by Linda Chamberlain
These two prisoners have much in common.
They spend much of their day in a small space. They have very little to do. And they have very few companions to share their time with. They are confined and they know the meaning of the word vice.
For the man behind bars vice has been many things. The thieving he got away with in his youth, stolen cigarettes from the corner shop and more recently the knife attack that led to his incarceration.
For the horse –incarceration came before the vice. This is how he lives. The bars were put on the stable door because he’s in the habit of putting his head into the fresh air and rocking from side to side. It’s called weaving and, in the horse world, it’s known as a vice. It doesn’t sound such a great crime, does it, but weaving makes a horse lose condition, it lowers his value and there’s a real danger that other horses on the yard will pick up the habit themselves. It most commonly begins when a horse is stabled – and bored – for long periods.
‘They don’t have anything to do and they don’t have anyone to talk to.’
The government’s chief inspector of prisons was talking about worsening conditions in this country’s goals which have led to an increased suicide rate. But he could have been talking about one of the most prestigious horse livery yards in the country.
I went to see one such yard for myself after writing my controversial blog – They’re athletes, not dinner. I got a guided tour because I wanted somewhere with good facilities for my promising sports horse (in my dreams!) and I wanted to know if 24/7 confinement was as acceptable as I’d alleged.
It was a pleasantly, sunny day and I was taken to an impressive, American-style barn where there were up to twenty horses in residence. How clean it was! How shining! There was hardly a dropping in sight. Grooms rushed about, everything was polished and I could have visited in white jodhpurs and come home clean. I would have to join a waiting list but, were I to be granted admittance, my horse would be skipped out four times a day, fed three times and exercised once by a rider or in the horse walker. I saw a horse in this very expensive machine going round and round without human intervention and my mind boggled. It’s difficult to understand why people go to such expense and trouble when they could go for a ride or, dare I suggest it, turn the horse out in a field. This splendid facility had very few fields, though. The youngsters were allowed out for a couple of hours but the ridden horses enjoyed the special treatment of central heating in winter, rubber stable mats and the occasional mirror.
‘It helps to settle them,’ I was told. ‘They see themselves and it makes them think they have company.’
‘Ah, such a good idea,’ I enthused. My acting talents were stretched to their limit.
The stables were large units inside a huge barn, their doors looking inwards and the horses could at least see each other even though they couldn’t see the outside world or touch each other. Iron bars made sure there was no danger of that and then my guide pointed out a very positive feature – the drop-down, anti weaving bars on each and every stable door. I looked around and had a quick count. I estimated that half the horses had their bars up. I didn’t see any of them weaving – even with the deterrent of the bars a stressed horse can manage to weave in the stable. This livery yard knows its business and reduces the risk of stable vices with regular feeding and exercise. I’m reminded of a yard that a friend of mine worked at run by some Olympic riders where the fields were notable for their absence. She was a groom and Monday was a day off for many of them so the horses weren’t exercised.
‘That’s the day a lot of the them became ill. We called it tying up day,’ she said. Tying up, or azoturia, is a worrying condition notable among stabled horses who work hard. They get cramp-like symptoms and seize up. ‘A lot of them had ulcers and colic was a constant worry.’
The horses at the livery yard I visited looked healthy; they were passive rather than anxious. Bored but subdued. Horses take confinement amazingly well. Some develop vices but with careful management they accept the life we allow them although I’ve barely mentioned the health problems they endure. The state of their feet, I haven’t touched upon.
So, no fields for most of the very expensive animals here. They are such hazardous places, after all. Horses have been known to run in them, kick and play with each other or eat some grass. I’ve even seen a horse drop to the ground and roll in the mud – in fact, that’s something mine will do every day just for the comfort and joy of it although I fear it might worry some of the owners from the livery yard. Not mud!
It’s lovely to return to my own yard where the horses are appreciating that the sun is warm rather than hot. They’ve spent a bit of time in the field shelter judging by the calling cards they’ve left me and are now on their track, grazing together. They see me and saunter over since it’s getting close to supper time. The others hang back because Carrie is the boss and a flick of her ear warns that she’s to have the first hello with me. She doesn’t linger since I have nothing beyond a stroke and heads to the gate; she’ll wait ‘til the bucket is ready. I check the rest. There are no bites or kicks to worry me but they are dusty from rolling.
‘How did you survive?’ I ask them. ‘You haven’t killed each other. Well done.’
Once we’ve done our greetings, I’m ignored. I feed them, so I’m important but I’m not as vital to them as they are to each other. They follow Carrie across the stony yard to the gate. Tao rubs her face on Carrie’s behind and snorts. Carrie nods her head, frowns. Tao respectfully backs off. They don’t say much but they understand each other.
If only humans understood them as well.
And on a different note…
My thanks to author Janice Preston who has nominated me for an inspiring blog award. Wow, that made me chuffed – and made me check my wardrobe to make sure I had something suitable for a possible awards ceremony at the Savoy. It might not be that sort of award, but still. Now I must dash – I’m off to buy Janice’s new book, Mary and the Marquis. It features a horse so I’m going to read it.
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