Monday, January 31, 2011

The Gift

Pleasure is spread through the earth
In stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find.
~William Wordsworth, 1806

Look at the picture above. What do you see?

What you are looking at is a picture of a poster that is for sale for approximately 20 dollars in an American horse catalogue. The text beside the poster says: “The image of an inquisitive muzzle nuzzling a timid, but determined little hand evokes memories of an experience all horse lovers hold in common.”

The name of the poster is “The Gift”, but I am left unsure as to what gift this is referring to; the imprisoned horse giving the girl the gift of the nuzzle or the girl giving the imprisoned horse the gift of touch.

When I was a child, all the horse posters on my walls (and I assure you, there were MANY), illustrated various horses in freedom. I can’t remember one single one with a tacked up horse, let alone a ridden one or one stuck behind bars. Is this what the equestrian world has come to? Is taking the freedom of another living being so “normal” that it is now even depicted in posters for children? The above picture is supposed to evoke “memories of an experience we all hold in common”. I can tell you it definitely evokes my memories. In fact, some of those memories are of experiences from the not so distant past. I remember writing about one of those experiences in my blog (Levels of Imprisonment, August 29, 2010). I wrote: “But if there is a will, there is a way. The only opening to this horse’s box stall is a small gap above his feeder through which the barn worker delivers the daily grain portions. It is just big enough to fit a human hand and a scoop. And a horse’s muzzle. “

I was writing about a gelding who would twist his neck to an unconceivable angle just to get his nose pushed through the feeder hole. And why? To touch another horse.

Here is a picture I took much later of that very same horse. Unfortunately, this time his neighbor's window was closed and the two horses could not touch.  What you see is him reaching out to me.

The similarities to the poster are obvious, but the context completely different. Perhaps my memories are not the memories the catalogue was talking about…

Little Love and I have been gone from her old barn for a mere three weeks, but somehow that short time already feels like a lifetime. At her old barn horses lived in stalls exactly like the one in the poster picture. They rarely were able to touch each other. If it happened, it was an accident or the product of horse ingenuity. Perhaps the top electric wire broke between two pastures or the electricity was left off for a brief moment or a horse managed to get loose from his owner and ran to another horse. Or a horse stuck his nose through his feeder hole. But these were exceptions to the rule. And the rule was no touching.

When we were still there, I did my best to produce the horse to horse touch for Little Love. I know she would have preferred another horse to me as I am a sad replacement, but she took what she could get.

One day not so long ago I was scratching her over the withers, something she loves. As I started rubbing her hard with my fingers, she leaned into me with her nose wiggling. This prompted her new neighbor, a large gelding, to spin around in his stall and stare at me in disbelief. For a moment he merely observed what I was doing, then he took action. He pushed his head against the metal bars that separated his space from Little Love’s. I could see his eyes fix on me. “Come on, rub me, too” he was saying.

I continued rubbing Little Love with one hand as I pushed the fingers of my other hand through the bars. I could just about fit half my hand through. The gelding moved his head and let my fingers scratch over his forehead and nose. Then he positioned his neck to be in line with my hand. So there I stood, scratching Little Love’s withers with my left hand and with my right attempted to reach her neighbor, the big gelding. Both horses stretched their noses out in pleasure and breathed at each other through the bars of the stall.

We are mammals; we all have the need to touch each other and to be touched. Companionship is one of our basic needs, along with eating, drinking, moving and sex. Living in isolation can affect the mental state of any animal, but especially horses, as they are by nature herd animals. Isolation induces stress and a stressed animal cannot learn and train with 100% capacity. Yet ironically it is often the so called performance horses that live in such isolation.

I can now truly see the detriments of forcing an animal to live in a cage. Little Love, the horse that had not had any real horse-to-horse contact for over ten years, has now been going outside with her new friend Col for seven whole days. Due to this fact, she is a changed horse. She is more grounded, more relaxed, more at peace. Yes, she is still coming into a stall at night, but the fact that she can at all times reach over the wall and touch another of her kind, is huge.

I am happy I can finally give her the gift of a social life after all those years of isolation. And there are not a lot of things I enjoy more than watching Little Love interact with her first horse-friend in a decade. Hopefully someday she can give up stall living completely and join a herd living outside, but for the moment, she is visibly content with this small change to her life. In fact, she is so content, that someone could say she doesn’t need me anymore, at least not the way she “needed” me in her previous life. And there is some truth to that, since an imprisoned animal (or person, for that matter) will undoubtedly look forward to any interaction, even if it is with his captor and a member of another species. In that light, can we even pretend to have a real relationship with an animal that is kept in solitary confinement? I have to say that I still feel and hope I had a connection with Little Love before, when she lived a different life. This connection is now evolving and although I definitely have lost something precious (her undivided attention, perhaps?), I have also gained, and continue to gain something else in return, a whole new level of consciousness and connection I never knew about before.

This, I believe, is truly a gift.


If you love something, set it free; if it comes back it's yours, if it doesn't, it never was.
- Anonymous

PS. There is another major detriment to the stall-bound life: insufficient movement. Horses are born to move and they should be allowed to move, day and night. Movement is what keeps their bodies healthy, starting from their hooves but affecting the joints, muscles and other tissues. A horse kept in a stall does not move enough and is thus prone to injury.

