If we can define humanitarian, then let us try to expound the definition of equitarian: making the world a better place for horses and horsemen.
How can we progressively address our contemporary relationship with horses in light of contemporary issues: slaughter, overpopulation of unwanted horses both feral and domestic, the thoroughbred fetlock epidemic, and the stress of intense stabling?
Although there are more pressing concerns, horsetraining methodology is one area I have a desire to establish parameters regarding exhaustion. The behavioral ideal of natural horsemanship as I define the discipline is to keep the horse in the parasympathetic state during training and handling, that is, a relaxed-unfrightened-cerebral-thinking state of body and mind. I realize this is not constantly possible, but the ideal is to stay parasympathetic the vast majority of the time, and to avoid using flight strategies. It is important to avoid panting--a distressed overwrought horse struggling to get oxygen during training is a contemporary welfare issue I would like to see addressed and minimized.
We do not know how the induction of sustained-flight afflicts a horse, but we suspect it can be is significantly detrimental to certain horses and in certain degrees. Certain training strategies, including those in the natural horsemanship realm, appear to exceed accepted contemporary welfare standards. Many trainers and horsemen take horses into a sympathetic, or flight state, while containing the horse’s flight in a round corral. The horse is chased with flags and gestures until it is exhausted, and resigns into a survival mode, allowing the trainer to approach and begin a desensitization process. Timed colt-srtarting contests televised on RFDTV display these exhaustive strategies, by many, including natural horsemen. Many of these horses are young and growing, vulnerable to growth plate damage from overexertion, and metabolic disease as a result of over-exhaustion. Their respiratory, circulatory, digestive, and musculoskeltal systems need careful attention during training. Induced metabolic stress states can adversely affect subsequent behavior and physical development in growing learning horses.
Q. What is too much, then, Dr Gustafson, in your opinion?
I would like to suggest that horses-in-training might be better off psychologically and physically if training is curtailed when the horse’s respiratory rate exceeds 120 breathes per minute. This seems high, and may be, but it is a breathing rate that is often exceeded during the training of young horses. To take care not to exceed acceptable metabolic limits, horsetrainers need to get in touch with horses’ respiratory rates, and learn to carefully and constantly monitor respiration by second nature as they train. Many young horses are brought into panting states that exceed 150 breathes per minute, and then kept there. Equine physiologists concur that "panting" is a stressed metabolic state for every system. Certainly, an observant horseman can see the distress in their horse's eyes. Beyond the physical, neurologists and behaviorists express concern about significant psychological affects that may impair the horse’s trainability and usefulness into the future with these exhaustive strategies.
The most vulnerable system of all, the equine system most frequently insulted in domestication, is the nervous system. Appropriate training should nurture the horse’s nervous system, and avoid unnecessary insults that may have unrelenting affects. I see too much “learned helplessness,” a survival mode stance that is docile and submissive, yet unspirited and dulled; a result of sympathetic overload during training, and undesirable in my developing view. We aspire to willing partnerships with horses, rather than coerced submission.
It is easy to monitor respiration and determine respiratory rates by simply observing the nostrils, flanks, and ribcage and counting the number of breaths per minute, or in the case of panting horses, the number of breaths per second—two, sometimes three breaths a second. Horses normally breathe 8-14 beats per minute.
The equitarian salon:
Promoting an EQUITARIAN concept to better man’s relationship with domestic equids.
Dr Gustafson provides consultations regarding the design and management of equine facilities to best accommodate the inherent nature and behavior of horses. He provides information and management assistance creating natural approaches to maintain equine health, prevent diseases, and resolve lameness. email@example.com