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…

I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below

The Healthy Horse: Feeding and Nutrition

We Are What We Eat

It's easy to see why diet is so important. The body is always regenerating, it needs good nutrition to be able to build healthy cells. Nutrition is such a confusing subject though!

There's so much advice, and so many different choices, how are you ever supposed to figure out what's right for your horse?

About the author

Debs is a practicing Equine Podiatrist with over 15 years experience, author, and educator.

She’s here to show you how to simplify your horse’s management painlessly so you feel in control and have a straightforward system that works for you.

When she’s not working you can find her playing with her own horses, watching geeky sci-fi or baking epic cakes.

  • We can just do the best we can, given what we’ve got and if our horses are happy and healthy then we’re clearly doing something right?

  • What a great read ….. and I completely agree with every point you make. I love the way you express yourself.

  • I totally agree with All you say……..once an animal is domesticated we have a responsibility to ensure its individual needs are met to keep it healthy , emotionally and physically.

  • A good article – we get married to fixed ideas far too quickly. As the owner of both semi-feral ponies and domesticated horses I would say that the ‘out’ ponies probably have the more fulfilling life – even with small herds in the field, my in-horses don’t get to socialise in the same way as my Forest ponies or browse such a varied range of grasses and fibre, taking advantage of natural cover when needed. Nevertheless it isn’t the be all and end all – what with the crab flies, masses of acorns, the tough winters, and that ‘natural’ predator, the damn car(!!!). At the moment I am supplementing mine especially as one is lactating and their haunt, judging by my tracker, takes in two other feeding stations. With a bit of help, and not being run down by a vehicle, ‘wild’ New Forest ponies seem to live well into their twenties even if they have a foal every other year which seems to be about the norm. They’ve generally got good feet too.

    • I know the forest ponies well, it’s where I grew up. There’s very few true ‘wild’ horses now, and even if the horses were wild, the environment they lived in wouldn’t be. Sadly us humans have had an effect on the predator population too. As you say, the main predator to the NF pony is the car (or the human behind the wheel).

      You must have some really interesting data from your tracker…

  • I really agree with you in every way. Common sense and treating horses in accordance with their individual needs – which can differ widely from one horse to the other – mostly works best rather then set rules about when to rug or what to feed. It obviously helps if we know our animals well and are thus able to see what does them good and what makes them happy. Only few things are written in stone when it comes to keeping horses and sometimes we just need to be able to step back a little and have a hearty laugh about some of the foolish things we get entangled in. I certainly did this at some points of your article. Thank you.

  • I am sooooo thankful to read this! I have stated the same for years! It covers not only horse care but also other species as in, dogs are fine to live outside, its ‘natural’, they have evolved to survive! Well no! They haven’t! Show me a Neolithic jack Russel and I’ ll eat my hat! We have interfered to such a degree in selective breeding in all animal spheres that very little is natural any more. Yes to rugs, yes to stabling at times and yes to care and consideration for our animal dependants!!!

  • Thank you reading this makes sense.. I rug my horse to keep her warm at 26 if left she would suffer. Don’t like rugs. Yes none of what we do is real nature. But because we lobe our horses we do our best.

  • I adopted a mustang in the Reno NV area a bit over twenty years ago. The foundation stallion for that herd was a registered Thoroughbred who escaped and “went native”. Here in LA where I live currently they just removed a herd from a local military base that was entirely composed of dumped domestic horses. It had been thriving for decades, the horses were auctioned and many went to slaughter because they were a “nuisance”. I think you need to research wild horses a bit further. Provided they are not shot, “harvested”, or run off their grazing they do just fine. As for natural.. there is 100% Mutual of Omaha natural .. and there are the atrocities committed in the majority of barns, especially “show” barns, across the country. Typical “normal” horsekeeping is abuse.. it is locking these animals up in prison cells, destroying their bodies and minds, and artificially manipulating every aspect of their lives to fit the needs of the human. I’ll give you the fact that any horsekeeping is unnatural at a fundamental level.. but please let’s not give people an excuse for failing to provide even the most basic aspects of a natural and respectful life for the animal. Access to forage 24/7, eating in a natural position, a lack of metal nailed to their feet, cooperation without pain as a tool for compulsion, etc.. these are basic rights.. not negotiable depending on their convenience. It’s such a slippery slope.. blanketing for legitimate warmth in an old horse kept in a harsh environment.. or because you think they might be cold.. or because you don’t like they way they look wooly? I have a friend who raises paints in North Dakota where it gets to be -30 at times and their entire stock is out in pastures all winter.. and they do better than fine, they raise healthy hardy horses that are in high demand. As for the comment above regarding shoes.. no horse needs shoes. We have the technology today to make them obsolete.

