Is there significance to defecation when training horses in an enclosed area, i.e. Is it nerviness or release?
Let me say right at the outset that I discuss this phenomenon quite often as I do my demonstrations. If I have written an answer to this question, I can’t remember having done so. But before I answer the question, there is a significant amount of mind organizing that I feel compelled to do. First of all let me state that I have no idea why you use ‘enclosed area’ as a parameter to this behavior. Without any question this is a natural physiological phenomenon brought about by a psychological trigger. This phenomenon dates back millions of years before there was any enclosure of any kind and has nothing to do with fences, walls or any man-made structure.
In addition, I outline two options as to why this phenomenon might take place: you use the terms nerviness or release which limits me to a conclusion that is not the answer to why defecation takes place in times of fear, stress or uncertainty. Remember that horses are neophobic. Anything new or viewed with uncertainty causes certain physiological activity brought about by a psychologically induced state of concern. These circumstances occur because of environmental concerns regardless of the horse’s vocation.
The fact is that evidence suggests that this phenomenon occurred on the open plains of North Africa millions of years before there were humanoid creatures residing on this planet. When the horse is subjected to sight, sound, smell or tactile fears, circumstances occur within their physiology whereby certain fluids are secreted directly into the intestinal tract. There is an immediate loosening of the bowels often causing uncontrollable defecation. It has been estimated that a stressful circumstance may easily release 10-20 pounds of fecal material in a very few minutes.
In years past Pat and I spent many hours sitting in the sales pavilion of the world’s highest level of Thoroughbreds at auction. Each sales ring had a staff member with a scoop and a tub to pick up droppings from about 98% of every young Thoroughbred that passed through the ring. We got to know some of those fellows who had this job. I remember so well Joe at Keeneland who had been the official pooper-scooper for 40 years before retirement. I remember asking him how many horses went through that ring without clearing their bowels. He told me that it averaged probably one per day and a day at Keeneland would see almost 400 pass through the pavilion.
Now just remember that these youngsters had been taken from their stable about 45 minutes before entering the ring. They would move to an area where they would be visually examined by hundreds of prospective buyers while standing still with approx. 12 other youngsters forming two lines. These horses were asked to move forward about 50 feet at the conclusion of a sale forward of their travel within the pavilion. About 15 minutes before their pavilion entry they were asked to enter the pavilion. Their first experience within the building was to walk in a large circle about 80 feet in diameter.
Prospective buyers swarm through the central portion watching their action at the walk. Several hundred surround the circle peering from behind a four foot wall. As the time for their sale draws closer each individual is asked to stand in a hallway while serious buyers and veterinarians execute a close examination. Finally, our horse is asked to walk through a very large sliding door into a theater type pavilion with a 1000 or so viewers and an auctioneer rattling English words through a public address system sounding like a machine gun.
Just imagine what the brain of this youngster is going through. Stop to think that during this process requiring nearly an hour complete, our subject took about 45 minutes to clear the bowels before entering the sales ring. Having thought this through one might ask how in the world could there be anything left for Joe. The fact is virtually all of them have something left. The reason they do is the body keeps producing these laxative fluids that are designed to clear the bowels.
One might ask why Mother Nature set up this procedure. Remember that survival of the fittest is a critical goal of Mother Nature for every species on earth. Also remember that horses were designed to graze on open grassy areas where they could see several hundred yards in every direction. One should also be mindful of the fact that the slowest individual was generally the one taken by invading predators that selected their herd as a food source.
Those of us who have been involved in horse racing will understand that it has been concluded that every pound added to a race horses back reduces their performance by 1-2 horse lengths in a mile. Racing officials globally ponder over 1, 2 or 3 differences in the handicap process whereby they attempt to get equality for betting purposes. If 1, 2 or 3 pounds can make a difference in the race outcome, then recognize the difference it would make for a horse to empty out 10-20 pounds of fecal material as they flee the charging predator.
As horses evolved, evidence suggests that the faster ones lived to reproduce while the slower ones were generally harvested before reproducing slow horses. While it’s true that we have been interrupting Mother Nature for 6000 years, earlier patterns are still in place. It seems that this particular phenomenon was well established for millions of years before we began to genetically manipulate Equus for our own desires. I am pleased to have the opportunity to complete this exercise. I should have written about this characteristic many years ago.
It is interesting to note that I have paid close attention to the frequency of defecation as I bring horses to the round pen for their first saddle and rider. Regardless of their mental appearance, if they defecate with unusual frequency I tend to regard them as hyper nervous individuals. This alters slightly my approach. I will require less and push less hard on those that repeatedly defecate. I have found this to be an effective way to deal with these individuals.
Certain individuals extremely sensitive to the perceived rights of animals in general may well take the position that if its stressful we shouldn’t be doing any of these things with horses in the first place. That is certainly a separate issue but I feel strongly that that would be a major mistake. Stress is a part of every biological entity and properly attended to can provide a strength instead of a weakness. The flight animal inherently is looking for a friend.
The horse is a herd animal. They do much better physiologically if they can exist in a tranquil environment with trusted individuals as life partners. Trust is the definitive word and it is with that goal in mind that I discovered and quantified Join-Up in the first place. In order to bring about a trusting partnership a certain level of stress must be experienced in order to justify an outcome of trust. We must realize that horses are extremely flighty animals and in order to bring them to a level of trust with the human they must pass through portals on their journey that can be stressful to a degree.
With my concepts in place I state categorically that there is no need for pain or violence to be any part of that process. If only I could convince the world to eliminate violence it would answer many of the difficult questions we are facing with what we consider to be remedial horses when in actual fact they are only doing what Mother Nature dictates. To eliminate all stress would abolish man’s interaction with horses and that would surely spell the demise of Equus the specie.