The Horse's Needs: Are We Really Meeting Them? - Lauren Fraser

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Unpacking My Bags, And My Brain

I'm back and unpacking after my trip to the ISES conference in Delaware. I had a great time, met some new colleagues, and finally met in person some 'old' colleagues I've been fortunate to connect with through social media. I also enjoyed attending some excellent lectures and presentations that lead to lively discussions each evening right up until my head hit the pillow ...and my insomnia kicked in!

Do You Create An Environment Of Choice For Your Horse?

Listening to a wide variety of topics over the past week, an overarching theme has been rattling around my brain, and that is this: Much of what we do with horses involves them not having much choice in the matter, and where we can allow him choice, and a feeling of control over his life and experiences, we must. No wishy-washy 'we should' here. We must.

Needs vs. Wants: You Might WANT A New Smartphone, But You Sure Don't Need One

One of the best ways we can do this is to ensure his species-specific needs, what I like to call the '3 F's' ,are met. Horses need to be with other horse Friends, horses need constant access to Forage, horses need the mental and physical Freedom to display normal horse behaviors. These are not simply 'wants', like a person would want the newest smartphone - these are true needs, no different than our unique species-specific needs. I think where this can fall apart for the horse is when the human fails to consider that different species indeed have unique needs that are likely different from their own.

What About The Other 23 Hours Of The Day?

For the majority of domesticated horses, their off-time (when they aren't doing a job with us) is the bulk of their day. It is imperative that during that time, the horse is allowed the choice to meet his basic needs. Countless studies have shown that the seemingly simple act of having control over potentially stressful situations can make them less stressful to animals.

When we socially isolate horses by housing them individually, or deprive them of the basic biological urge to eat whenever they need to, or limit or prevent his ability to display a normal range of needed behaviors, not only are we curtailing the horse's ability to choose how to be, we are taking a sense of control away from him. Put yourself in the horse's shoes: How would it feel to you to have no control over when you could be social with your preferred humans? How would it feel to have no control over when you could eat? How would it feel to have no control over where you could go, and what you could do? Hold that feeling, and then imagine being required to perform a physically and mentally demanding job that you didn't choose to do. Can you better see the importance of meeting the horse's basic needs when he isn't doing his job?

The Horse's Hierarchy Of Needs

In human psychology circles, people sometimes refer to Abraham Maslow's 'Hierarchy of Needs' theory. It states that humans need to have low-tiered, basic needs met before they can strive towards 'self-actualization' - 'the achievement of one's full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world'. Although the hierarchy may have its critics, it is credited by some as creating an important shift away from psychology that focused primarily on abnormal behavior and development, towards approaches that considered the development of healthy behavior first and foremost.

A similar approach is taken when we horse behaviorists work with horses. During behavior modification, one of the first things considered is if the horse's basic needs are being met. For example, if the horse is being fed in a manner that doesn't meet his basic needs (i.e. he's fed two or three set meals a day) as a first recommendation, behaviorists don't generally encourage the owner to smack their horse when he comes at them like a shark at feeding time. Sadly, I've met a number of trainers who don't consider the horse's needs first, and who do give out such advice. No matter what species you are, being physically punished for trying to show that your basic physiological needs aren't being met creates even more problems for the animal.

Final Point To Ponder

In closing, I'll like to leave you with a final question. If through our management choices for the horse we don't meet his basic needs, how can we expect the horse to achieve his full potential?

Reprinted with permission from Lauren Fraser