Putting the horse first

Putting the horse first

For a lot of horsemen and trainers, this is absolutely paramount. They spend their whole careers – maybe even their whole lives – trying to see through the horse’s eyes and be able to give them what they need. And as such, it is also a topic that is very close to my heart. But what exactly does it mean to ‘put the horse first’?

For me (and this is just my opinion, of course everyone is entitled to theirs!) first and foremost it means meeting the horse’s natural needs as an animal as best as you can. Since the Brambell Report, these are classed as the ‘Five Freedoms’. As these are so incredibly important for everyone handling horses to understand, I wanted to share them with you here again.

The Five Freedoms:

1.          Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.

2.          Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.

3.         Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.

4.         Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.

5.         Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

 I invite you to take a moment to let these sink in.

I will add a few sidenotes that I think are also important to consider within the framework of these Five Freedoms, in my opinion.

Increased welfare leads to increased safety! The more we meet the horse’s natural needs in terms of environment, management, nutrition (yes, this is also very important) and training; the more balanced the animal will become. A balanced, relaxed horse generally will be the safest partner! Think about that!

 The freedom to express natural behaviour is a big one. The horse is a herd animal, so social contact with peers/herdmates is incredibly important for their wellbeing, as is sufficient FREE movement. And free movement really means free movement in this case, where the horse is allowed to play, run, roll and ramble. Just going in the horse walker or lunging does not count here!

 In our equestrian world, of course the freedom from discomfort and pain or injury should also include our riding and all the tack/equipment we use in training and competition. Saddle, girth, bit and bridle should fit properly and no equipment should be used that causes the horse pain by its (mechanical) functioning, such as for example the excessive (ab)use of spurs, severe bits, draw reins and other ‘training aids’, and so on. Violence is never the answer. The level of training and competition should be appropriate for the horse’s build and physical abilities, especially for youngsters, so we are not overfacing them and our riding does not result in discomfort or pain to the horse.  

 The final point, number 5, also requires some more elaboration, in my opinion. After all, what actually constitutes mental suffering in a horse? This can encompass many things, but in my opinion an important factor which I choose to focus on here is our training. Just as the level of work should match the horse’s ability (see above); so should our abilities as a rider/trainer match the horse. A lack of understanding of the horse’s natural behaviour and how the horse learns; and a lack of clarity in our training can all easily lead to a breakdown in communication. The horse will get anxious if they don’t understand what it is we are asking of them, and this leads to fear and stress.

So what can you so do to put the horse first? Learn about and understand the horse’s natural behaviour and nutrition. Study learning theory and the importance of your own body language in the communication with your horse. And keep the Five Freedoms in the forefront of your mind in your horse’s daily care and management!

Now I want to hear from you again! What do you do to put your horse first? And if this topic and the Five Freedoms resonated with you, please share!

Text and photo by Jeannette Martens

Share this post