I have asked the question ‘What do horses need?’ many times in many different situations in many different countries. The answers are never the same and always provide new insights into the complicated nature of the relationship between horses and humans.
At first, people answer with the obvious response – food and water – but further probing prompts discussions about training, shade, shelter, grooming, veterinary care and much more. I often run this exercise as a framework for an introduction to welfare, so next, I ask the group to explore the criteria that should be met to fully meet that need. For example under the need for ‘food’, criteria might be that ad lib forage should be available, that concentrated feed is provided in a clean bowl, that food is good quality, perhaps a specific supplement offered once a week and so on. The group themselves come up with the needs, the facilitator just uses the questions as a framework for discussion; without having a strict idea of what the ‘answers’ should be, the result is very much owned by the group and you can never really predict what will come up. For example, a group of pony owners in Cambodia, reportedly from the area with the ponies in the poorest state of welfare, agreed that one of the things a pony needs is a name. And when discussing the criteria for this need it was agreed that the name must match the personality of the pony. In a group of livery yard owners in Surrey one of the things a horse needs was reported to be a very precise shape of bed made from shavings. In Nicaragua one of the needs identified was to be treated with kindness and the criteria ‘as much as a wife’!
As each need is identified, the group creates and places drawings depicting each one on small pieces of paper arranged in a large circle. Next, for each need, the group places a mark between the middle and the edge of the circle to represent a score for how well each need is met for the average horse in that community. If the mark is placed close to the centre of the circle, the need is not met at all and if it is placed at the edge of the circle it is well met. Once placed, the marks are connected forming one ‘round’ of a spider’s web and hence this exercise is called a Cobweb Analysis. The resulting chart for a community where the horses enjoy a good quality of life, therefore, would have all the marks very near the edge of the circle whereas a community where the horses’ needs are not met would have a round of the spider web very near to the centre. Of course mostly the result is an irregular circle as some needs are met to a greater extent than others. The scores can be allocated considering the typical horse in a community or could be done for a specific individual horse.
I also sometimes ask owners to do the exercise in behaviour consultations, individually rather than in a group. The exercise is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it shows that people have very varied ideas about what a horse needs – but if we consider the animal irrespective of where they live, what discipline they might be used for and what culture their owners are from, what do they really need? How much of what we think they need is a reflection of the equestrian culture we have grown up in?
If we think about what a horse needs using this process and compare that to what we are tempted to buy when we flick through a horse product catalogue, there might be a significant difference… If we try to bear in mind what our horses would order if they could, we might buy things our horse will really benefit from.
Secondly, the resulting diagram from the exercise described above, shows the whole life of a horse in an easy to understand way. By looking at where the scores lie, together with the criteria given for each need, we are gently guided towards how improvements can be made little by little. It is this big picture I am interested in because many suggestions and ideas for tweaks to the way we manage our horses might seem tiny and almost insignificant, but when we consider the context, and imagine each of those things as chipping away to move those scores a little nearer to the ideal we are reminded that everything is worthwhile when considering improvements to the quality of life of an animal in our care.
Please do the exercise right now for your own horse – and see what you end up tweaking in the life you are providing for your horse.
Suzanne Rogers, IAABC certified horse behaviourist.