Two horses stretching out to touch each other


  1. Horses don't belong in cells, they belong where other horses are and they can move. I have one who comes into a cell at night - she's out with others during the day. I have one who's in a paddock with a run-in at night and out with others during the day. The social interaction and play are so helpful to mental and physical health - stall-bound horses are for human convenience.

  2. I had a similar experience with my horse - when I bought her, she moved to live with my friends 3 ex-racers. As she is an icelandic and has always lived with her kind, she was really confused with these warm blooded high-headed action lovers! She was always waiting for me by the gate when she saw me coming etc.

    That's why I was so happy when she got a chance to move in with 5 other icelandics - I loved it when she could not care less if I was away for few days in the summer!

  3. Griffin lives in a stall in the evening, but is outside with other horses all day. I have asked my BO for him to be allowed to stay out overnight during pleasant weather. I actually prefer Gif to be inside at night because I can then be assured he is recieiving his senior pellets and his joint supplement without the worry of another horse taking it away from him. I feel these things are also important to his well-being.

    When other horse owners find out that my parents have a 5 acre bit of land (that...honestly, would be perfect for a couple of horses), I am often asked why I do not simply keep Griffin there. My response is, and always has been - that I do not want my horse living a solitary life with no other horses around. I cannot afford to own a second horse at this time. If Grif were to live at my parents' place , he would have to be alone. Sure- I could then have him on 24/7 turnout -- but he would be completely alone.

    Others have suggested to buy a goat or some other small animal for company...but would that really replace the company of one of your own kind?

    Of course I could be wrong, but I feel my boy is much happier where he is -- even if it involves some stall confinement.

    He does enjoy being in the pasture with his buds, and I often let him visit horses in the other pastures when we are out for our walks. I agree that touch is important...and even the most "anti-social" horses need contact. Even though Grif has his pasture friends, I know he looks forward to our walks and visiting the other horses :-)

  4. Shelby in CaliforniaFebruary 2, 2011 at 7:52 AM

    I think even if we are "forced" somehow to keep our horses in stalls, oportunities for socialization and freedom ( even in short sputs) is better than total confinement, isolation. Awareness of equine behavior/ herd culture, letting horses experience socialization is tantamount to keeping them happier. I'm horrified that anyone could or would put a horse in a tiny isolation box and wonder why there's behavior and physical problems. I love this post, and I hope this gets out to everyone in the industry.

  5. My horses, a thoroughbred and a quarter horse, live out 24/7. They live in a herd of about 40 horses and are moved between paddocks twice a week by the agistment manager on a motor bike. They are moved in close to the yards on a Friday and back out to the large back paddocks on Monday. When I first moved them there, a friend asked the question of how I would catch my horses in a 50 acre paddock with 40 horses. I pondered this at the time because my QH was never easy to entice over. She almost hated being disturbed by humans. Thing is, after leaving her be for a few weeks, she would approach me as I walked through the paddock. She was mentally happy and therefor happy to come to and with me. She knew her horse friends would be there when she returned. Even my TB gelding, back in our competition days, would be sent out to spell for three months in a 300 acre paddock with other horses and come home ready to work. The key is to let them be a horse as much as possible. Stalls, holding yards, solitary confinement is all for human gain. It makes our life easy at their detriment. Horses are happy to be with us but given the chance to roam wild, I doubt they would ever seek us out like we them. They don't need us but we need them. Regardless of whether we keep them in a stall or out 24/7, or whether we ride, compete or simply be with them, we still force ourselves on
    them. The best we can do is to give them as much freedom as we can, for just having a horse is a form of taking away some of that freedom they were born to have and that was depicted on those posters of galloping horses on our bedroom walls.

  6. I agree with you 100%. I have a show horse who competes regularly and is kept fit and ready to show. As a serious show horse, there are some things in his life that I can't really change without consequence. However, I do try to keep his life as natural as I possibly can. He is, first and foremost, my best friend, family member, and pet. He lives outside in a pasture with 7 other geldings. He is turned out about 14 hours a day and is free to do as he pleases. He comes into a stall at night, but is able to see, smell, and touch his neighbors.

    At the barn he lives at, it is common practice for the show horses to be separated from all other horses during our show season, to make sure that they don't get any bite or scratch marks.

    I tried this for a week with my horse, but his personality dimmed and his work ethic vanished, so now he is kept with his friends all year round. He is much happier and willing to work when he gets to spend time with his equine buddies all day and night.

    I wish more people would see the benefits of allowing their horses to live more naturally. They are herd animals and were not designed to be isolated. I feel so bad for all of the show horses whose only time out of their stall is when they're being worked.

  7. We currently have a horse on extended stall rest due to an injury (he stepped on a nail). My barn is set up so that his stall opens out to a large covered run-in area, which is where the other horses are fed. Every morning after breakfast, one of my geldings grooms the stall-bound horse over the stall door for about 30 minutes, and they often share a haynet as well. During the heat of the day, one of my other geldings often snoozes in front of the stall door, while the stalled horse hangs his head over the door. Even though he can't go out except for short walks, six weeks into stall rest, the injured horse is in an excellent frame of mind and is dealing quite well with the situation - I think due mostly to the fact that he's got regular company with his herdmates! I can't even imagine how depressed he'd be if he were "jailed" behind bars with no-one to be with. How sad for such social creatures.