  • well i for one is inspired to write a post here abute using feelings as a langues, wich is (talking abute whats natualy or not) one of the good naturaly things that is betwing horses, and also a ability that most humans (also knowen as hubisabiens) seem to have forgoten. most humans is offended if compared to an animal, becouse we humans see ourself better then them, just becouse we are more inteligent… or is it actuely the animals who’s more inteligent then us? i mean they find to survive with what they have, instead of creating machines and build houses. sure they are nice to have for us humans, becouse we want more then just survive. we want to live good and most prefered for most people (wealthy). so weil the wild sure can be cruel, we still need to be wery, does we exploit the wild. what abute our facturary’s? what abute our car’s? even our houses? coming smoke up from the top? or even with those houses having radiators to warm the house up for our compfort? sure its good to feel well and stay healthy. but we must keep in mind what damage we does to the nature in order to do so, and we must not end up having horses do the same, but instead learn from THEM…. oderwise they end up like the indians. they lived in tents, had happy but sometimes short life, but still a good healthy life. we puttet them in houses and took there land’s. now they are much like us. exploiting the lands, instead we learned to live like them…

    but oh well, back to horses…. many see the thing if they fx kick after one anoder like (oh, they are being dominant and punish the oder horse into it’s place and in it’s rank!) where of they miss how fare the horse kicking already on beforehand had been present with feelings that would indicate ‘im not okay with what your doing now, please stop it imiteritly’ and the horse kicked after failed to notice that or desrespected the kicking horses request to stop, and simpel just maked it clear once and for all, ‘ENOUG i said’ and those kick’s actuely often dont actuely hit’s so it’s harmfull, even thoug it can seem pretty roug. and it has nothing to do abute ranks or leadership or anything…. so stupid blind some people can be hehehe, its abselut redecules and something to laug of sometimes… 😛

    • absolutely! We’re all limited by out perception. What one person sees as a horse being aggressive someone else sees as a simple communication. Some people think it’s cruel not to rug, others that it’s cruel to rug.

  • I so agree. ‘Natural’ is a grossly overused and misunderstood concept. I don’t want to live in a cave, neither do I want to live in a city apartment. My horses love to roam around ‘as natural’ on the hills of Portugal (where we live), but they also like to have extra hay on cold nights and a human to wait on them hand and foot 😉 Best of both worlds.

  • A very interesting blog Debs Crosoer’s blog. In it you make a comment about the ‘state’ of Exmoor ponies here, “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 feel this needs to be addressed, certainly with regard to the free-living Exmoor ponies of Exmoor National Park.
    I can’t comment on how Exmoor ponies are kept in other geographical areas or when they are not kept in the free-living herds of Exmoor. Or on Dartmoor or New Forest ponies, other than to say that much work is being done to improve breeding practices and management in both those breeds too, with some excellent results.
    Yes, Exmoor National Park offers tough and challenging terrain, where the free-living herds (all owned) live and breed. There are various ways of managing them. Each herd runs in a designated area of moorland, sometimes owned by the herd owner, sometimes a common area where the owner has grazing rights, sometimes a rented area of moorland, etc. Some herd owners put mares out on their designated grazing area all year round, others have them out there for part of the year. Some moorland enclosures are actually no bigger than a large farm field, and some are vast, spanning thousands of acres. The moorland enclosures also vary great with regards to the type of terrain offered to the ponies. For example, ponies running on the 5,500 acres of the Dunkery Commons have access to areas of open moorland, forests, steep wooded river valleys, etc. On the 3,000 acres of Brendon Common and adjacent areas, the ponies exist in some of the wildest and most challenging terrain that Exmoor can offer. Other herds run in relatively small enclosures of only 100 acres.

