Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The difference

"When anything gets freed, a zest goes round the world." - Hortense Calisher

Look at the two pictures above. What is the difference between the two? Or is there a difference?

If I told you that I kept my dog Chili in a crate 23 hours a day just to take her out for a training session in the yard once a day with a muzzle on her face so she couldn't open her mouth, what would you think of me? Would it be the same if I told you my horse lived in a stall, but that I rode it every day for an hour to give it exercise?

Why does it seem unacceptable to treat a dog in the above described way, but it is a customary reality for many horses? Horses, like dogs, are born to move. In fact, they are so inclined to move that they stand up and start walking within the first few hours of their lives. Yet people find it acceptable to keep them in stalls, unmoving, day after day.

Before our paths crossed, Little Love used to live at a barn where she never left her stall for other than a riding session. For two years she was let loose a handful of time, each time resulting in some sort of injury.

"She went crazy when she was free," her owner reported to me, "so in the end we never let her free."

Right. That would make sense, wouldn't it? The problem, of course, was that there was no opportunity to put her outside or let her go in the arena on a regular basis. Perhaps in this case it was best to refrain from EVER doing it. I think Leonardo Da Vinci put it well when he said: "Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return." Is it easier for horses to never be let loose than to get the opportunity once a year for thirty minutes or less?

I look at Little Love now, her confident calmness when I slip her halter off and let her loose in the arena or the pasture. She stands there and sniffs the air, then walks off to investigate the area. No crazy running, no injuries waiting to happen. And this only because she goes out in the pasture every day for four hours. That's it. Four hours of solitary freedom, a fraction of what she really needs. But what a difference it has made in who she is. I can only imagine who she would be if she didn't live in a stall at all, if she had access to movement every moment of her life.

So many people don't share (let alone understand) my passion for freeing all horses from stall living. Last winter when the weather was wet, the horses at the barn stayed inside for over two weeks straight. The pastures are grass and the barn owner wants to keep them in pristine condition, which means when it rains, the horses stay in. This happens periodically in the fall, winter and spring. Needless to say, Little Love turns into a maniac when her cabinfever rises. On days of complete stall confinement I do my best to go to the barn at times when others are not there to turn her loose in the arena. But life doesn't always work the way we want, and there are days when her only moment out of the stall is on the end of a rope or with a rider on her back. Which is not enough.

I had a casual conversation about this with the barn owner once, a conversation which started with the usual exchanges about the bad weather. Before I could complain about the horses having to stay inside for days, he brought the subject up himself.

"I don't understand what all the fuss is about horses having to go out every day. They are nice and cozy in their box stalls."

I looked at him in surprise. Had someone else actually voiced a concern? Was I not the only one here thinking this was total animal torture?

"Well, horses weren't exactly meant to live in stalls," I said, bravely. "Little Love is definitely a completely different horse when she gets to go out."

The barn owner gave me a scornful look. I could see I was quickly being labeled as one of those freaks who actually thought about horses' needs. Not that I didn't already have that label tattooed across my forehead before this conversation.

He let out a short laugh that sounded like a bark. "You know what? Ten years ago we didn't put the horses out for the entire winter, and they were fine. Three months inside. Horses don't care." Then he walked off. That was the last time we ever discussed the subject and what was there to discuss? The open hostility of his statement was enough to tell me this man was not going to change his thinking any time soon.

But I can't seem to get over this subject of captivity and freedom, it's as if my car is stuck on a hump in the road and no matter how hard I accelerate, I can't move forward and past it. Everywhere I look, there are horses being held prisoners and people holding them hostage.

A year ago a jumping horse passed through our barn. She was only there for a short while, but as soon as she arrived it was obvious that the mare hated being in a stall. She would kick the walls of her box sometimes non-stop for hours. Obviously this brought upon an injury and then another. As a solution, the owner attached leather straps around the mare's back legs, with a piece of chain on the back. This made kicking the barn walls extremely uncomfortable, although I have to give the mare points for trying. She also developed a bad habit of attacking everyone who passed her stall, which wasn't very pleasant as she lived in a busy location of the barn. Her aggression was not helped by the fact that when she kicked the walls, people would yell at her and even hit the bars of the stall with something, like a brush of a whip. I often stopped by her stall to talk to her, telling her that I understood what she was going through.

Finally, after months of fighting, the mare gave in and stopped the kicking. I was both relieved and sad to watch her surrender; relieved because I knew it would only get worse for her if she didn't stop and sad because the humans had managed to break her spirit. I admired her for her courage; the majority of horses don't dare express their opinions about stall living as vigorously as she did.  If they did, would it make a difference? 

But back to where we started: the two pictures at the top of this blog... If both these animals were locked up 24/7, would you feel more for - the dog or the horse? Or is it all the same? Where do you draw the line?

A goldfish in a fishtank.
A bird in a cage.
A dog in a crate.
A tiger in the zoo.
An elephant in the circus.
A seal in a bathtub.
A horse in a stall.

