Well-being instead of locked away - Where is horse keeping headed?
Horses have been close to people for centuries - we uphold such close relations with only very few other species. We carry out behavioural research and are gaining more and more knowledge about what makes horses feel most comfortable and thus also their owners. Technically speaking a great deal is possible, but that has its price. Everyone is in favour of a species-appropriate husbandry – according to the new German term "homing" of horses – and stable owners are finding themselves caught between economic viability and the animal protection laws. The spoga horse blog posed the question: Where is horse keeping headed?
Picture: Schauer Active Horse Systems
The methods of keeping horses are as manifold as the different breeds, styles of riding and usage of horses - and these vary greatly from region to region too. Whereas the classic competition sport is still very strong in North Germany and the horses are thus mostly stabled from the age of three onwards and live in stalls, Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate, Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg are pioneers in the field of active and open stables. Most of the around 30 active and movement stables that for instance the specialist Schauer Active Horse Systems build a year in Germany are located in the South and most of them are professional establishments. In metropolitan areas on the other hand, most horses are kept in conventional stable boxes (usually because of the lack of space).
Principally, when it comes down to keeping horses, the owners are always faced with the question: "What is my budget? Do I risk injuries caused by ranking fights and playing in the herd or behavioural disorders because the horses are kept isolated in a stable? Will my low-ranking horse get enough to eat in a herd - or will it get too fat because it is high in the ranking order?" The most popular compromise between individual stables and herd management is the low maintenance and low risk of injury paddock stable with a small turn-out area. For livery stables in the leisure riding sector it is the most popular method of keeping horses. Because: In modern stables at least a bit of fresh air and social contact for the horses is a must.
Open stable: Species-appropriate, but not a self-starter
In the case of several robust breeds such as Icelandic, Haflinger or Freiberger horses one pursues an approach that is as closest to the natural social behaviour of the horses as possible: Here paddock herds separated according to sex and open stables are already very common. However, taking Germany as a whole, estimated at less than 5%, still very few horses live in groups.
However, thanks to automatic feeding machines this method of husbandry is currently taking a huge leap forward: The individual chip-controlled systems even make organising mixed herds easy. Modern active stables with automatic feeding and computer-controlled paddock selection create time and more freedom for the stable owners - which can for instance be used to keep a closer eye on the individual animals and their needs. This has among others very concrete, economic advantages, because a good service justifies higher livery prices, makes the horse owners happier and binds them long-term to the stables.
Nice services like the solar-powered hacking out gate by Axel F Zaunbau are welcome treats which sweeten up the equestrian sport experience even more. Tangible improvements are also forthcoming in the fence and paddock segment too: The plastic-coated electric fence is replacing the classic tapes, what's more a ban on creosote-impregnated posts is also imminent. Namely, environmental and animal protection are both coming more and more under focus.
Stabled horses: Let there be light!
Nevertheless, the general rule "the more expensive a horse is, the less it gets turned out," as Florian Steer, Department Head at Haas Fertigbau put it, still applies in the dressage and show jumping circles. Thoroughbreds are classically stable-kept in Germany, although regarding the well-being of the animals this has improved greatly compared to twenty years ago (daylight and fresh air are indeed the minimum standard). Bright, cheerful facilities, good ventilation, a window and visual contact with their own species should be the rule for stabled horses too.
Overall, in the scope of new buildings, stable construction companies are observing a clear trend towards more social contact, light and turn-out options for horses. "One can design a stable stall just as badly as a loose box," ascertained Rüdiger Deckert, Executive Director of Röwer & Rüb. "It is clear that species-appropriate husbandry requires more space and better equipment and that has its price. Many stable owners are faced with this challenge. Ultimately, we all want to take the well-being of the animals into account while at the same time allowing as many people to practice this wonderful sport as possible - this is the balancing act we have to master."
The stable as a service provider
Across the board – regardless of the method of horse-keeping a livery stable offers – there has been a development towards more professionalism, a higher focus on the well-being of the horses and towards service awareness over the past decades. Modern stable owners are plucking up the courage more and more to carry out an unbiased location analysis, develop a suitable concept and implement it. In other words: My target clientele are competition riders or leisure riders, I run a riding school, I offer professional horse training, a paddock service, a treadmill, a horse walker or other services...
Carola Brandt, Horse Sales Director at Schauer Active Horse Systems, is above all observing this when a generation change takes place within an establishment. "The children frequently take over the business after forty years and decide to reorganise the overall complex of horse keeping, feeding and service
taking a more professional approach. This also applies for the stable construction, improved meadow management and feeding technology, for example with six to eight feeds a day - this is incidentally also possible for stable-kept horses. If one wants to earn money with horses, one has to offer a good service and also market the product," said Carola Brandt. Since as a rule hobby and profession overlap among the stable owners, this sometimes hinders the professionalism and good communications with the customers, stated Brandt.
The attitude of horse owners has changed fundamentally and the demands are high. Stable owners are quite rightly considered to be service providers, which indeed they are. On the other side of the coin, in the opinion of industry insiders this should also be coupled with an appropriate livery fee: "Working economically and keeping horses in a modern way in compliance with the animal protection guidelines costs money, this has to be calculated and communicated," summed up Carola Brandt.