Natural Horse Keeping: An ounce of prevention…
In the modern world, we have a plethora of options when it comes to treating medical problems for both ourselves and our animals. All you have to do it take a stroll through the tack shop or feed store, you’ll find shelf upon shelf loaded with supplements, hoof dressings, salves, liniments, etc. According to the American Pet Products Association, pet owners spent $14.71 billion on supplies and over the counter medications and another $15.95 billion on vet care. That’s over $30 billion (yes, that’s billion with a B) on animal health. In short, we love our fur babies and are willing to pull out our wallet to try and keep them healthy and happy. Although I couldn’t find any stats on how much of that was preventative care vs. treatment, I have a feeling that, just like with human healthcare figures in the US, the majority of that money was spent on treatment for issues that were perfectly avoidable. Wouldn’t it be a wiser approach to prevent issues before they start and save your horse from any discomfort in the first place? Not to mention, you’d be able to spend your hard-earned money on that new saddle you’ve been eyeing rather than vet bills and liniment. This is where the concept of natural horse boarding comes in. By tweaking modern horse keeping practices, our horses can be healthier and happier and we can look stylish in our new Double J saddle (here’s the one I’m drooling over).
Principles of Natural Horse Keeping
Movement: One of the biggest issues with traditional horse keeping situations is a horse’s inability to have freedom of movement. In the wild, horses travel an average of 10-15 miles per day searching for food and water, playing, and moseying around. A horse that is stalled for hours per day (or night) does not have the opportunity to move the way nature intended. This can lead to behavioral issues as well as physical issues. Often in modern horse keeping situations, horses spend the majority of their time standing in a stall, are turned out for a couple of hours, ridden or worked for an hour, and then returned to their stall to stand around again. Allowing horses freedom of movement will improve emotional and mental health as well as body condition. Horses with joint and muscle stiffness in particular will benefit from movement and there have been a number of studies indicating that movement can significantly improve hoof health.
Body Position: Horses in the wild spend that majority of their day with their head down while they graze and forage. In traditional modern horse keeping, the opposite is true with hanging hay feeders and hay racks. As horses eat from the ground, they are able to minimize the dust and debris that enters the respiratory tract while eating. When feeding at chest height or higher, we inhibit the horse’s natural defenses that protect their respiratory tract.
Socialization: Horse’s are social animals and absolutely need companionship and the sense of security that a herd offers. Often in traditional horse keeping, horses are kept in box stalls and have limited contact with other horses. While they may be able to see other horses, the social and emotional benefits of herd life are completely missing. Aside from some occasional jockeying for position in the herd, horses leave peacefully and happily together and should not be forced to live alone.
Water: Of course, horses should have free access to clean drinking water, however, horses also benefit from being able to walk through and stand in water. This aids in overall hoof health and is a great way for horses to cool off in warm weather.
Grazing Pattern: Horses’ digestive systems are built to continually process food. When horses are given meals 2-3 times per day, an excess of bile can build up in the gut and cause ulcers. A U.C. Davis study suggests that 50-90% of domestic horses have gastric ulcers! Free choice hay and limited amount of grain (if any) can help to alleviate gut issues and reduce instances of ulcers.
Sleep and Rest: In the wild, horses sleep for short periods throughout the day and night. By stalling horses at night, we are assuming that horses fall into the same sleep patterns as we do and instead are subjecting our horses to hours of boredom. Also, horses in herd situations a member of the herd “stands guard” while others sleep adding a feeling of security that is not present when a horse is isolated.
Hoof Care: Mustangs have some of the most hardy and well trimmed hooves in the equine world. This is due to a combination of almost constant movement, variation in terrain, proper diet, and the fact that they are barefoot. When barefoot, a horse’s frog makes contact with the earth as he walks which helps move blood through the legs. When a horse is shod, we limit this circulation and no longer allow our horse’s hooves to function as nature intended.
Coat: Horses are especially well equipped to deal with variation in temperature and weather. If you have ever walked out to the barn on a cold morning, you may have noticed that your pony looks and feels especially fluffy. Horses fur will stand up in the cold and create a layer of insulation that will keep them cozy in the chilliest of temperatures. Their fur is also water resistant and horses can live quite comfortably in cold weather. Of course, humans like to interfere and often project out own feelings onto our animals. When we are cold, we assume that our horse needs to be layered up with jackets to stay warm. While they may look swanky, we have just removed mother nature’s insulation by flattening our horse’s fur and have potentially made our poor pony colder!
Nutrition: While some horses may need to increase caloric intake when in intense training, many horses would benefit from a limited serving of low-carb grain or even no grain at all. Free choice minerals and access to forage on trees and shrubs will help to mimic horses grazing in the wild and provide variety in your horse’s diet. When selecting hay for your horse, don’t waste money on high sugar content hays like alfalfa, but instead opt for a blend that includes grasses like timothy and orchard grass. This will allow your horse to eat a larger volume of hay to meet their need for “chew-time” while still being cost effective. A win-win for everyone!!
Which principle of natural horse keeping do you currently use with your horse? Which one would you like to work on? Share in the comments to be entered into a drawing to win a Hippie Horsekeeping T-Shirt!