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Letter: Reading Equine Body Language

To the Editor:

I appreciate and agree enthusiastically with Elizabeth G. Abbott’s reminder that people caring for horses should remember, “Animals cannot speak. We need to learn and listen to their body language” (“Read the Body Language,” Forum, Feb. 21).

I do not, however, agree with her interpretation of the body language of the horse pictured in Jennifer Hauck’s photo published Feb. 14. I am the former chairwoman of the Equine Division of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. I have done extensive research on equine body language. I have also developed a limited ethogram (a photographic guide) to illustrate stress responses in domestic horses. The photographed horse chose to stand on the leeward side of a three-horse shelter. She could as easily have chosen at any time to go inside a shelter, where she would have full body coverage and the shared body warmth of her paddock mates — had they also chosen to enter the “run-in” shed.

The photographed horse appears to be in a relaxed sleeping pose. Yes — horses sleep standing up. Horses require less than one hour of sleep in a fully reclined position during any 24 period. This horse’s ears are not fully back as would be the ears of a horse who is threatened or responding aggressively. Rather, her ears are at “half-mast,” a relaxed position. Her eyes are semi-closed, her neck and head are lowered, and her lips and nostrils are relaxed, all signs when combined suggest that the horse is both comfortable and sleeping. Horses naturally grow woolly winter coats that provide excellent insulation from cold and snow.

Being outdoors 24 hours, seven days a week is the most natural and therefore healthiest way for our domestic horses to live, assuming they have adequate food (extra hay helps them maintain their body temperature), sufficient fresh water, access to dry shelter and protection from wind in the most severe weather conditions. Those of us who blanket our horses do so primarily to salve our own doubts about horses’ natural abilities to withstand bad weather. I liken it to the humorous definition of a sweater — “what the child puts on when the mother is cold.”

Barbara Handelman