What is the difference?

~ K

"If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his next again,
I shall not live in vain."

- Emily Dickinson


  1. If they only could talk. Then your barn owner could hear their plights every time he walks into the barn. Let's keep plucking away and educate people about "learned helplessness" and the inability of the horse to voice pain and suffering.
    Thank you for writing so eloquently.

  2. I was lucky enough to end up riding at a lesson barn where the horses only came in to eat, get ready to be ridden, or if they were sick/injured. It was a great learning experience to see the horses act as a herd (there were always around 50 of them). It has been difficult since for me to understand how people can keep horses in to the extent they do. I hope you found a new barn with an owner who understood horses better.

  3. Great post! I am so blessed to be able to have my horses at home where they have room to roam and shelter when they want it - it is never forced and they often chose to stay out in the rain/snow/wind.

  4. Thank you for your comments Claudia, Oni and Gena B, I'm happy to see more people making comments to my blogs!
    Don't we wish horses could talk!? I think if they could, we wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place. Although, I have to say I have met some pretty "deaf" people lately who wouldn't hear them even if they were screaming... But there are other kind of people, too, and it's always encouraging to hear of barns like the one Oni described. Maybe one day all horses will live outside where they belong. I certainly don't plan to own horses until I can provide a better solution for them than a stall.

  5. Not every stalled horse is a raving maniac. Not every stalled horse is miserable. Certainly not every stalled horse is kept in for 23 hours at a time. (which sounds like hyberbole any way) Not every "free" horse is actually ...happy. I can think of a few that are probably not.

    As to "saving the grass" that is the point of view of the property owner. He is entitled to it as he pays the bills and does the work. It is also often a saftey issue. Be it from sliding in mud or on ice, horses can and will get hurt in the winter. You bet I keep my horses in if the footing has gone to crap. Which is better for them? Sulking in a stall for a couple of days or breaking a leg? I care *very* much for my horses. Thier *happiness* is sometimes overrided by saftey and future thinking. Half an hour *now* of playing in the mud can mean months of no grass later. Or a broken leg.

    You are entitled to her opinion of course, but I resent the notion that somehow because I choose to "jail* my horses for a portion of each day, I'm a bad person. I'm sure that the blogger is allowed to switch to a new barn if she so desires. If it is just *so* intolerable, then maybe she should. Or better yet, tries doing it all herself from soup to nuts and see just how hard it can be to maintain both the animals and the property for all 4 seasons. Lemme tell ya, it's not much fun to be knee deep in mud on Thanksgiving!

    Measure your horses happiness in thier attitude, not anthropomorphization. I think my "stalled" horses are just fine, thanks. The dapples, bright expressions, and thier willingness to work speaks volumes.

  6. Katarina and Pat, both have their points.

    However, after having horses for nearly 30 years of my life---both stalled in the beginning and now not...I have to vie on the side of Katarina.

    I have traveled both the traditional ways and behaviors towards horses and now practice a much more compassionate route....thank god!. I wish I knew then what I know now....

    Horses are grazers and conditioned genetically to be constantly on the move. Their digestive systems prove so. They may seem happy kept in a stall, but given the choice, what do you think they would choose?...To put it in a human perspective, some people seem happy at their job too and will gladly say they are happy--but given a choice as to be free with the same income and security--do you think Pat, they would choose non-freedom?

    We are not anthropomorphizing--we are considering all life to be sentient--therefor inheriting the same rights we would afford ourselves.

    Given our current situation on earth--where domestic animals are not able to roam free---it is our responsibility to take on the task as stewards and provide care as close to what nature had intended as possible---mud or no mud, grass or no grass.

    Most of all, we are to afford all animals the consideration and recognition they have thoughts and feelings just as we have. Humans need to learn to communicate with them, then they will know.

    I recently moved from a place that had loads of mud during certain times of the year--given it were my place...the layout would be structured different, so horses were not always in the same areas---rotation would be practiced. Even on 2 acres (which I have now), patterning of the fence layout can be structured in a way so as to encourage grass and less traffic in one area--while still providing an on teh move and happy situation. Plus it helps to feed horses hay.

    Consider working with nature to provide for nature.

    Some great sites:

    I Feel Good, My Horse Feels Good




  7. My horses are out 24/7 sad that people keep them in and now I am seeing them in paddocks all by themselves horses are social animals!

  8. "God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages." Jacques Deval

    Humans - anthropomorphism aside - in my opinion, have a strong tendency to place human standards on animals, human standards and convenience. Tis a pity, indeed. Once any human, touches any horse, with any intention, that imposes on the horse's "natural" state, freedom; we humans are "users" no matter HOW one tries to justify the loving care by any human definitional terms, myself included.

    Another very thoughtful post, Katrina, I'm still holding your dream for Lil Love close in my prayers.

    Beth and Cookie (pastured on 56 acres with 15-30 equine buddies - 24/7 - CResnick called her "a lucky horse.")
    in Virginia