedom of normal social interactions and movement, and may resort to stereotypic self-mutilation.
What Other Practices Can Limit Or Hinder Freedom?
Training practices and tack can also restrict freedom to move as their bodies evolved. Tack, bits, and gadgets abound that impose rigid planes of movement (e.g., tie downs, standing martingales), or force a frame or way of moving onto a horse that may not be either normal or bio-mechanically correct (e.g. draw reins, side reins, lunging systems, weighted shoes). Devices and gadgets are also sold to prevent horses from displaying stereotypies (e.g. cribbing collars, shock collars, shock mats), which removes their freedom to express stress levels they may be experiencing, without actually addressing the root cause.
Training methods that rely heavily on punishing unwanted behaviours rather than reinforcing wanted ones, limit the freedom the horse may feel to participate in training. It has been shown in numerous studies that training that relies on punishment actually suppresses learning, and animals often end up not trying to seek the answer to the training question. To further confuse caring horse owners, a number of heavily marketed horse training ‘systems’ rely on the use of punishment, while describing it in terms that lead owners to believe the methods involve love, are humane, or are natural to the horse. This is where understanding the basics of what’s known as learning theory, can help horse owners decide if a training program truly allows the horse freedom while learning.
Finally, horses may also suffer from what’s known as learned helplessness – a state where an animal learns that nothing they can do will relieve pain or aversive pressure (physical or mental) that they experience. Lacking the freedom to avoid the pressure, the horse ends up learning that their situation is unchangeable or inescapable. This is commonly seen in riding school horses, subjected, among other things, to novice riders using the reins to balance. The horse cannot escape the pain of the bit when the rider loses their balance, and eventually may appear unresponsive to the rider’s requests. Sadly, those horses may then be labelled ‘lazy’ or ‘dull’, placing blame on the horse himself.
Coming full circle, I hope you have a new appreciation for the horse’s manifesto and their need for the 3F’s: Friends, Forage, and Freedom. While we focused on each 'F' individually in this series, it’s important to remember that all three overlap, and are integral to maintaining a mentally happy and physically healthy horse. Friends, forage, and freedom for a happy and healthy horse.
(I coined the term the 3F's, and wrote this series of articles for the IAABC's website. You can find the original post here.)