Enquire, Reflect, Engage & Advocate

The discussions in the current unit of Advanced Equine Behaviour, nay, in the entire course, have been fascinating and incredibly insightful a statement that holds true for every course I’ve taken with Equine Guelph. While I don’t have a horse of my own, nor am I currently leasing, I do aspire to adopt one someday.

I’m a city girl, living in the heart of Vancouver, so apart from the stables I’ve ridden at in the past few years, I can’t comment on prevalent welfare issues in my equestrian community. Growing up, my family was far removed from the world of competition, performance, disciplines, et cetera. We simply rode and spent time with our horses because that was our passion. In fact, when first presented with the terms hunter-jumperdressage and hacking a few years ago, I had to turn to Google to learn what they meant.

At the beginning of the Equine Welfare and Equine Industry courses, the instructors encouraged us to reflect on our experiences with horses, the role(s) we play within the equine industry and our goals for the future. At the end of the term, we were asked to revisit this question and note if and how our values, perspectives, and ideas had shifted. Admittedly, prior to these courses, I thought of the equine industry in terms of performance, breeding, and showing. I viewed my relationship with horses (pet, companion, hobby) as entirely separate from the industry. I now have a broader perspective of how the industry operates and understand that all equine pursuits are a part of it. 

I love these reflexive moments and find them to be of tremendous value! They force me to think about how my understanding of and relationship with horses has changed. The courses I’m taking this term have served to reinforce and build upon things I have learned in the previous four. It’s been a fascinating, informative journey so far! One that has given me a great deal of knowledge to apply when I finally have a horse of my own. It has also given me insight into the type of role I see myself playing in the industry.

Re-entering the horse world after several years away, taking riding lessons from someone other than my mother for the very first time in my life, at the age of 36, participating in a number of horsemanship classes to brush up on my knowledge and skills, and leasing someone else’s horse, presented a series of exciting and sometimes challenging experiences. There were also some eye-opening moments along the way. One of the biggest surprises was how differently the three stables I’ve ridden at are managed. They differ vastly in terms of housing, turn-out, etc. Having observed some clear signs of distress in several horses at one of the stables, I quietly wondered about the rationale behind their management practices. I later learned that these practices, although somewhat foreign to me, are quite common.

Anthropomorphism is also quite prevalent, which, while often harmless, can have some serious welfare implications. Every instructor I’ve had has been guilty of saying things like “don’t let the horse get away with that,” “kick him harder,” “make him listen,” and “show her who’s boss” expressions I have come to understand are instances of anthropomorphism and a misunderstanding of why horses perform or fail to perform as expected. It’s obvious to me now that timing, consistency, and application of cues are of the utmost importance in training and riding. Something I became more aware of as I began to ride and lease horses that were constantly ridden by different people and exhibited dulled responses and perhaps a degree of learned helplessness resulting from the inconsistent application of cues amongst riders, myself included.

Over the past 14 months, I’ve had the opportunity to dig deeper into a number of issues. Of particular interest have been topics related to shoeing, blanketing, natural horsemanship, anthropomorphism, barrier frustration, imprint training, wobbler syndrome, equitation science, and learning theory. These last two topics are of particular interest to me.

Understanding and incorporating learning theory and the principles of equitation science into all levels of horse training and management has indispensable value for everyone involved in the equine industry, humans and horses alike. With a deeper understanding of equine behaviour, perception and learning processes, we can develop and apply more species-appropriate methods to the management and training of horses. Strides made in recognizing and working within these parameters and understanding the behavioural and health effects of housing and training will undoubtedly improve other areas of horse health and welfare.

My classmates and I are all in agreement that the welfare of the horse should be of the utmost concern to anyone involved in the industry. As has been discussed on numerous occasions in this course, I find myself wondering once more, how do we influence this and change people’s ingrained and, in their mind adequate/justified/appropriate handling and management styles? How do we broadcast the importance of proper care to a wider audience in a way that is engaging and effective?