Every year from this time on I start to get calls from owners describing changes in their horse’s behaviour. These vary from increased reactivity and ‘spookiness’ under saddle to irritability and ‘grumpiness’ during grooming and tacking up. It is no coincidence that these changes in behaviour tend to surface shortly after a change in yard routine, as the livery yards move from summer to winter management. Fields are closed and stable time increases. In some yards, there is no possibility of turnout at all. In others, there may be one small paddock, but it is shared and it may be challenging for owners who work full time to organise for their horse to have time out.
Having to share a small paddock brings up all kinds of issues. Resources are limited (space, food, shelter) and if these have to be shared with other horses then there can be conflict. Or horses may only go out individually, while the rest remain stabled. This in turn can show up anxieties relating to seperation from the herd.
Feeding routines are often fixed, with forage limited and delivered at set times through the day, leaving many horses standing stabled (or on all weather or muddy turnouts) for hours at a time with no access to fibre.
Managing these issues becomes a juggling act for owners and horses in which welfare is inevitably compromised. Let’s take a moment and look at the five freedoms, the guidelines on which welfare legislation is based. Animals should have:
1. Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition
2. Freedom from physical and thermal discomfort
3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
4. Freedom to express most patterns of normal behaviour
5. Freedom from fear and distress
Horses have evolved as trickle feeders. They require continuous access to forage (grass, hay, haylage) in order to maintain gut health and to meet behavioural needs. Although observations of feral horses have shown that they graze for 14-16 hours broken into bouts over a 24 hour period, many horses on restricted diets do not get this opportunity.
Over the winter, horses that had spent the summer grazing alongside other horses may be separated from their buddies completely. Field mates may not be stabled within sight or physical contact of one another. There is no longer opportunity for social interaction such as grooming, loafing (resting together) or playing. Instead of moving continously throughout the day and having the opportunity to escape potential threats, horses are confined in small spaces.
Some horses can become very stressed when socially isolated or confined. They may not lie down to rest, they may find it hard to relax. They may be forced to remain in close proximity to stressors varying from other horses that they don’t get on with, to people, noises and equipment that they find threatening.
Winter yard routines can be very challenging for horses, resulting in behaviour change that can be difficult and at times dangerous for owners to deal with.
I believe that livery yards have a responsibility to offer sufficient turnout, ad lib forage, and social opportunities in order to meet the physiological and behavioural needs of the horses in their care. This means that yards and yard owners need to have sufficient resources, knowledge and experience, in order to make the best decisions based on the needs of each individual, so that resources are sufficient and conflict is minimised.
So often I go out to see clients that have what I would call ‘winter problems’, to find that the required changes just can not be made due to the restrictions placed by yard owners and the resources available. This leads not only to a compromise for horse welfare, but also a safety issue for all involved in handling the horse in question.
I believe that all livery yards must be able to offer care for a horse without severely compromising welfare during the winter months. Of course, I hear yard owners say ‘but in order to do that we would have to reduce the number of horses on the yard and/ or increase our fees…. In turn I hear owners say ‘but I couldn’t afford to pay more to keep my horse’….
There is a perception that ‘grass livery’ ought to be the cheap option. Perhaps we need to turn that perception on it’s head. A yard that can offer year round turnout, in paddocks that are sufficiently dry to allow the horse to comfortably lie down, that are sufficiently sheltered to offer protection from the elements, with ad lib access to forage, sufficient space to allow group living and sufficient knowledge to be able to manage groups of horses without conflict, and the option of stabling when required/ when appropriate and managed well, is a yard that is worth it’s weight in gold. This should be the standard that all yards aspire towards.
Unfortunately, not everyone running a livery yard has a lifetime of horse experience. Even those that have may be lacking when it comes to up to date, evidence based knowledge of horse welfare needs, or an understanding of horse behaviour. We live in a time when there are many owners new to horse keeping, who have not grown up with horses or had the benefit of family knowledge and experience. These novice owners rely on the support and knowledge of the yard owners. It is time that the industry attitude toward livery requirements changed. It is my opinion that horse welfare and owner safety demand it.
Coming next: an article discussing the issues livery yard owners face and suggestions for how they can improve their winter facilities in a horse friendly way.