    Let’s take the wilder herds. These ponies really do live by ‘survival of the fittest’. They are not given supplementary feeding as part of their management. They are generally gathered in only once a year in the autumn (possible twice in some cases) and may or may not be given a worming treatment. They never have their teeth or feet done. Those with problems die out. Sometimes, groups of mares may be run in ground onto the farm to be covered by a stallion and put back out on the moor again. Other times, the stallion may run out on the moor for all or part of the year. Variation in breeding practices helps to ensure that bloodlines are preserved but over-breeding is avoided where possible. The free-living mares receive no birthing assistance. Those that have problems die, as do their foals.
    The ponies that survive and thrive out on the moor are therefore robust and retain their essential hardiness and True Moorland Type. ‘Wild’ native ponies are an important part of our bio-diversity and it is through living and breeding (largely independently of man) in their natural, indigenous environment, that enables them to retain their learned and genetic characteristics and behaviours. This includes their high intelligence and all important ‘Wildness Factor’. They are precious and we highly value their self-sufficiency. They are also very beautiful, with looks undoubtedly shaped by Nature.

    Some Exmoor ponies are managed as ‘stock’ and not ‘pets’ with older mares culled and replaced by younger fillies. They may well be in their prime when culled. Other herds allow mares to run for a full life span and they can reach their thirties. Stallions can also be treated as stock so if a wild stallion has no further role, he is culled. At other times, a stallion may run in various moorland areas into his late twenties. Only recently, one was PTS at 18 years old because his condition had become poor. Certainly to live into healthy old age a pony would need good teeth and feet and be able to deal with the worm burden. The farmers will PTS ponies in poor condition or distress and maintain a healthy herd. Good moorland stock management is essential.
    Native ponies have evolved to get fat in the summer and thinner in the winter and whether we like this or not, it is how they are built to live. Interfering with that by starving in the summer and feeding hard feeds in the winter to maintain a consistent ‘shape’ is fraught with dangers, as is clipping and rugging and shoeing.

    So what do the free-living Exmoor ponies look like? What is their ‘state’ as Debs Crosoer describes it.

    Please see this video of the largest free-living herd of Exmoor ponies in the world, the Tippbarlake herd, which gives an indication of their terrain and lifestyle and how they may be gathered in to the home farm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehK_V8FQT9Q
    And for pictures of Moorland Exmoor ponies living wild and free on Exmoor, take a look at our http://www.facebook.com/MoorlandExmoorPonyBreedersGroup page. (You’re welcome to ‘like’ it too as we are very keen to promote awareness of Exmoor ponies on Exmoor).

    On Exmoor, the MEPBG members (which comprises various of us Exmoor farmers and landowners) are extremely proud of the quality, condition, hardiness and lifestyle offered to the Exmoor ponies. We are even now working closely with the government, academia and the Exmoor National Park Authority to map the whole genome of the Exmoor pony and safeguard purebred genetics outside of pedigree registration.

    So the ‘state’ of them, as Debs Crosoer put it? The state of them, all things considered is pretty darned good.

