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PETA says urban horse stable Halifax Lancers lacks ethics

The saddest part about this article might be that it hasn't been written until now.

The Halifax Lancers has been a horse riding school next to downtown Halifax for close to a century. Its website describes it as "the only urban non-profit riding school in Canada."

If you have spent considerable amounts of time in the countryside, you may be used to seeing horse pastures that span the lengths of entire fields.

Arabian Lane, Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia

But perhaps more importantly, you've seen the horses with their heads down, looking for grass to graze on. It is not a luxury, it is a part of their evolutionary biology.

"They're grazers preferentially. Their digestive systems adapted for that kind of behaviour and food. They're used to grazing for up to 70% of their day," said Catherine Schuppli, a professor of animal welfare at the University of British Columbia.

Arabian Lane, Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia

And thus, if you have ever walked past the Halifax Lancers and felt that something is just not right, your moral impulses appear to be true.

"The image of the horse on the big pasture is more akin to what the horse definitely would prefer to be doing. There are things like colic and gastric ulcers that are very common in captive horses. Their digestive tract doesn't cope well with short little meals of grain," Schuppli said.

Canada's National Farm Animal Care Council has equine treatment guidelines. Even though they haven't been updated in almost a decade, they explicitly mention the importance of grazing.

The organization defines a pasture as "a large, fenced-in area where horses are kept loose and can graze." And they recommend horses be "eating an average of 12 hours per day and never voluntarily fasting for more than 3-4 hours." Sadly the Lancers can be often seen trying to graze, only to discover more dirt.

With grass grazing being such a central part of horse behaviour, one must wonder why the Halifax Lancers maintain an exclusively dirt pasture which sometimes has a small patch of hay. According to Schuppli, dirt pastures come from the sport of riding.

"If they're competing, even if it's just amateur, they don't want them running around in an area where they're going to get injured," she said.

The fact that the horses do not have daily access to a large grassy pasture may indicate that they see the horses as merely a means to their personal sport-related ends. Especially considering a muddy pasture is warned about in the NFACC guidelines.

"In muddy conditions, horses must, at a minimum, have access to a mud-free, well-drained area in the pasture/yard on which to stand and lie down," the document says.

At what point does the question become inevitable - why aren't the Halifax Lancers simply in a rural setting in which the horses have vast space to roam and graze on grass as the experts say they should?

Instead, 27 horses are crammed in an urban environment in which they are only outside 2-4 hours per day. During those hours, they are subjected to something no horse enjoys - loud noises.

"Avoid sudden actions or noises that may startle or frighten horses. Horses have sensitive hearing," the NFAAC document says.

But that doesn't stop the stable from existing directly behind the roars of a soccer stadium, directly beside roads driven on by loud vehicles, or directly behind Citadel Hill with its infamous noon cannon fire.

According to Schuppli, the problem is not that they do not care about the horses. Instead, it is their lack of attention toward research on animal ethics.

"What they're lacking is an understanding from the animal's perspective. If they really care for their animals, then they should be doing more things, especially when they're in an environment that has a lot of shortcomings. It's not unique to them, but that doesn't excuse anyone in that situation," Schuppli said.

Any concern about the Halifax Lancers using other animals as a means to their own ends could be justified by how little animal welfare is mentioned on their website. One of their frequently asked questions is how the horses fare living in the city.

If they are willing to continuously transport the horses back and forth between the countryside for "vacations," why not simply keep the horses in the countryside?

One thing that is mentioned often on their website is how good the horses are for human mental health. "Studies have shown that even passively spending time next to a horse has emotional and physiological benefits such as bringing down the human's heart rate," says their latest news release.

After a life mostly spent in depressing stalls and jumping over obstacles with apes on their back, the horses retire to the countryside.

Needless to say, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are not impressed with the Halifax Lancers. But PETA says the organization could be redeemed if they make an effort to move away from Halifax to a better-suited location for horses.

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