Monday, August 24, 2015

Do Horses Really Need Routine or Is It Just Cues?

I was taught growing up that horses like and need routine. They should be fed and turned out at the same time every day. I adhered to that for years, religiously showing up at the barn for chores with no more than a 10 minute window of flexibility (and feeling horribly guilty if a family outing disrupted it). And it certainly appeared that it was true. The horses always gave indications that they were desperate to be fed or were found waiting impatiently at the gate if I was late. 

In recent years, I have started to question this and now am feeling a lot less convinced. One argument backing this requirement is the sensitive nature of the horse's digestive system. I won't dispute that horses can suffer maladies from ulcers to colic if their routine is upset. But is it routine they crave? I recently read a highly respected trainer's website which stated that the horse is a creature of habit with an internal clock. I can go along with that, but it went on to say there are certain times to graze and certain times to rest. This is where I question.

I think we all have an internal clock ("all" meaning humans, dogs, cats, horses and livestock: the species with which I am most familiar). I think those do become finely tuned, as people who have dogs and cats who know dinner time within one minute will attest. Anyone who has traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast with a toddler and been joyously woken at 4: AM because it's breakfast time on the East Coast can support me on that one. And anyone who has then tried to tell that toddler that it's not breakfast time will understand that yes, there is a NEED for breakfast at that time.

So it seems like I'm arguing against myself but think about the following: we are the ones who have clocks that we set to feed animals. In the natural world, horses eat almost constantly; they don't have a meal time at all. Wild canines and felines eat when they catch something, which is determined as much by what is being pursued as by when the animal decides to go hunt. So I say we are the ones who set their internal clocks and I question how necessary that is.

I'm not suggesting that anyone who feeds two or three meals start feeding them to their horses at random times of the day. I am suggesting that if we respect the true nature of the horse by having something available to go through that digestive tract at all times, then they won't really care whether that arrives at 6: AM or 10: AM. We do know that grain is not the best food for horses and many of us avoid feeding it. With the invention of the slow feeder hay nets or boxes, we can make a flake of hay last much longer than if we throw it on the ground and in my experience, the horses are much less desperate when I show up with the next meal. They don't behave differently if I show up an hour early or an hour late from any random time I choose to do my chores. That's a 2 hour window rather than a 15 minute one. More than that and I think the tummies have been empty long enough that they are impatient.

The reasons we have times to feed is for human need.  We need to get a shower and get to work or the employees show up at a certain time and need to get the feeding and mucking done so that the riding and training can begin. When we are consistent for our human needs, then yes, the internal clocks of the animals, who are under our complete control as to when and what they eat, get set as well.

In my corner of the world, many people, including myself, turn horses out at night during the summer which is when the heat and bugs are least bothersome. During the winter, we turn them out during the day when it's warmer and they are snug in their barns at night when it's bitterly cold outside. Every Spring and Fall, there is The Switch. When does one change the turnout schedule? Labor Day? Talk about a random date! First frost? Also random and not necessarily indicative of what the next several weeks' weather will be. 

If left to their own devices, this schedule would be much more gradual. I do believe horses in this climate like to be locked in away from the wind at night in winter and I also believe they like being in their stalls where it's cooler and less buggy during the summer days. However, I like to let them choose as much as possible. If I have someone arriving for a lesson, I make sure the horses are in and have had their breakfasts before then. But on days like today, when my schedule doesn't require their cooperation, I watch to see what they choose. On hot, muggy days, they come up to the barn earlier, tails switching and feet stomping in the run-in until I let them in. On cooler, breezy, late summer days, they come up for a drink, but then go back out to graze some more. The "grain" they get is simply a forage supplement but they do get this each morning. Yet the opportunity to move and graze, come and go, seems more compelling than getting in their stalls for this artificial meal. If they truly had an internal clock which either their bodies or their minds needed, then wouldn't they be waiting for this routine at the same time each day?

