Is your horse a machine? Most certainly not. But well-meaning owners might nonetheless make the ethical blunder of treating their horses as though they were machines in their service, according to an equine behavior specialist.
This "instrumentalization" of horses has been a trend throughout history, but modern research--particularly in the growing field of equitation science--is helping owners not just care about their horses, but also for them, said Daniel S. Mills, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, Dipl. ECVBM-CA, European and RCVS Recognized Specialist in Veterinary and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Lincoln in the U.K.
In the opening plenary lecture of the 7th International Equitation Science Conference, held Oct. 26-29 in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands, Mills said humans should respect three primary moral principles when it comes to managing horses: wellness, autonomy, and fairness. Horses should be given good health care with total absence of intentional harm; they should be treated as individuals and not generalized; and they should be treated fairly without discrimination, he explained.
"If you want the best out of your horse, you'll get the best by first making sure his needs (as outlined above) are met," Mills said. "Good performance is integrally interlinked with good welfare. We need to pay more attention to their social needs and their needs for security and safety. These have become essential; they're not a luxury anymore, once we have met their more basic needs."
He emphasized that the key to ethical horse management is knowing how to deal with "conflicts of interest." Humans need an "ethical framework" to follow to know how to handle the inevitable conflicts that will arise between them and their horses.
"This doesn't always mean we have to give in to the horse," he said. "But as the moral agent--the ones with the responsibility of decision--we have an obligation to give consideration to everyone involved, and to the overall impact of the decisions we make on all who are affected."
Horse people should consider alternative ways to handle situations, he added, particularly with regard to punishment. Punishment might have its place in certain situations, but not when trying to "initially shape a behavior," Mills said, and never if a "better alternative" to the punishment, such as simply trying again and rewarding the good behavior, is available.
Similarly, it is important to recognize that many stereotypic behaviors have psychological roots and cannot be "fixed" with simple tricks or punishment. Cribbing, for example, might be more humanely handled in some situations if left alone rather than suppressed through crib straps, dental braces, or electric shock treatments, all of which inflict pain when the horse is only acting out a neurophysiologic condition.
"We have to determine: is this particular individual in a high-risk group (of cribbing-related colic, for example)? If not, I'd rather let the horse crib on something," he relayed.
Mills emphasized that while consistency in a particular horse's routine with a horse is vital, owners and handlers should avoid making generalizations among all horses and/or all kinds of situations. Address each situation, each individual, and each challenge as a unique problem with a particular answer that respects each horse and human involved.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.