    As for living ‘naturally’ when they are brought off the moors – we put a huge amount of thought and effort here, at Holt Ball and the Moorland Exmoor Foal Project, into how to give the ponies as natural and sociable an environment as possible. This includes free access to interesting pasture areas, encouraging migration and play, providing decent barn and shelter and loafing areas – with a range of surfaces from grass, tracks, bark chips, aggregate, sand, dirt, concrete, chalk, etc – and company. The ponies love their mud wallow and stream area. They are barefoot and most of them don’t wear rugs – we have a few that are skin sensitive so they wear a fly sheet in the summer months. Also if a pony is ear-marked for showing or other activities where he or she must remain in tip-top physical appearance (avoiding mane-munching and nips, etc), they may need a protective fly sheet, but they are rugless for as much of the year as possible. We don’t trim Exmoors coats, manes or tails, and they grow the most incredible double-layered winter coat.

    They are fed a mostly forage diet of grass, hay and haylage – with free access to specially formulated mineral blocks and salt rocks allowing them to feed as naturally as possible. If supplementary feeding is necessary (orphaned foals, lactating mares, for example), we are careful what we give them. Good exercise, free movement, varied surfaces, a natural diet and natural living with good company tends to help them steer clear of horrors like laminitis but still allows them space and choices. We train and handle them using positive, trust-based methods and do much of our interactions at liberty and involving agility play and interactions – this replicates their natural environment of going under, over, through and around obstacles and objects. Please see http://www.wildponywhispering.co.uk and our facebook page http://www.facebook.com/wildponywhispering for pictures and info.

    My own feeling is that native ponies flourish and thrive with a carefully planned care and management programme that is as ‘natural’ as possible. Long hours in the stable and turnout in postage-stamp starvation paddocks are a disaster for their bodies and minds. Where I do agree with Sarah Morgan is that a ‘natural’ management system should be supplemented where and when necessary with whatever can benefit the ponies, when they are living with us off the moors.
    But please don’t knock the ‘state’ of our Exmoor ponies – they are some of the luckiest ponies in the world – and we have much to learn from them.

    We are always keen to find more good opportunities for the small number of Exmoor pony foals coming off the moors each year and the Exmoor pony is an endangered breed – so if you’d like one, please get in touch with us.

    • Hey Dawn, I’ve edited your past as you asked.

      Thank you for your post. Sorry you seem offended by my comment, I feel like you’ve back up my points very well though. I’m glad that so much is being done to help the native breeds.

      Essentially most people who care for domesticated horses don’t want their horse to die out when it has a problem. They want it to survive and more than that – to thrive. In this modern world this takes some intervention. Even the native herds require a little human intervention, not because the horses need it as such, but because we’ve interfered in the first place.

      When we want to ride horses, they will have different needs to what nature intended. A wild or feral pony doesn’t have the muscling to be a dressage horse or show jumper. That’s not meant as an insult. Just a statement of the obvious. (of course it could develop the muscle structure, but it only would with human intervention)

  • Would it be fair to say that a good start down the natural route would be to consider the fact that putting a horse in a confined box (stable) where it can walk only one step in each direction and nailing metal to its feet (because it needs it to complete the tasks we ask of it) and a metal bar in its mouth, etc is maybe not in the horses best interest? So maybe rather than being overly natural, try to be less unnatural as a start? and consider every action we take when we handle horses.

  • aye, agree with other people who mentioned the statistics here are a bit limited or outdated? Assuming horses evolved as semi-arid land animals, to study what is natural, we should look for feral populations living under the assumed conditions. I know that “feral” broodmare herds in my country live around 23-27 years. These are animals who are seldom if ever wormed, no hoofcare, no teeth care. The lucky ones are caught like wild cattle once a year to be vaccinated for tetanus and equine flu, and that’s it. They receive no supplements unless the area they are kept does not yield enough grazing in the winter, then they get some cheap grains or just corn.

    So, considering local statistics… I do bet on natural keeping yes! at least for our horses (they are mostly Lusitano, Arabs, or crosses of these 2. I know TBs and their crosses have a shorter lifespan, usually around 20).

  • Debs, this is a very good article that I’d love to have. I’ll send you my e-mail address via IM on Facebook, also with my address. Thanks so much for doing a wonderful job in this world! Informed is armed!

