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 which 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 within the next year or two, once I’m settled in Ontario.

The truth is, 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 too much on prevalent welfare issues in my community, breed, discipline simply because it doesn’t apply. Growing up, my family was very far removed from the world of competitions, performance, disciplines et cetera and 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 admittedly had to turn to Google to learn what they meant.

At the beginning of the Equine Welfare and Equine Industry courses, students were encouraged to reflect on their experiences with horses, the role(s) we play within the equine industry and our goals for the future. At the end, we were asked to revisit this and note if and how our values, perspectives, and ideas had shifted. I love these reflexive moments and find them to be of tremendous value! They force me to really 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 4. 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, was 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 in these past few years (3 in total), as well as my mother, were guilty of saying things like “don’t let the horse get away with that”, “kick him harder”, “make him listen”, “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 is of the utmost importance in training and riding. Something I became more aware of as I began to ride/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 clearly 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 over the past 8+ weeks, I find myself wondering once more, how do we influence this and change people’s ingrained and, in their mind’s adequate/justified/appropriate handling and management styles? As has been raised by a classmate, how do we broadcast the importance of proper care to a wider audience in a way that is engaging and effective?

In the next post, I’ll reflect on some of the key things I’ve learned in the Equine Health & Disease Prevention course.