“Free the horses!”
This is one of many taglines I’ve heard directed at carriage drivers on the job. If the conjecture wasn’t so fleeting, I would ask them: What does it mean to be freed? What would that mean for their well-being and quality of life as domesticated animals?
Our ideas of what horses lives should be is romanticized—frolicking in infinite green terrain without any human obligations. To some, horses deserve to be wild, or something close to it, like mustangs in Wyoming’s outback. In my first post, I wrote about our modern disconnect with animals and their domesticated history. Virtually every pigeon and horse you see today is the product of human domestication. The traits we breed make animals highly adaptable to our own varied environments and increases their dependence on us.
Wild vs. feral
If you saw a golden retriever walking down the street, you’d never think they’d be better off “set free.” They are completely dependent on us for their well-being, both mentally and physically. When people aren’t familiar with equines, they don’t realize that “setting them free” is an equivalent demand.
It’s important to make a distinction between animals that are wild and feral. Feral animals are domesticated by humans but left without human interaction. They are the “wild” mustangs you see in Western movies, and the pigeons you see in city squares. They are subject to predators, unreliable food supplies, and lack of routine care (for example, horses require regular trims to keep their hooves, and subsequently their bodies, healthy). Feral Mongolian horse populations are depleted during harsh winters, making their lifespans on average much shorter than owned horses, which can live up to 30 years or more.
Wild animals have never been bred by humans, and are completely adapted to life without them. There is only one truly wild horse that exists in the world today; the Przewalski’s horse, native to central Asia. They were considered extinct by the mid-20th century. A successful Dutch breeding program gathered remaining horses from zoos around the world in the 1970s and reintroduced them to a national park in central Mongolia.
When you consider the difference between wild and domesticated animals, it’s clear that the latter thrive better with human interaction and regular physical activity, just like your golden retriever.
Why horses shouldn’t necessarily be left to roam
Some activists still believe there is a better alternative to working animals, whether that means horses pulling carriages or Border Collies herding cattle. They believe they should receive the care a domesticated animal requires, but be retired to a “sanctuary” where they can roam at will 24/7.
Domesticated horses are bred for specific human purposes. They’re bred to pull heavy loads at slow paces. They’re bred as endurance animals that trek through deserts with minimal water consumption. They’re bred as athletes to race, jump, or display intricate movements. Without fulfilling these bred traits, they get bored, gain weight, and their overall physical and mental health declines.
It’s a struggle to surely define freedom in any context. The idea of animal freedom is more complicated than achieving what is closest to wildness. When it comes to domesticated animals, the best we can offer them is freedom to fulfill inherent roles we are responsible for giving them in the first place.