I have heard it said that we ask so much of our horses…. but are we really giving them a choice?

Do horses in captivity have a choice in diet, choice in environment, choice in friendship or choice in training and does this affect their wellness?

As care providers we have a great responsibility to our horses and often that can be quite a daunting task. There is a lot of conflicting information out there and unfortunately outdated practices still being pedaled within the mainstream establishments. As a result, we have a mismatch between the requirements of a species and the management available. This often leads to a lot of undesired behaviours and unhappy owners trying their best to do right by the horse(s) they love and care for.

What can we do? Typically, these undesired behaviours are so often seen as a problem with the horse – but what I would like to see more of, is instead of us just looking at the horse, we start looking around the horse. Behaviour starts somewhere as a response to something around them and its usually outside of their control and related their species-specific needs not being met.

What are their needs? I would like to share with the 5 freedoms. These give you a fairly good idea of the basic needs.

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst.
  • Freedom from discomfort.
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
  • Freedom from distress and fear.
  • Freedom to express natural behaviour.


  • Freedom from hunger and thirst.

Horses need regular access to food and water as a basic need, but the quality, regularity and contents of the diet are also important for the next freedom:

  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease.

The modern diet for horses often includes many ingredients they do not need, to bulk out food (soy) and make it more palatable to eat (sugars). I’m not going to pretend to have an in-depth knowledge in respect to diet, I’m not a nutritionist and I don’t believe I have the answers, but I do want to highlight it as a couple of questions that we as the feeders really need to be asking.

  • What type of grasses (including hay) is my horse eating and how much/often?
  • What am I feeding and why?

My advice when seeking more specific (individual) answers is to find an independent nutritionist. Too often we only speak to the sales reps. Testing the horse, the soil and hay can build the picture to see what the horse is lacking in or indeed has too much of. Equine Nutrition for Owners group on Facebook is run by such an independent equine nutrition specialist.


  • Freedom to express natural behaviour.
  • Freedom from discomfort.
  • Freedom from distress and fear.

There are many different ideas of an equine environment; from track, paddock paradise and Equicentral to 24/7 stabling with auto water and deep beds. Many modern livery yards are built on the more ‘traditional’ style of stables and individual turnout. But no matter where your horse is, you can look at these points and build a picture for your horse’s environment.

  • Plants – Look at which plants are available in the field.
  • Hedges – Check if your horse can access hedgerows and natural shelter.
  • Space – Does the environment provide the space the horse needs to move and maintain good health?
  • Time budget – How much time does my horse have access to their outdoor environment? Stables are sometimes a necessity to bring in, a space to dry off the horse, tack up or for medical needs, but how much time do they realistically need to spend in the stable, if at all?

The horse’s environment should meet their basis needs. Is your horse able to access forage, water and friends? If not, what can you change within the environment or can you chance the environment? Some horses cope with stabling better than others, but if your horse is unable to cope and displays stereotypical behaviour, then instead of trying to shut the behaviour down, look for ways of changing the environment (a bigger stable/a friend over the wall that they can groom with/a coral outside/enriching the environment). Yes ideally it would be wonderful for all horses to have access to a track, but I do understand that’s not yet feasible, but there are more track and Equicentral type liveries available now than ever before, do it’s worth to look around at what’s in your area. Visit this page to find a track livery in your area.


  • Freedom from distress and fear.
  • Freedom to express natural behaviour.

Horses are a herd animal and need companionship for many reasons including:

  • Feeling safe – Horses need to feel safe to sleep, having another horse to watch out while they sleep is important for them.
  • Play – play is an important part of a horse’s life, it is one way of practicing to defend themselves should a mountain lion stroll in your field.
  • Grooming – horses love to groom one another, they can reach places that they normally cannot get to scratch. It is a great way to bond with your horse, to groom and find their scratchy spot.

Modern lifestyle for us humans means we tend to move around a lot, but for our horse’s this can be quite unsettling for the horses who have no warning when they are sold or move yard.

This can have a huge impact on behaviour. For example, is it any wonder horses dislike being trailered when they may associate this with loss of their last pair bond? When behaviours such as separation anxiety present, I know it can be frustrating but do ask those questions, rather than judge the horse. Short term answers include riding and trailer with friends to help your horse manage their anxiety associations and work on building strong positive associations slowly with encouraging training methods.


  • Freedom from discomfort.
  • Freedom from pain, injury, and disease.

Have you ever gone to saddle your horse to be met with the ears back and a sour face? It’s more common than you might think, so many times our horses say no with their behaviour, from refusing to be caught, to clamping their teeth shut to avoid the bit, biting towards the girth, turning their bum in the stable.

If you notice this behaviour again, perhaps ask why this could be occurring; does the equipment fit? Does it work in a way my horse finds it uncomfortable? Can I work without it today and see what happens? The results may just surprise you.


  • Freedom from discomfort.
  • Freedom from pain, injury, and disease.

Diet, environment, equipment, and friendship are all linked to the overall wellness of your horse. If your horse is uncomfortable, hungry, alone or lacking in vital nutrients there is an extremely low possibility you are going to improve on your horse’s wellness through training. Making sure your horse is well and free from pain is the most important job of the caregiver and working to improve health can be through of as rehabilitation, more than regular training.


  • Freedom from discomfort.
  • Freedom from distress and fear.

Educating your horse to build communication and enhanced physical ability can be achieved through more choice to your horse than you might think.

Giving the horse the opportunity to say ‘NO’ is often seen as a failure in the trainer – the horse being seen as non-compliant and disobedient, leading to the trainer’s feelings of guilt and shame for not getting it perfect. But horses do not share the human concept of winning or losing when it comes to training. They understand reward and punishment and they respond to the clues given to them by their handler. By giving my horses a real choice, above ego and above desire is my personal goal as a horsewoman – and I am STILL learning how to do that and working on my horsemanship skills and knowledge.

Question = Partnership  / Demands = Dictatorship

Sometimes, we might need to be the dictator – such as in situations where safety is important, but the balance of our questions must outweigh our demands if we are to maintain a healthy partnership with our horse.

You horse is a living breathing animal with their own mind and they will likely not ‘do’ everything you want every time you ask. So, remember that you and your horse are working together as a partnership and partners are allowed a disagreement from time to time.

Developing the confidence to allow our horses to say no, to listen to and take appropriate action might sound like a simple thing, but in reality, it’s something we are ALL working on.

I hope you found this article helpful, please leave me a comment to tell me what you thought, I really appreciate the feedback.

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phillippa christie

phillippa christie

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