Needs of the Horse part III: Security
In the first part of this series I stated that horses need food, shelter, and security. At first glace creating a secure environment for a horse seems fairly straightforward. After all, there aren't that many large predators left in most places where we keep horses (though losing a foal to a cougar does happen now and again in the interior of BC), so really all you need to do is keep a horse from escaping, while making sure his paddocks, pastures or stalls are free of things he can hurt himself on.
The safest type of fence with which to enclose a horse is post and rail in front of a thick non-poisonous hedge. A thick hedge discourages horses from reaching through the fence to get at (inevitably greener) grass on the other side. Without a hedge an electric hotwire may be needed to prevent horses from leaning on, chewing, or otherwise breaking through post and rail fences.
Where it is impractical to use full post and rail, a top rail with v-mesh wire or electric fencing is the next best alternative. Page-wire, or wire grid with large openings are dangerous to horses as they can get a leg through the fence and get tangled up. A tangled horse is prone to panic and injure himself in the process. Barbed wire is designed to stop cattle, and is never suitable for keeping horses as it can cause horrendous injuries if a horse becomes entangled.
Gate and stall latches should be easy for a human to open, but difficult for a horse. Horses can be enormously clever with their lips, and its surprising how many learn to open a variety of latches. It's always a good idea to have a second gate between the area horses are kept and access to the road, in the event the primary gate is accidentally opened.
Before turning horses out into a pasture walk the perimeter and check for breaks in the fence, as well as checking the entire area for dangers such as sink-holes, sharp objects, steep ditches or areas a horse can become entrapped or injured.
Horses are herd animals and prey animals. Their sense of safety depends on the knowledge that there are other members of their herd nearby to watch for danger and provide safety in numbers. Key proof of this is that a solitary horse will not lie down to sleep: she may sleep standing up, but will not get the deep restful sleep she needs at least once a day unless she knows there is another horse around to be sentry. A solitary horse is also more prone to vices such as cribbing, weaving and pacing.
That said, it is not always possible to provide a companion horse. Luckily horses are not that picky. Donkeys, goats and llamas are all acceptable herd-mates for most horses, and even dogs and barn-cats appear to give them some comfort.
Your horse depends on you, too, to provide her security. When you are handling and riding her it is your job to be the alpha mare (not the stallion) – the one who watches out for dangers and directs the rest of the herd. A horse that is confident you are looking out for her will be much more willing to go where you ask, whether it be over a 4' liverpool, through a creekbed out on the trails, or into a dark and scary trailer. A horse that trusts you will let the vet and farrier do their jobs with a minimum of fuss, and be far easier to extricate calmly from a mess of broken fencing should that horrible incident ever happen. And a horse that sees you as leader will be far happier leaving her herdmates to go off to rides and shows on her own.
It's not difficult to create trust in a horse, but it requires patience and consistency. Here are a few tips:
- Be calm. Leave your stress behind when you come to the barn to work with your horse.
- Be the authority. Don't let your horse walk into you, rub his head on you or move into your space. Remind him not to with an elbow or firm push, but don't get mad.
- Be a friend. Grooming, scratches behind the ear, treats and loving words are all part of bonding, as long as your horse remains respectful of your space while receiving them.
- Be trustworthy. If you don't know what's at the bottom of that puddle, get off and walk through it yourself before you ask your horse to. If it's deeper than you thought, or there's a sharp object at the bottom, your horse will never forget (or forgive).
- Be consistent. If you allow a behaviour one day, then punish a horse for it the next he won't trust you.
- Be respectful. Remember no matter how much you adore each other, you are still different species. Your horse's needs are not the same as yours. You don't want to be treated like a horse (they bite each other on the crest to show affection); and you don't want to treat your horse like a pet, or a person.
A secure, trusting horse is a happy horse, and a happy horse is a joy to work with. Recalling the wild herd animal your horse still is biologically will help you meet both his physical and emotional needs, and allow for a productive partnership between you.
Bonus humour for the week from CBC's Irrelevant Show, for those of you wondering what's involved in the gold spur curriculum:
Skip ahead to 16:40 for the Freestyle Cross Country Derby (though the 'Rise of the Nerds' song prior to that is pretty cool too.)