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No matter where you live, during 2020 you have probably experienced some kind of lockdown due to Covid 19. Each country has had different rules but most of us have had some limitations put on our freedom. Many of us found this really difficult and felt it had an effect on our mental health. But have many of us stopped to consider how we regularly put animals in a similar situation?
Here in the UK we had a good month, if not more where you were really limited as to what you could do. You could only leave your house once a day for exercise. The only other time you could leave the house was for essentials like food shopping which you were encouraged to only do once a week. If you were lucky, you would have a garden to spend time in. But if you lived in a flat, you were stuck in those 4 walls for 23 hours of the day, every day.
A huge number of horses in the UK are stabled 24/7. Now obviously there are times such as recovering from an injury where being stabled is the best option. But what about the rest of the time? It is not unusual for race and sports horses to spend most of their time in their stable, just coming out for some time on the walker and some exercise every day. While I personally don’t feel this is the best way to keep horses, I understand the reasoning behind it and at least they are coming out and moving every day.
Something what has always shocked me over the years are leisure horses who are stabled 24/7 and are not even exercised every day. Often there is plenty of safe turnout available, yet the owners decide to keep the horses in instead, usually because it is less effort on their part. I understand that there is the odd exception of horses who struggle being turned out, almost suffering from agoraphobia. But these horses are rare and can often learn to enjoy turnout in the right environment.
Having known a few of these owners over the years, I wonder if they are starting to rethink their management of their horses after having to stay inside during lockdown. Even racehorses have a holiday where they are usually turned out 24/7 for a month or two with other horses.
Exercise isn’t a substitute
While I think horses being exercised and/or going on the horse walker every day is better than horses staying in without being exercised, exercise is still no substitute for turnout. A recent study found that 20 mins on the horse walker is the equivalent movement of about an hour of turnout. But turnout isn’t just about movement. It’s downtime.
Whether horses are turned out in herds, pairs or individually, there is a social aspect. They can nearly always interact with another horse in a way they probably can’t do in their stable. Being herd animals this is incredibly important for their mental wellbeing.
It also gives them a chance to let off some steam in a safe way. How many of us have horses who gallop and buck in the field but are good as gold undersaddle? For a lot of horses, they need their time in the field so that they can be sensible undersaddle.
Not just horses
While this is an equine blog so that’s where our focus is, this issue isn’t limited to horses. How many people lock dogs in small flats for hours on end with nothing to do and then complain about destructive behaviour?
While I am a big supporter of zoos, some zoos still keep animals in small enclosures without enough mental stimulation. These are all things we should be questioning now we have had to experience something similar.
I think this advert from Born Free Foundation does a great job at raising this issue and getting you to think about things what many consider normal.