Finding Common Ground

stacy-pigott-little-rocket-andyMy first horse, Little Rocket AndyLast month, I had the pleasure of attending the 2013 AQHA Convention in Houston, Texas. This isn’t the first year I’ve been to the convention, but it is the first year I was able to stay for its entirety – from the opening comments to the closing remarks, and everything in between.

My favorite part of the convention had to be Friday afternoon’s forum, which was dedicated to equine welfare. Dr. Tom Lenz, of Zoetis (formerly Pfizer Animal Health), gave a presentation on the science and emotion of equine welfare. I wish it were possible to put his entire presentation in print form, so all of you could read what he had to say. 

The part of Lenz’s presentation that stuck with me the most was this statement: “Our views on animal welfare are conditioned by our personal knowledge base and life experiences.” Even among horsemen and women, opinions on what constitutes good equine welfare vary greatly.

Lenz used an example from his personal life, and I couldn’t help but think about my own experiences as a first-time horse owner. I wasn’t yet a teenager when my parents bought me my first horse, a gelding named Little Rocket Andy. He was by a son of Rocket Little and out of an Eternal Sun mare. “A cross between a racehorse and a flake,” my trainer used to not-so-lovingly say. “Andy” was boarded at a show barn, and he and I made the rounds of local open shows, 4-H fairs and the occasional AQHA show. It wasn’t until several years later that my parents traded in the house with a pool for the house with a barn, and Andy came home.

The show season prior, Andy performed as he always had – a top-notch open show horse, a sometimes-in-the-ribbons AQHA show horse, and an all-the-time half-sour show horse who would obey the announcer’s directions to “jog” or “lope” much more quickly than his rider ever dreamed of doing. When the summer ended, Andy came home to spend a cold Michigan winter doing nothing more than being a horse. He was turned out in a pasture with an old companion mare, allowed to grow a thick, wooly winter coat and not asked to “jog” or “lope” again until the next spring. There was no indoor riding arena, no weekly lesson and no heated box stall. Andy and I were “roughing it,” and loving every minute of it.

The next spring, I found out just how much my beloved Andy enjoyed his winter escape. A few weeks into the new show season, my trainer asked what we had done to Andy. His attitude, she said, was so much better. He wasn’t nervous or tense, and he had stopped anticipating show-ring commands. He was relaxed and a willing partner under saddle. It was my dad who finally figured it out. We hadn’t really done anything. We had just let Andy be a horse.

That day, my attitude about equine welfare changed. I used to think horses were happiest in nice, warm, cozy box stalls, and that the only exercise they needed was a few minutes in a turn-out to “get the bucks out” before our scheduled riding time. What I realized was that 24/7 confinement, while good for some things, like maintaining a show coat and reducing bite or kick marks from other horses, wasn’t truly addressing Andy’s needs as a horse. His brain and his body craved equine activities – grazing, companionship within a herd and open spaces. When given the opportunity to simply be a horse, Andy responded by being a better show horse than he ever had before.

I am sure many of you have similar stories, even if your opinions are different. Some of you believe horses should be kept in box stalls all the time. Some of you believe horses shouldn’t ever be stalled. And some of you fall somewhere in between, maybe turning your horses out during the day and stalling them at night. No matter how you care for your horses, I am sure you believe you are providing good equine welfare. We all do. And yet, our ideas of what good welfare is can be totally different.

That was Lenz’s point. Even as horsemen, with similar backgrounds and beliefs and a shared love of the horse, we have differing ideas on what constitutes good welfare. Is it any wonder, then, that the general public also has varying and different views on equine welfare?

Too often, we respond to public criticism regarding equine welfare with closed minds and bitter words. We fail to even try to find common ground, forgetting that, at the very core of the issue, we are all trying to do the same thing – protect and care for the horse. We refuse to accept that others have experiences and expectations that may not match our own, and that their differing perspectives are valid.

Lenz offered several suggestions for opening the lines of communication about equine welfare that I think are worthy of passing on:

  • Become the focal point for equine welfare information.
  • Continually work to improve the use and well-being of our horses. Ask, “Why do we do this?” rather than, “We’ve always done it this way, what’s wrong with it?”
  • Explain why the current approaches are best, if we have the information to prove it.
  • Make changes, even hard changes, when they are indicated.

The unwanted horse issue and the debate over equine welfare is not going to go away. It’s not going to get any better unless we do something to make it better. Take the first step, and find some common ground.