Dangerous Domestication

To many people, the horse is a symbol of beauty, grace and strength. Horses have been used throughout history not only as essential tools in daily life, but as mascots for the rich and powerful. Nonetheless, no one could have foreseen the effects this domestication could have on the species. Because of the unregulated over-breeding of domestic horses, their feral cousins now outrank them in intelligence and brain mass, physical and mental durability, and lifespan; human interference is at the very heart of the problem.

Though similar in size, stature, shape, and beauty, the wild horse is intensely different from the common domestic horse. Wild horses are entirely self-sufficient, while a domestic horse counts on his owner to provide feed, shelter, protection, and companionship and play. The wild horses that were domesticated so long ago were not made to deal with the confinement of human civilization. Humans essentially threw these horses into a different habitat; a habitat that their bodies have had trouble keeping up with. The majority of this species has gone from large and open lands to small confined spaces, from herds of hundreds of their relatives to a solitary life, from roughage that keeps their digestive systems strong, to harsh diets that cause deadly illnesses.

The horse has become a very delicate animal since its domestication by humans. Humans, it seems, have done more harm than good to this animal. However, with these negative factors, there are also some advantages to domestication. Domestic horses are naturally more trusting towards humans and can make emotional connections more easily than their wild counterparts. A study was done testing feral wolves against domestic dogs in both intelligence and human relationships. While the dogs showed an aptitude for human companionship, the wolves were able to beat them in every test of intelligence. Horses showed similar results. This trait, combined with speeds unreachable to wild horses, are extremely valuable to the competition horse and have been bred into them and do not come naturally. Meanwhile, the strength of their brains and bodies are being depleted.

Human domestication is also resulting in severe loss of brain mass. Recent studies have proven this kind of decrease in almost all domesticated animals, including horses. Scientists use a combination of aptitude, human relationship, and other tests to determine intelligence and encephalization, the determination of brain mass relative to body size, in the tested animals. The dramatic decrease is due mainly to one thing: smart animals are hard to take care of. It is generally more important for breeders that their stallions can run fast or if they have dapples in their coats than if they can learn to push a specific button to receive food. It's easier to take care of a handsome dog that is no smarter than a box of rocks than one who can find their way over a six-foot fence. Likewise, it is better for a horse to be able to cross a finish line first than to live a long and healthy life.

Wild horses, extremely intelligent but unbelievably stubborn, are stigmatized for the effort it takes to tame and train one. While they are beautiful and have the potential to excel in any sport, or simply as a pleasure horse, few people have the talent and patience to take care of and train feral horses. This is why many of the horses who have been rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management spend the rest of their lives in Federal Wild Horse and Burro holding pens.

As a horse’s brain mass has diminished with domestication, their physical attributes such as bone structure and resistance to disease and illness has dwindled as well. Breakdowns, or injuries that occur during a race, have reached a catastrophic high in recent years. Thoroughbreds are built and bred to run short distances very fast. Humans have not bred their equine companions to last many years. As with many animals, these horses are bred for their performance in competitions and not for their genetic fortitude. Similarly, domestic horses are more susceptible to simple but deadly illnesses such as colic, simply a severe intestinal pain in horses, and laminitis, inflammation of the soft tissue within the hoof, commonly known as founder. These two diseases are the leading cause of death in domestic horses, and rare among their feral counterparts. Both of them are largely caused by humans; they are most commonly the result of overfeeding rich foods such as alfalfa and molasses-enriched grains.

Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis, or HYPP, is a genetic disease found only in domestic Appaloosa, Paint, and Quarter horses, all direct descendants of one stallion. Changes in a HYPP positive horse’s diet can result in muscle contractions similar to Tourette’s syndrome in humans. These spasms can be harmful or even deadly to the horse or the person riding them. Wild horses, if they were to possess this disease, or any genetic disease, would not pass it on to their offspring because of natural selection. With unregulated domestic breeding systems, humans have taken away this useful ability from the horse population.

Horses were not meant to live the way breeders, trainers, and horse owners in general force them to live. It is not uncommon to see a horse in a twelve-by-twelve foot stall with a wall or a row of steel bars between him and physical contact with another horse. Behavioral problems in domestic horses are usually associated herd-separation, claustrophobia, or a combination of the two. Horses suffering from these factors can often develop disorders that affect both them and their human owner. Many use aggression as self-defense, a coping mechanism, or as a tactic to connect with humans through either dominance or play. Horses will bite, strike, or kick at humans thinking it to be as harmless as it is when enacted towards other humans. Though the horse usually means this aggression as play, representing a feeling of companionship and trust, many people discourage it using the same kind of behavior. This only makes the horse resentful and resort to attacking out of the need to self-preserve, or turning it into a dangerous game. Rather than encourage the horse to express himself naturally, humans suppress these actions because of their own fear. This only causes distrust and further behavior problems.

Some of these behavioral problems become very self-destructive. Horses may mutilate themselves if they become depressed, or, in less extreme cases, they may become anorexic. When a horse does not want to eat, it can be as simple as a warning sign of illness. More commonly, though, it is because of depression due to prolonged confinement, herd-separation, abuse, or a number of other man-made ailments. Anorexia, the medical diagnosis for a lack or loss of appetite for food, is not normally a term that would be associated with a horse or animals in general, but it is more common than one would expect. Herd dynamics, sudden change in location, even the weather can stop a horse from eating. Equine anorexia can lead to many other illnesses on top of malnutrition if it is not handled carefully, a job that is left to the human to manage.

Another destructive behavior is called weaving. It is commonly seen in horses that have been confined for days at a time by their owners, such as studs and performance horses, though it can manifest in any horse. It is very basically a when a horse rocks from side to side on their front hooves, and comes from lack of exercise, social contact, and mostly claustrophobia. One horse, Ricochet, of the ReHorse Rescue Ranch, began weaving as pacification in his previous home, where he was kept as a stallion and rarely handled beyond being led to and from the breeding barn. Through much care and attention, his weaving has lessened, but it is having long term effects on his body. His hind legs are weakening from the chronic stress, and all four of his hooves are growing abnormally. These deformities, if untreated, would prevent him from being trained and used even as a pleasure horse, and they are all from being left in a stall for days on end.

While the domestic lifespan of a horse is usually fifteen to twenty-five years, feral horses can outlive them by nearly twenty years on average. In the wild, horses die when they become a burden to the herd. They are left behind to fend for themselves before they can get the rest of the herd killed. Holistic Hoof-care Specialist, Cheryl McNamee Sutor, reported that, “new research has shown that [wild] horses not only live longer than our domesticated horses, but that they are not plagued by the deadly illnesses and diseases that destroy our domestic horses, especially [laminitis] and colic”, the top two causes of death in horses. Many of the reasons why horses die so young is due to an unnatural diet, lack of regular exercise, and all-around destructive treatment by owners and trainers. It is an anomaly for a domestic horse to live into their late twenties, while it is commonplace in the wild herds of western America, caused by the subjugation of the horses by humans.

Through domestication, humans have created a frail, tenuous shadow of what horses once were. It should be their responsibility to advocate the reformation of these majestic creatures to their previous state. It is unfair to let simple human nature of wanting to cut corners and do things the easy way get in the way of preserving a once powerful animal. It is essential that horse owners, trainers, and breeders pay attention to the impact that they have on the domestic population and make a tangible effort to return them to their former dignity and splendor that their wild counterparts still possess. It is time for humans to atone for the damage that they have caused to the domesticated horses inhabiting barns all over the world.

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