Paige Woodend | Wed, 27 Nov 2019
Horse riding has been a hobby and sport for hundreds of years, for both the privileged and less well-off, and I’m sure many people have fond memories of being treated with a trip to the local riding stables. An exciting day out for children who gazed up at the massive beasts with awe and unfortunately, rose-tinted glasses. Tiny, un-seeing eyes, buzzing with joy at the prospect of sitting high and mighty upon a great steed, as story-book characters do, spine tingling as the beautiful horse they were assigned nuzzled a carrot from their hand.
Riding stables are one of the few things in which I have heard people complain about the ethical issues they come with, often trapped in a stable far too small, only released to be bridled up and lumped with a child that knows nothing of them, pulling at the metal bit, screaming with joy, and rubbing them up the wrong way – both metaphorically and literally.
The welfare of cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens and pets are all made fundamentally clear to us as we grow up; we know what to look out for and avoid but riding stables seem to be mostly glossed over, and rarely questioned, but, thinking about it, the issues become abundantly clear.
Aside from a stable much smaller than horses would and should be used to – and I’m not talking about your personal pony being kept in, away from the cold weather at night, I’m looking at a much more commercial level, but no less common – they have limited social interaction. Sure, they can see the other horses but how often are they left in a field to kick and play and roll around in the muddy grass? Oh no, if they’re going to need to be saddled up multiple times a day, all that mud just isn’t feasible, and play bites from other horses just wouldn’t look good.
Horses are huge, intelligent creatures, easily trained for a reason, they require all the entertainment in the world, and walking in a straight line, or being led round an arena on a lead can’t be enough for them. How often have you seen salt licks or puzzles, “enrichment” as it’s technically termed, in a stall? It’s easy to think I’m just another one of these overly-dramatic characters with no evidence to back this unease up, but having studied animals for three years, and having grown up around horses both commercially and personally, the symptoms are all there.
Stereotypies are repetitive behaviours with no clear function or goal, performed by most animals when in a state of boredom or stress, as a sort of coping mechanism. In horses, these include weaving (rocking their head from side to side, usually over a stall door), cribbing (resting their teeth on a hard surface and arching their neck muscles), and stall-walking (fairly self-explanatory as pacing).
All of these are surprisingly common. Weaving is often caused by separation anxiety rather than just boredom, and while some of the methods to prevent it, such as ensuring the sufferer has eye-contact with other horses at all times, seem reasonable, anti-weaving grills are also publicly available to buy - these are simply a V shaped grill to put in the stall door, so they are physically unable to do it - only elevating stress levels.
Equally, if not more obscene, anti-cribbing collars are also available, to stop the horse craning its neck, although if they choose to do it anyway, this can cut into the bottom of their neck only causing more and more issues.
I’m not calling for the abolition of riding stables; as so few would be with me, it’s basically pointless. But I am calling for higher welfare standards, checks and management of such facilities to prevent even one horse in twenty from suffering with mental torment.