For me, the very worst cruelty racehorses are made to suffer is confinement and isolation. Locking social, herd animals in tiny stalls – alone – for over 23 hours a day is heartrending beyond words. We know this, reflexively, instinctively, yet the apologists dismiss our feelings as imaginations run amok. The horses, they say, are just fine – well-fed and safe. This is why I always look to the experts: science professionals who can explain, with authority, what these poor animals are experiencing. Here is Dr. Kraig Kulikowski, prominent equine veterinarian, at a NYS Senate hearing:
And Dr. Nicholas Dodman, world-renowned animal behaviorist: “Racehorses, with long periods of confinement and isolation, exhibit an unusually high prevalence of stereotypies. The suffering can be described by referencing the suffering of people in solitary confinement. A recently released man who had spent years in solitary said he sometimes felt anxiety, paranoia, panic, hallucinations, etc. The only way he could help suppress the dysphoria was to walk back and forth in his cell until the line he walked was soaked in his sweat.”
Then there’s a recent ABC Science article on a new equine-confinement study. The full piece, “Horse immune system study suggests animals kept alone in stables are prone to stress,” is noteworthy, but here are my highlights – again, from experts:
Dr. Sonja Schmucker, one of the study’s authors: “The results of the present study…strongly indicate that social isolation is a chronic stressor. [A] resulting decrease in immunocompetence might increase disease susceptibility of the horses and thus impair their health and welfare.”
Dr. Paul McGreevy, veterinarian/ethologist, University of New England: “[Horses] lower their heart rates when they groom each other. So, if they can spend time close to each other and mutually groom, they thrive. We have always lazily considered that the dog is in his kennel, the pig is in his sty, the horse is in his stable….” Dr. McGreevy goes on to explain that horses become habituated to the cruelty: “The horse is its own worst enemy – it puts up with an awful lot. Just because horses stop reacting, and appear to oblige us, does not mean they’re having a great time.” His recipe for true horse welfare: “Forage, friends and freedom.”
Dr. Kirrilly Thompson, University of Newcastle: “It’s not just about friendship, but about how they regulate their emotions. If a horse is grazing and sees another horse tense or put its head up, then that horse will put its head up. They will all put their heads up and run off.” But a horse by himself in a stall is “kind of in a state of hyper vigilance, and that’s not good.” She concludes: “Individual stabling is stressful for horses. If we discovered the horse today…we would not keep them the way we currently keep them.” Amen.