While driving along the back roads and the main streets of Woolwich and Wellesley townships, one could be forgiven if they thought they had been transported back to the 19th century. Horse-drawn buggies and wagons are not merely here to attract tourists or provide picturesque photo ops for politicians, they are a reality and a way of life for the Old Order Mennonites who rely on them to get around every day.
As our ancestors did before us, these Mennonites continue to use horses to pull plows out in the fields, haul loads of fresh food to market, and to bring them and their families to church on Sunday.
Recently however, the public has begun to voice their concerns about the welfare of these horses, which they allege are forced to pull heavy loads in the extreme heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter, or are tied up for extended periods of time with limited or no access to food and water.
But despite these worries, most professionals who deal with horse care on a daily basis do not necessarily share the same concerns.
“Horses are meant to be working,” said Dr. Jamie Hobson of Eldale Veterinary Clinic in Elmira. “They have been domesticated and bred for working, whether it’s racing, whether it’s pulling plows, or whether they’re buggy horses or they’re endurance racing horses.
“To be honest, I’ve had more situations involving non-Mennonite horse owners.”
Many horse experts will agree with this notion that a horse is in fact a working animal, in particular Standardbreds and other heavy horses that are typically seen working the fields or pulling carts and buggies through town. They say that as long as the animal is adequately fed, watered and rested, the amount of work involved in pulling a cart or a wagon is not a burden.
Hobson said he has even been told that Mennonites will carry jugs of water with them in the back of the cart specifically so they can cool the horse down and give it a drink on hot days.
What’s more, there is a condition known as “Monday morning sickness,” also referred to as “tying up,” that afflicts some horses. If they aren’t worked enough they can develop into a potentially serious disorder in the muscles of their hind legs.
It occurs if horse owners feed their animals a full ration of grain seven days a week, but only work the horses for six days and let them rest on Sunday. Come Monday morning that extra energy built up in their legs can actually make them quite sore.
“When they hook up the horses and get them back in the field, they have all that energy stored up in there,” said Dr. Jeff Sommer of the Wellesley Veterinary Clinic, likening it to when humans go a few days without exercise then overdo it all at once.
“If you don’t do anything and then over-exert yourself, you’re pretty darned stiff and sore the next day.”
In terms of what horses can tolerate temperature-wise, they are very adaptive animals. As long as they are adequately fed and housed out of the wet, a horse with its full winter coat of hair can withstand temperatures that dip into the range of minus-20 or minus-30 degree Celsius.
Likewise, as long as the animals are given access to water and breaks from work, they can easily tolerate temperatures in the 30-degree range, and that’s because horses have actually evolved to be very good at working in the heat. Unlike many other mammals, they are capable of sweating through their skin, just as humans do, only their sweat is about ten-times more concentrated than ours.
When horses are working and sweating, this is actually a good thing because not only does that mean the horse is hydrated, but the wind passing over their body helps to cool the horse as the sweat is evaporated, pulling excess heat away from their body.
By far the most important mechanism for heat dissipation on a working horse is through the evaporation of their sweat.
Only about 25 per cent of the energy used in the horses working muscles is converted to muscle movement, with the other 75 per cent converted into waste heat.
It is when a horse actually stops running that problems can arise because that’s when that breeze moving over their bodies to cool them off stops. Trouble can also occur if horses are forced to exert themselves on days of high heat and high humidity, because the sweat cannot evaporate as readily from their bodies.
Likewise, when a horse starts to produce a soap-like foam on its body, referred to as “lathering up”, that is neither good nor bad, as it also indicates the horse is adequately hydrated and the foam – produced by a protein appropriately enough called latherin – helps regulate body temperatures.
It could also be a byproduct of the soap in the halter lathering up as it rubs against the warm body.
“Yeah I see them sweating it up a bit as they’re pulling a buggy, but do I ever see them in trouble on the side of the road? On occasion, but that’s not necessarily a heat stress thing,” said Sommer.
“Am I overly concerned? No. I think in a lot of cases you have people and that’s not the picture they have of a horse anymore, and they are quick to make a phone call or write a letter.”
The township and local veterinarians do not typically deal with calls regarding animal cruelty, and these calls are few and far between they say. Any calls they do receive are directed to Gary Boes, cruelty inspector for the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society.
He says he received 677 complaints for animal cruelty in 2010, and about 98 per cent of them were for cats and dogs alone. Farm-related calls likely make up about one-half of one per cent of the total, he said.
In other words, they’re not a big concern for the agency.
“I’ve been here with the Humane Society since 1993 and in all that time, have I ever dealt with a horse that’s just gone over on its side because of heat and it’s attached to a buggy? No. Because of the cold? No.”
Boes also acknowledged that the treatment of horses is always on a case-by-case basis as it is with virtually any animal owner, and agreed that it was conceivable for certain owners to treat their horses with neglect or even outright abuse. If he or any other animal care specialists suspect that mistreatment has occurred, they are required by law to report it.
He also says that Mennonite farmers are very open to education and information on how to treat their horses with better care, and he has worked extensively at the St. Jacobs Market in particular, including making the push to build barns to keep the horses out of the wind and sun.
“I make suggestions and they are open to education and to suggestions,” he said. “Has it made a difference? Certainly in my experience it has.”
At the end of the day, experts agree that horses are meant to be worked and that they want to work. Just like a dog will chew up shoes and get all wound up if it hasn’t been taken for a run or a walk in a few days, horses also develop little idiosyncrasies such as cribbing or kicking at their stall doors if they are cooped up inside for too long.
“Unfortunately we get into the situation where more and more people think a horse should be the more slightly overweight and shined up one in a paddock all by itself,” said Sommer, “and not necessarily the horse that is out with a harness on and pulling a plow.
“In today’s day and age and culture, that’s more the exception rather than the rule. Yes there probably are some cases where horses could use a little more to eat and a little more rest, but I wouldn’t say it’s widespread by any means.”