by Linda Chamberlain
If this horse was to be your dinner you might be worried about the way it was kept. You see, this horse lives in a stable that is only a little bigger than he is himself. He has room to lie down. He has room to turn around but he can’t run and he can’t touch any of his friends. His keeper is, no doubt, generous with his food – he might get two buckets of feed a day and a couple of hay nets. If those run out in the night he can always eat his bed…until it gets too mucky for his taste.
If this horse was to be your dinner you might see a television documentary by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall that would distress you. You wouldn’t be able to smell that stable but Hugh’s nose might crinkle and you’d know what it was like in there by the morning. He might show you the bars on the stable door with a hushed and upset tone. ‘They’re anti weaving bars,’ he’d explain. ‘To stop the horse rocking from side to side – a harmful habit but it relieves the terrible boredom.’
If this horse was to be your dinner Hugh might manage to get a camera in the stable at night. He’d show you that the horse, who sleeps only for a few minutes at a time, is still awake. He’s been chewing the wooden walls because the door has been covered with metal to stop it being eaten.
This horse stays in the stable all day and all night in a very expensive livery yard that is equipped with all the latest in horsey facilities. There’s an indoor sand school, a heated tack room and even a horse walker so he can get a little exercise on the days his owner is unable to take him out. He’s an animal whose ancestors lived in fear of predators. They lived in a herd and if any caught the scent of a lone wolf, they ran. That’s how they survived for millions of years and the instinct is still strong in today’s domesticated horse.
So, when this horse’s owner takes him for a ride he can sometimes be a tricky beast – full of fear and flight. He might want to run simply because there’s a plastic bag in the hedge. He’s spent the last 24 hours in solitary confinement without the comfort of a herd – surely, he can be forgiven a fanciful imagination.
But he’s not going to be your dinner.
He’s an athlete. A valuable sports horse. His breeding is impeccable and his performance is remarkable. He’s extremely fast and you should see him stretch over fences because he’s awesome.
It’s a strange way to keep an athlete, isn’t it? Unmoving. Alone.
Can you imagine David Beckham or Wayne Rooney bedded down in the smallest room in the house but brought out to chase a ball for 90 minutes every Saturday? They suffer enough injuries as it is and it doesn’t take a science degree to work out that their fitness levels might be compromised by the lifestyle of a couch potato. Horses must have been the only Olympians that performed in the world’s most notable sporting event from the confines of what is, by the morning, a toilet.
This horse’s owner is very careful, though. The horse is warmed up diligently before every competition to minimise the risk of injury. A torn tendon could finish this animal’s career and every athlete knows the importance of correct preparation before an event. Although this horse doesn’t get as much space as your average lamb chop, he does get more than most pieces of chicken breast you can buy in the supermarket.
But there are no campaigns, no cries from animal welfare activists about the way this horse is confined. It’s perfectly normal. In fact, the more expensive and talented the horse, the more likely it is that he is kept in this way. I know many livery yards where the animals are rarely, and sometimes never, turned out in a field. Race horses spend most of their day at rest in a stable.
It is perfectly legal and it isn’t even frowned upon. Why? you might ask.
I suppose the practice has its roots in the past. In the 1800s London housed about a million and a half horses and none of them had access to a field. Horses were like the car in a garage today – brought out when needed. Most of those horses were working animals, vital to the economy. So, if they were awake, they were probably working.
There are few working horses left in Britain and we keep them for our pleasure, or our sport. We no longer have to keep them confined. There’s no longer any excuse.
They are athletes – let them move.
(I’m a former journalist and for my next blog I’m going ‘under cover’ to investigate how our top equines are kept – press the follow button on the black band at the top of the page if you want notification of future blogs and news of my debut novel – The First Vet – being published later this year. Leave me a comment, too. I’d love to hear from you.)