Reader's Letter: considering the horse
Some thoughts around the new equestrian center of Gstaad. As announced in the Anzeiger von Saanen on Feb. 9. and also in English on Gstaadlife.com, there are definite plans now for a new riding/stable facility in Gstaad. It was announced as a modern, state-of-the-art facility, and the German article stated that the stable, as it is now, no longer is “Gstaad-like”. This information, combined with the plans of having 26-40 stables (stalls, boxes) in the new facility, gave me the urge to write down some of my thoughts around horse-keep and the most modern and high-tech possibilities there are for it. As animal/horse lovers, we do not deliberately harm our animals/horses by anything we do to or provide for them. On the contrary, we want to do as well ‘for them’ as possible. In order to minimize the risk of harming them and maximizing the upkeep of their health, it is always helpful to consider their specific characteristics and needs. I will try to do so here, shortly.
CONCIDERING THE HORSE
The first thing to consider about the horse (or any other equine, e.g. a donkey) is that it is a flight animal. This means that it has no day/night rhythm, as it needs to be alert in case of predators at all times. It does not lie down at night for eight-hours of sleep, instead, it sleeps in short periods distributed over the 24h-day. Often, it sleeps while standing up, because that way it can flee more easily and faster. When living in the wild, it does not built nests, dig caves or other kind of shelter for sleeping or resting. Being a flight animal, it likes to have ‘full control’ over its surroundings for security, i.e. be able to see, hear and smell around it in order to know what is going on (and who or what is approaching from where). Also, it likes to be able to move around over some area, so that it has the feeling that it can flee at least a little distance if it thinks there is danger. A few thousand years of breeding by humans have not removed the flight instinct from horses, nor the special requirements this flight instinct induces.
Another characteristic of the horse that is coupled with it feeling secure (and also with it being a flight animal) is that it is a herd animal. Being with other animals of its kind in physical contact, i.e. in a herd, gives it security, and thus is very important for its psychological health. For a horse, a herd does not have to be big; already 3 animals are enough – and one companion better than none. Herd animals are very social animals. They form bonds and have a hierarchy within the herd, and they need ‘their friends’ and the herd; this is normal life to them. The only exception to this would be the horses that have had to grow up alone and without a herd already from an early age on. They have not been given to learn herd life and ‘horse language’, and therefore cannot adapt to other horses anymore once grown up. Hopefully they are the exception; to my knowledge, most breeders keep their mares with foals in herds and then, after having been weaned, keep the young animals in herds as well, sometimes with older animals, sometimes not, but nevertheless.
Being a flight animal, the horse has relatively small internal organs (this keeps the weight down and makes running faster easier, probably one reason why it does not have such a complex digestive system as the cow; it would weigh too much). Therefore, the horse is a relatively poor ‘nutrition absorber’ (e.g. compared to the cow). Thus, it needs to feed more or less constantly. Its organism has during its evolution adapted itself to the constant need to look for food (and consume it): to be on the move, mostly at a walk, for the most part of the 24h-day. This concerns also its heart: compared to body weight, the horse’s heart is only half the size of the human heart. The constant movement supports the heart in its function to pump the blood around the body of the horse, also because of the pumping function of the horse’s hooves. However, the hooves can perform their pumping function only when in movement. Thus, it is better for the horse to have small amounts of food often during the 24h-day instead of a few large servings (and a long night without any), and to move a lot in between while looking for food.
Being a flight animal and mostly ‘on the move’, the horse’s organism has also adapted itself to being outside in all kinds of weather and to regulate its body temperature accordingly. This means that, evolutionally speaking, they are adapted to be in the fresh air at all times. When it is very cold, like in a cold (!) winter here, they need more feed to produce more body heat.
The comparatively small internal organs of the horse and its whole organism can suffer relatively quickly when not living in surroundings that are optimal to its health, i.e. that take into consideration its special and specific needs and circumstances it has adapted to during its evolution into an equine species.
It is possible to keep horses in a way that take the characteristics and needs of the horse into account in a more efficient and more holistic way than the conventional way of stabling a horse does. For one, there is the method called ‘barn stabling’, preferably with direct access to a paddock (and the door to it open at all times). This means the horse has an open barn at its disposal and can chose itself if it wants to be inside or outside. This kind of stabling can also be organized communally, i.e. where the horses are kept together in a larger ‘communal barn stable’ in a herd. The downside of barn stabling is that – especially when kept separately – the horses still do not move around as much as would be good for their health. Also, barn stables require areas for paddocks right next to the facility, and this, as I understand, is not given here in Gstaad.
With the help of modern technology it is possible to provide horses with surroundings and the kind of ‘stabling’ that covers much of its needs (without needing large areas of land). The solution is called ‘active stable’. In such a facility all horses get a light ‘collar’ (sits loosely behind the ears) that contains a chip. The chip, again, contains the individual feeding requirements of the horse wearing it. Then there are a number of ‘feeding stations’ (depending on the number of horses living in the facility). When a horse enters a feeding station, the computer recognizes it, and knows both the total daily amount of food the horse needs and how much it already has had on a given day. With this information, the hayrack of the feeding station is opened for a number of minutes, and a dose of oats (or other feed) is released. This could be half a handful or such. When the hayrack closes again and the oats are eaten, the horse has to step out of the feeding station at its front to either side, and the next horse can enter the feeding station from behind. This way there is a constant ‘coming and going’ in between the feeding stations, because horses like to look for food and learn very quickly where they can find it.
This kind of a facility can also be planned on small areas. The basic concept of the ‘active stable’ is to provide the horses with a lot of movement, mostly at a walk, and with small amounts of food but often. Additionally, it also provides social, i.e. herd life, and the opportunity to chose between indoors and outdoors and where it wants to rest. Experiences of ‘active stables’ seem to indicate that the overall health in general and the muscular shape of the horse in particular seems to benefit from this kind of keep. More information on active stables can easily be found on the internet.
Let me assure you that I do not work for a company that sells these kinds of facilities. I am simply of the opinion that we can offer our horses more with today’s technology than spending most of the day (and even more time in the winter than in the summer) in a conventional stable (i.e. stall, box) where it does not have much room to move, where it does not have ‘full control’ over its surroundings and where it does not have direct, physical contact to other members of its species (or only very little with its lips and head). Giving it some thought, conventional stabling has a lot in common with prisons, and many horses do develop ‘imprisonment neuroses’ when kept this way.
This kind of an ‘active stable’ facility would, in my opinion, be very state-of-the-art, and very “Gstaad-like”. For the sake of the health of the horses that will be living in the new equine center of Gstaad, I hope that I have been able to give some food for thought to the investors, horse owners and other parties involved in this project.