Owning a horse can bring a lot of joy but it can be a big responsibility. Particularly when it comes to ensuring that all of their needs are met. As well as protecting your horse from pain and suffering, it is important for them to have friends, adequate forage, and the freedom to display natural behaviours (“the 3Fs”). These factors are not only required to support their physical and mental wellbeing but are also specified by law in the Animal Welfare Act.
So what exactly are the 3 Fs and why are they so important for your horse?
Freedom – the ability to roam
In the wild, horses would be free to roam for hundreds of miles. Although we cannot mimic this lifestyle we should provide as much turnout as possible; allowing the horse to graze and socialise with others.
When the horse is stabled, it is important that they have enough space to turn around, lie down and stand up as required. Movement in the stable can be encouraged by putting food in different corners or by providing toys. All stabled horses should have daily turnout or exercise, unless your vet has recommended box rest following an injury. Full-time stabling is not a long-term solution for a horse and abnormal behaviours such as box walking, weaving and windsucking may be seen if they don’t have the freedom to carry out their normal activities.
Tethering is often used to confine a horse to a small area and may be useful in some cases. Again, this is not a suitable way of keeping a horse permanently or long-term, as it restricts the horse’s freedom to exercise and to find food and shelter. There is also a chance that the horse could become injured by the tethering equipment.
Friends – companionship with other horses
Horses are sociable creatures. In the wild, they would live in large groups or herds. Therefore, we should do what we can to replicate this by turning them out with horses that they have formed an established group or bond with.
When stabled, horses should be kept in close proximity to their friends, with the ability to see and touch each other, allowing them to communicate and groom one another. Keeping a horse on his own can have a negative impact on his mental health and unusual behaviours may develop. Horses can be kept with other animals and may form bonds with sheep and other livestock. But ideally, they should be able to make friends with other horses.
If a horse has formed a bond with another horse, they can become very distressed if they are separated so this should be avoided. This is true of other equine species too. Donkeys can be especially affected when they are separated from a companion and can become seriously ill if it occurs.
When new horses are introduced into a group, it is important to do it carefully so that injuries can be avoided. This can be done by grazing the new horse in the field next to the others. Removing the back shoes and monitoring the introduction can also reduce the risk of injuries occurring. Aggressive behaviours can be more common when horses are competing for resources such as food, water or social contact. So it is important that there is enough for everyone. And of course, the group should be monitored closely for signs of bullying.
Forage – access to food and water
Forage provides fibre that is essential for the horse’s gut health, reducing the risk of diseases such as gastric ulcers. It should make up the majority of the horse’s diet and can be provided through grass, hay, haylage or grass replacement products such as grass pellets. Horses are trickle feeders, meaning that they eat little and often and this should be replicated if the horse cannot be turned out to graze for a period of time.
The amount and type of forage provided should be based on the horse’s requirements. This will depend on age, exercise levels, body condition score and any underlying disease processes. For example, a horse with poor teeth may require soaked grass pellets as they are unable to pick up and chew the grass or hay.
Horses and ponies that are prone to laminitis may require grass restriction to prevent bouts. Alternative forage, such as soaked hay, should always be available. Other ways of restricting grazing while still allowing the horse to maintain trickle feeding include wearing a grazing muzzle, providing a hay net with small holes, or using a track system.
The quality and availability of forage changes throughout the year. A balancer should be provided year-round to ensure that the horse has all of the minerals and vitamins required for a healthy diet. The forage provided should always be of good quality and there must be access to fresh clean water. It is important to check the paddocks and hay for poisonous plants such as ragwort as these can cause severe illness. Hay and haylage must be checked for dust or mould and ideally should be fed from the ground to help prevent respiratory problems.
The bottom line
Our modern horses are still very close to their wild ancestors, and we need to consider that when planning their care. But a happy horse is essential for a healthy horse-human bond, and the rewards are clear for both sides.
Further information on the aspects of animal welfare recognised under the law can be found in the online government booklet titled Code of practice for the welfare of horses, ponies, donkeys and their hybrids. Any concerns about your horse’s welfare should be directed to your vet. They can then discuss your individual case and provide support and help to ensure that your horse is comfortable and happy.
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