Sunday, April 14, 2013

What do horses really need?

Just like with everything else, as we evolved into the modern civilized age as humans, we seem to have lost our understanding of nature and what's natural for horses.  We think we are providing good care when we build them stables and box stalls, feed them processed foods high in protein and fats, vaccinate and deworm them several times a year, clean them and protect them from getting hurt.  Unfortunately, this type of horse care is built for the comfort of the human, not for a highly gregarious, nomadic and wild animal with a strong sense of survival.  Horses are one of the few mammals to have survived the Ice Age - they are highly adaptable and can fend very well for themselves in many environments.  They are very close to nature and although we have domesticated them, they are still basically wild at heart.  In every gentle horse lies a wild horse.  In every wild horse lies a gentle horse 

Horses are well adapted to living outdoors in all kinds of weather
Their bodies are built to move constantly, to forage for food all day and to sleep very little.  They have mechanisms to adapt their coat and skin to the weather, to ward off heat and cold, and feet that are incredibly suited to a mobile lifestyle and provide traction, feel and temperature control to their bodies.

Stalled horses develop mental and emotional issues that often turn into mental illness, identifiable by vice behavior.  Horses in nature don't weave, crib, kick at walls, bite without reason, grind their teeth or pop their lips.  These are signs of deep inner trouble in a horse, a sign that even though he is being fed and cleaned, mentally, his needs have not been met and he is suffering greatly.

Horses are herd animals
Before anything else, they need to be in a herd, to socialize, to play with other horses.  This is where they find safety, comfort and play, which are their three main priorities in life (yes indeed, water and food come fourth).  Their survival in nature depends on associating and moving with a herd, and as a prey animal, they know they can't stay isolated without risking death.  It is inhumane to keep a horse alone or isolated from others.  Of course, if living together, they will play, and sometimes it will be rough, but this is how they establish the herd hierarchy and select a leader.  Kicks and bites do not bother them - being isolated drives them crazy and causes them to eventually shut down, to become aggressive or to develop displaced behaviors.  This is often all they can do to cope with the stress of living in a cage.

Horses need to move constantly 
Horses are born fully functional, ready to walk, run, and graze.  Wild horses travel on average 20-30 miles a day over varied terrain to find food and water.  This keeps them healthy physically and mentally and exercises their muscles naturally. Their feet wear down as they travel and the constant blood flow to the hooves and legs keeps them sound and strong.  They only run if they sense danger or during short and intense play sessions, but as a rule, most of their time is spent walking with their heads down.  This is the natural position for the horse, head down foraging and stretching their backs.  They will eat small amounts continuously throughout the day, not 2 or 3 big meals a day, which puts a huge strain on their digestive track.  They often will drink a large amount once or twice a day, since water is far.  They like to drink in pools and ponds on the ground, not in automatic waterers perched high on the wall.  Given a choice, they will choose to drink out of a bucket or ground water, because this is how they are designed to absorb water most comfortably and efficiently.  When we keep them in confinement, we impede the proper development and maintenance of their muscles, bones and feet, not to mention their minds.  If we take them out for an intense and concentrated exercise session after they have been standing still for hours on end, we put a sudden and extensive strain on their tendons and ligaments and this is how lameness and injury develops.  

Horses should be kept outdoors in large enough spaces 
Ideally, a herd needs 10,000 acres to survive comfortably in nature.  Most of us cannot provide that much, but think of how little room a box stall or paddock offers compared to that!  Horses can find shelter from the elements in bushes and trees, and most horses will really only seek a shelter to get away from bugs or from very high winds.  Their coat adapts very well to protect them from the elements in winter and summer.  Horses that are kept outdoors 24/7 in a herd, with enough space to travel all day, without blankets, and fed naturally are the healthiest and happiest horses I have ever seen.  They do not have vices, they do not colic, their feet look great if they are barefoot and they are virtually immune to disease.

The barefoot horse 
I choose to keep my horses barefoot and I have never regretted making the transition.  Their feet are the best they have ever been, even my 20 year old Thoroughbred which used to have bad feet and stumble no matter how she was shod.  I ride on all kinds of terrain - I have ridden them on rough rocky trails, up and down high mountains, in sand, on hard packed ground, gravel, snow and ice and have found that they are most sure-footed barefoot.  This is because they can feel the ground underneath them, and a properly trimmed bare foot offers them lots of traction.  My horses have rock crushing feet without shoes.  Horse shoes numb the feet and impede the expansion and pumping action of the foot structures, which in turn causes all sorts of hoof diseases and conditions such as thrush, laminitis, abscesses, heel contraction (which leads to navicular disease), white line disease, to name a few.  Hooves are incredibly functional if kept in a natural state, and if trimmed correctly and regularly by someone who understands the natural hoof.  They are also self-cleaning.  I view barefoot trimming as an integral part of a holistic approach to natural horse care.  Pictured on the right is my Appendix Quarter Horse's foot.

Equine dentistry 
Because our horses rarely get to eat the way they would in nature, where they would chew on barks, mosses, hard weeds, plants, etc, and because they often only get fed soft foods and fine forage, their teeth will not wear evenly and need to be checked and floated regularly.  Horses' teeth will wear more evenly if they get fed on the ground because this is when their jaws are correctly aligned to chew.  Feeding them high in mangers or hay holders leads to uneven wear of their teeth, which produces more points and mouth ulcers; it also increases the risk of choking on food since both the esophagus and trachea are open when their head is higher.  Think about it this way - in nature, they eat off the ground.  When they need air to run, their head goes up in the air to maximize airflow to the lungs.  I recommend the use of a good equine dentist if you can find one in your area, since equine dentistry is a specialty in itself.  I would not trust my regular doctor with my teeth, why should we assume our vets know what they are doing!  Most vets receive only a cursory training on horse's teeth while in school, and learn to indiscriminately float everything without much attention to details.  Sometimes it is the best we can do, since equine dentistry is not something that is currently well understood in Quebec.  Having had the chance to meet some truly qualified equine dentists, I can vouch for the difference they can make in a horse's comfort and ability to move and perform (tooth and jaw pain affects every other part of the body).  

Have you considered a natural approach to horse management?  Share your thoughts and comments with us.

Geneviève Benoit offers seminars and workshops on natural horse management.  Contact us for more info and to set one up. 

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