We’re all aiming to keep our horses as naturally as possible, but is that really the best thing for them?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of keeping horses naturally. My horses are turned out 24/7, I use herbs where possible, avoid drugs unless absolutely necessary, we’re as organic as possible, they’re shoeless, I have bitless bridles and treeless saddles (well – and a bitted bridle and treed saddle but that’s another story for another time)
None of that is actually natural though…
Firstly, lets get over the idea that natural means healthy. Let’s stop thinking that natural means good, or best or safe or whatever it is. It doesn’t mean any of those things.
- Thrush is natural
- Come to think of it laminitis is natural too…
- A heavy worm burden is natural
- Infections are natural
- Getting fat in summer and starving through winter is natural
- Death and disease are natural
I’m not sure I want any of those things for my horses.
Nature is beautiful – but man can she be mean!
She is going to kill you at some point and if she had her way she’d feed you to something else…
In the wild horses generally live for about 10 years. That means that naturally 2 of my 3 and 3 of their herd of 4 would be dead. The only 1 young enough to still be alive is a TB. There’s nothing remotely natural about a TB. It’s an entirely manufactured breed.
What I’m saying is – there is no natural environment for any of my horses as naturally they’d be dead or never born.
You could argue that Arabs are a natural breed, but we all know the breed lines have been manipulated by mans whims. If we were counting them as natural – they’re natural in the middle east; a nice warm dry desert environment. Knee deep in mud with rain coming down isn’t quite the same thing…
The truth is, we can’t keep horses naturally.
Even the New Forest, Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies are interfered with to a point and even if they weren’t – have you been to the sales and seen the state of them!
I suspect that most proponents of keeping horses naturally would be upset and utter words like neglect and maybe even abuse, when presented with horses who truly live the most ‘natural’ lifestyle available in this country.
I absolutely believe that living in harmony with nature is important, and I’d love for the western world to adopt a more holistic approach to living; to look at diet before medicating symptoms away; to not rely on drugs to function in every day life…
However, I believe it’s really important to understand what the natural environment of the horse is and use that to their advantage (both physically and emotionally). I’m not trying to knock natural horse keeping at all. I’m saying we should understand its benefits and limitations and use that to increase the health and well-being of our horses.
Nature is about survival.
That means staying alive and passing on your genes. Bearing I mind that few of us allow our horses to pass on their genes, that just leaves staying alive.
I want far more for my horses than for them to just avoid death, that’s a pretty low bar to set! Obviously I want them to survive, but more than that, I want them to thrive!
Nature doesn’t much care if you thrive. It’s survival at any cost. Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy. It doesn’t much care if you’re healthy, as long as you’re alive.
It doesn’t care if you’re cold wet and miserable, or in pain, or injured – just as long as you avoid dying (and hopefully breed).
And when you no longer avoid death, that’s ok too because you can feed some other animal and aid their survival instead.
If we want to thrive, rather than just survive, then we’re going to need to game the system a little. I’m ok with that – we’re all doing it, whether you know it or not.
To game the system really well, you have to really know how the system works. That’s where all this study of what’s natural comes in. And we need to be honest with ourselves about what natural really is.
For the most part, we want our horses to do very unnatural things. Not just riding, dressage, jumping, driving, even groundwork – we know that’s not natural, but many of the things you think of as natural really aren’t…
They’re going to need a little unnatural support if they’re to live an unnatural life. Feed and hay are an unnatural support. No matter how natural your feed and hay are – your horse simply would never have access to it naturally.
Fields aren’t natural. If they’re in a field, the fences are keeping them in there, and naturally they might have chosen a different location. One where there’s less wind, or different grass types or whatever (they’d know better than me).
If that means you need to use the unnatural support of rugs, restricted grazing, additional water sources, additional feed stuffs, or any manner of things to help deal with the mud – then go ahead.
The vast majority of our soil has been farmed and interfered with by mans design at some point, so that’s not natural. You may need supplements to artificially support your nutritionally depleted (or over fertilized – ie polluted) soil and the unnatural grass it produces.
- Lets not even talk about air quality and polluted rain…
- Or eating and drinking out of plastics that upset the hormone balance of your body…
- Or the packaging processes for the food we buy…
With the best will in the world, we’re keeping breeds that wouldn’t exist, in locations that have been messed with, breathing polluted air, drinking polluted water, feeding polluted feed stuffs… you get the idea…
There’s plenty you can do to reduce these issues as much as possible – and that’s where looking to nature comes in. But being realistic about what’s actually going on can make the decisions about what to do far easier.
I speak to people who feel guilty for using a rug as it’s not natural. Well – nope, it isn’t… but neither is the rest of the environment you’ve got, so maybe that addition of an unnatural support is what’s needed to create the balance to the environment that the horse needs to thrive rather than survive.
I speak to people who don’t want to give supplements as horses wouldn’t have access to them in the wild, or worry about a feed that isn’t a natural food source. In the case of feeding the animal products I’d be inclined to agree, as they lack the ability to process such things. In the case of a plant based item from a foreign country, I’d be inclined to go ahead and give the supplement (assuming it was needed of course!)
These days horses are living many times their natural life span. When their environment was very artificial, that didn’t happen. When their environment was completely natural that didn’t happen.
This suggests the sweet spot, is where you find most balance points… somewhere in the middle. So don’t go shying away from something just because it’s unnatural. Ask yourself this, is it going to be damaging? Or is it an aid to help compensate for the already unnatural environment.
And don’t feel guilty about it either way because it’s almost certain that both options are unnatural. Just figure out which is healthy and which is damaging…