Many times we are simply cueing our animals to expect to be fed or turned out. Because of chubbiness, I bring the two smaller ponies into a dirt paddock at dark, rather than leaving them out on grass all night with the others. Everyone gets turned out together at about 4: PM. When I go out as it begins to get dark (which happens just a tiny bit earlier each night), those two ponies come up to the barn. This isn't 100% consistent but any time it happens, it does surprise me. They are coming off grass, to be put on dirt with a flake of last year's 1st cut hay. I think the reinforcement is different for each. Kizzy gets her grazing muzzle taken off and she must find eating hay without a muzzle preferable to fighting for grass with one.  She's usually the first one to appear. Rumer likes Kizzy and likes to be with her, so when she sees Kizzy come up, or sees me move her to the other paddock, she comes running as well. So in that instance, I think we have a cue (my arrival at the barn and Kizzy's arrival at the barn) which predicts a behavior (their arrival at the barn) and then reinforcers (hay/no muzzle and companionship). 

Likewise, I think that given freedom to choose when to eat and when to rest, environmental cues are a lot more causative than "routine". Therefore, I make a point to be inconsistent so that my horses don't fret if something changes. I make sure there is sufficient forage for digestive health, that they have free access to water and shelter, and then I do chores when it's convenient for me, or when it's convenient for them.

As always, I'd love to hear what others think about this. 


Lottie Eriksson said...

I think you are spot on. The woman from whom I bought my horse, and at whose barn I boarded for many years, used to say basically the same thing. Her experience was that if you keep a rigid schedule for meals, like the ten minute window you mention, you get horses that become frantic if the person feeding happens to be a little late. Hers was a barn where the boarders did part of the chores, and we had roughly a two hour time frame (interesting correspondence there to what you're saying!) for turning out, feeding and bringing into the barn. The horses certainly seemed okay with that.

Bookends Farm said...

Thanks for weighing in Lottie. Interesting that we both ended up with 2 hours…I wonder if that's a person thing as well or if that's what turned out to be what horses told us without us consciously realizing it? :)

Terry Golson said...

I think that if the horses have a firm routine that a change is noted and it is upsetting to them. Or - they take it upon themselves to do it themselves. I had a mare who would let herself out of her stall, open up her buddy's stall, lead him out to their pasture and then holler because she couldn't figure that gate out. She only did this if we were late for her turnout time. But, I think you can train a horse to welcome variety in his schedule. If transitioning from a strict regimen, it needs to be done in an incremental way and with positive associations, just like anything else. I think that's a good thing, as it creates an animal who is more flexible and open to new things (which makes the horse safer to handle.)

Laurie H. said...

I read somewhere, years ago so I've forgotten where (EQUUS magazine?), that a study of wild horses showed that their "routine" varied by a window of two hours. There was a time to graze, a time to drink, a time to nap, etc. But the actual time they did each of these things could vary by as much as two hours.

Ever since then, for 13 years now that I have my own place, I've been deliberately casual about feeding times.

I've also had a slow hay feeder for most of that time and count on it to keep their tummies full enough that if I have to skip the grain meal, they won't get sick. And I did have to do that one day when I was REALLY late for work!

Horses are trickle feeders and when their stomachs are three-quarters full, their stomachs empty automatically.

But if the stomach is empty for more than about three to four hours, that can lead to excess acid in there for too long. I try not to let that happen.

Being casual about feeding times makes shifting at the time changes much easier on everyone.

Unknown said...

Zoe (19 yo TB) and the mini donkeys have a 4 hour window (from 0530-0930) that I do chores in the morning. This is when Zoe gets her grain, and she is never waiting at the barn, unless the bugs are bad. She stays in the pasture to graze until she hears me at the barn. They have a 3 hour window from 8-11 at night. They all have 24-7 access to water, shelter and food during the summer. In the winter, it's harder to provide hay all the time, so I do try to feed more frequently, but its at very random times depending on whether I'm home, or my husband is feeding around his schedule. Sometimes I'll work an 18 hour shift, and feed at 1 am, just so I can get 8 hours of sleep before feeding again! They look at me funny (hey! shut the light off!) but are otherwise unphased. I think I get away with this schedule (or lack their of) because they are never locked up, and always have what they need to be content, so when I pop out to say hi doesn't bother them...any more than randomly showing up with a carrot at a boarding barn would change a routine. Zoe is a horse that I would have said "needed routines", but for her, I think it's more about familiar people, and familiar order of events, not necessarily occurring at the same time.