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Website last updated June 2013 by Catherine Bell

Empty Cages

"Empty Cages" is the title of a book about animal rights by Tom Regan. He provides a persuasive argument why we should all adopt more "extremist" views towards animals. I suspect that most who read it would feel challenged and perhaps ready to change some of the decisions we make regarding our exploitation of animals.

But this is not an article about animal rights. Instead I want to talk to you about the cat.

Regan begins his book with a description of a video, filmed in a restaurant in China (the more sensitive amongst you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph - it does not make for pleasant reading). As in some Western restaurants where patrons are able to choose a lobster out of the tank, in this restaurant patrons were able to inspect rows of tiny, cramped cages containing cats and dogs. Once the selection had been made, the chef used long metal tongs to grab a fluffy white cat from her cage. She was hit with an iron bar a few times, submerged in scalding water, skinned alive and thrown into the cooking pot where she finally drowned. The diners enjoyed their meal, offered praise and thanks to the chef and continued as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

This is a pretty gruesome story and Regan goes on to discuss what it would take for us to feel happier about the process. How about if the cages were larger so that the animals were less cramped - would this make it acceptable? Errrrrm, no. How about if, as well as living in a larger cage, the cat was handled gently and given a drug to end her life peacefully? It's better but I think most of us would still find this distasteful.

Regan discusses various other options and compares what has taken place with levels of welfare adhered to by the major animal-user industries (he shows that, in many ways, the animals caught up in the various Western animal industries actually come off worse - this story is not an indictment of the Asian customs of eating dogs and cats). But I shall just skip to the final variation, which is the only way in which he would feel happy with the situation. The television crew arrive to find an extremely angry chef - all the cages stand empty and the cats and dogs have escaped (with Regan's help!). Empty cages, not larger cages - that is what we find acceptable.

I want to use the concept of Empty Cages to help us think more about how we treat our horses. I am not talking literally, about whether or not we use stables, but more generally as a metaphor for any given situation. Let us set our standards high and reduce the level of compromise that horses have to make all day every day. Let us aim for empty cages, not larger cages.

For example, some people use electric cattle-prods on horses who won't move forwards. I hope you'll agree that that's a pretty unpleasant thing to do, regardless of whether "it works". I would agree with those who instead use a pressure halter - it is indeed an improvement. But I would also consider this the equivalent of just making the cage slightly larger. We want empty cages, not larger cages. There are more positive ways of teaching a horse to move forwards. Similarly, some people choose to use spurs and/or a whip when riding their "lazy" horse. They argue that it is better than repetitive kicking and I would agree. But again, I think this is just a way of making the cage larger. There are other ways to ride your horse - why is the horse unmotivated and what can we do to change that?

How often do we hear the following responses regarding a horse or his behaviour?

That's just his way of going...
He's always done that...
He's always had bad feet...
I've tried everything...
He copes fine by himself / stabled 24/7 / whatever...
It doesn't hurt him...
He's not scared he's just naughty / stubborn / taking the mickey...
Positive reinforcement is all very well but some horses need to be reprimanded...

These are yet more examples of how we frequently fail to maximise our horses' welfare. We often wait for things to go badly wrong before looking for solutions. But there are many horses out there who are just coping. Is this enough? We need to examine and improve the status quo - not just big problems. And we need to consider the status quo of each individual horse, not some generalised average.

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These improvements won't be made instantly. There are many situations in which it is unlikely that we can jump from tiny cages to empty cages all in one go. We are constrained by money, family, peer-pressure, livery yard rules. I have no objection to larger cages - they are better than tiny cages - provided we keep on pushing the boundaries and keep those cages growing. But it is also important to bear in mind that we can make many improvements without them taking more time and money - for example, we can just become more aware of our body language and the effects it has on our horses; we can change our attitudes.

What possible reason have we for not adopting such an "extremist" approach? In "The Road Less Travelled" M. Scott Peck defines love in terms of making ourselves uncomfortable. I love my horse and will do what it takes to allow him to be happy - that has involved (and still involves) a number of of difficult decisions in which I have felt very uncomfortable. Ben Hart's philosophy of "putting the horse first" is not easy. But if, as we all claim, we love our horses then this is what we must do. Let us aim high.

Empty cages, not larger cages.....

Copyright Catherine Bell 2006