Have you ever been told that your horse is a pig in his stall? Have you — please tell me it’s not true — ever said it yourself, about your own horse or anyone else’s?
If so, you should know that it may be common as far as insults to equines go, but it’s totally inaccurate.
You see, pigs are actually very clean animals — some of the cleanest on the planet, based on their behavior. Although they like to wallow in the mud, it’s only because it keeps them cool, since pigs can’t sweat. So, along with encouraging people to stop referring to horses as pigs in their stalls, I’m going to encourage people to stop talking about “sweating like a pig.”
Perhaps one of the reasons that pigs are so averse to manuring in their homes is because they have excellent senses of smell. That’s what makes them such good truffle harvesters. And those famous noses are pretty close to the ground, no matter what breed of pig it is. Just as horse’s noses are when they eat or sleep lying down in their stalls.
Interestingly, both pigs and horses share a vomeronasal organ (VNO) — an additional chemosensory organ absent in humans. If you’ve seen a horse exhibiting the flehmen response, you’ve watched a horse bringing scent into his VNO. We have no idea how well either pigs or horses smell compared to the way we smell, but based on anatomy, they seem to have an advantage.
Horses’ stalls are their houses and their havens, just as much as ours are. In order to understand how they might feel in their stalls, we should try living in a small closet. That should be fine, right? As long as we’re in there alone all night and there’s another closet nearby, and there’s a hole we can peek out of?
This is what we do to horses, and then feel justified in deciding that some of them — perhaps the independent thinkers who know it will make no difference, ultimately, how they defecate if they can’t get away from the smell — should politely place their manure around the edges of the boxes we confine them in with what we consider adequate bedding (the so-called adequate bedding that has gotten even skimpier since those so-called comfortable, hard rubber mats became so popular).
There are certainly environments for horses that are more conducive to tidy behavior. There are those who keep their horses in a field with a run-in…in the specially constructed environment Jaime Jackson recommends in his book Paddock Paradise…in an oversized stall as Karen Hayes suggests in her book The Perfect Stall…or, as on my own farm, in a stall deeply bedded with peat moss and straw.
Admittedly, some may think those alternatives are over the deep end…that horses aren’t safe out 24/7 in a field…that Jaime Jackson has lost his mind when he suggests that we tape record sounds of coyotes howling so that horses can feel more at home, even if everything else makes them more comfortable…that Karen Hayes’ 17′ x 20′ stalls are prohibitively expensive and her idea of doing stalls every day with a rototiller is certifiable…and that I should be prohibited from using something as environmentally irresponsible as peat.
And while these are all valid points of view, Jaime, Karen and I all share the idea that horses will behave in a more natural fashion and in a way that’s more pleasant for them as well as for us, if we house them in a way that they’re happier.
What did we all find out, each in our own way? That horses will choose to keep a neat environment and manure away from their eating and sleeping areas, if given the choice.
I have two horses on my farm who were both the victims of the as-we-now-know inaccurate “pig” epithet. One was remarkably unconcerned with where he manured when he arrived, either in his stall or in turnout. Even in a large paddock, he’d simply poop where he ate, and then stand in it. In his stall, he did the same. I hoped that in a new environment, this horse would change his habits. But month after month, it was the same.
One day, I decided to talk to him. I said, “Why don’t you try pooping over there?” and pointed to the deeply banked, fluffy straw that encircled his stall. The next morning, voila! — three piles of poop, nestled in baskets of straw. It took another year for this horse to learn how to bury his manure under straw. Now, he still poops where he stands, but he layers it — moving the straw aside so he can poop in the peat, putting down a layer of straw on top, and repeating the process until there’s a layer cake of poop and straw, and he can rest comfortably on top of it without staining his coat or having to smell what he’s eliminated (the magic of peat moss, in addition to its absorbency). He also finally decided that it makes sense to poop away from the hay in his paddock.
The other horse just arrived. He was a stallion for five years, and he can munch through a bale of hay as fast as a heavy drinker can go through a quart of Jack Daniels. We’re talking a lot of poop, so I can somewhat understand why he got the porcine reputation he did. Nevertheless, after his first night in a freshly bedded stall, the door opened in the morning to bright straw and no visible poop. Each and every pile was buried, and the stall appeared pristine.
Sometimes it’s hard to think like a horse, but when we manage it, we find out that some of the problems we think our horses have they don’t, in fact, have at all. We just haven’t put ourselves in their shoes.
Which just goes to show you that before you point a finger at someone else’s (including a horse’s) bad behavior, it behooves you to examine what you may have done to create the problem in the first place.
And that’s why I think calling a horse a pig just because he doesn’t feel like pretending that it matters where he manures, when it doesn’t matter to the people who care for him to make his home more comfortable, but only how it inconveniences them, is kind of unfair. To horses as well as to pigs.