  • Very good article Debs! I wish more people would try for a holistic approach to not only their horses but for themselves as well! I’d love to use this article for my book as we discussed and will get back to you via e-mail soon, but I still would want one from your blog to explain something like….to shoe or not to shoe-that is my question! Not all horses need shoes I understand, however, when they need them, they should have a good Farrier which is something very hard for me to find in my area.
    I suppose I must be doing something right on my very small 1.5 acre “farm” as my horse and pony are very healthy and well rounded and I feed them some grain and all the good hay they need, fresh water always- we have sparse grass here. Many horse owners here worm every two months and I refuse to do this and usually worm once a year now, though hoof care is my main concern. But speaking about the hay I buy-it comes from one of the best growers around, yet is commercially fertilized, yikes! We try as we can and I can assure you that my horses are well, with some here living past the age of 40! These being the domestic ones. Our American Mustangs are really not ponies and are a combination of feral horses, yet with a heritage of the horses that came from Spain long ago. ( Some earlier Mustangs may even have had Godolphin Arabian blood in them. ) A lot of these are gorgeous and strong and do have a much longer lifespan than 10 years. How they survive I’ll never know. We have yearly roundups where people can adopt them and sometimes we have an over population of them so this “breed” is not sparse in number.

    I love your intelligent and informative writing and I am so glad I found your blog and wouldn’t had I not gone to FB to find farriers in England and then friended them. Whew, long-winded me, sorry! Keep up the great work!

  • What an intelligent article. You cannot replicate what is naturally provided. Do the best to keep your horses healthy and read them well, learn to understand their needs, they are all individuals. One size does not fit all.

  • Horsekeeping itself isn’t natural, if you want to follow the thing to its logical conclusion. However, we needn’t use that as carte blanche to just keep them any old way. I try to prioritise the things that the horse would probably value most – like living in a herd, 24 hour turnout with plenty of space to wander and graze. Unfortunately I can’t include the right to breed freely, which I’m sure they miss!

    I think it’s important that those of us who do study the ethology of horses keep highlighting the things that are most egregious to domestic horses, rather than nitpicking about supplements and rugs.

  • Love the article! Totally makes sense. Never thought about it that way before. Definitely helps lift the burden of guilt with some things and gives us a better perspective on others!

  • Mmmmm. A very interesting blog and also very true. We all like to do the bet for our horses but at the end of the day none of it is NATURAL as they wouldbe wild etc if that were the case.

    However, I believe or would like to believe that the majority of horse owners do what they can, within the limits that they find themselves (ie livery etc), to provide an environment for their horses where they will flourish and feel secure.

    • Totally Tracy, my point wasn’t so much that there’s no value in natural horse keeping. More that perhaps we shouldn’t feel guilty if we’re doing something that isn’t considered ‘natural’.

  • Thank god! An article that makes sense!!in the world we live in today it is very hard to do everything natural! Even riding a horse is not actually natural!

  • Nice article! But I can’t help but wonder about the lifespan of wild horses you mentioned. I’m very familiar with the Pryor Mountain wild horses here in the States.
    Their average lifespan is 21 years, with the oldest horse on the mountain at 28 years! Assuming of course she survived the winter.

    • Hey Bill. Well that’s good news! For the years I’ve been studying horses the number of 8-12 years has come up repeatedly, though I admit I’d be pushed to find my sources at this point. They’d include books and discussions with people on courses. I’m also well aware that there are very few wild horses left, and many ‘wild horse’ studies would be more accurately described as feral horses. I’m more than happy for horses to be living longer than I thought. Not to mention, most wild horses are ponies anyway 🙂 Bodes well for the life span of my lot doesn’t it!! I would imagine life span is also fairly dependent on the natural predators in the herds environment, which may well have changed for the better or worse for wild and feral horses today.

      The ‘wild horses’ I’m most familiar with would be the new forest ponies, who’s natural behaviour seems to be stealing tourists picnics and sticking their head through tea shop windows to see if they can’t snag a scone 🙂 (I’m only half joking there… I have seen them grazing too – honest.)

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