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Big open spaces

By Kim Dimevski, SA Horse Trails

Growing up learning about horses in the typical stable yard environment can give one a fairly limited education. Within these fixed confines we often only know what is taught to us by our instructors, and especially when young we tend to hang onto every word they say. We know what they tell us and because of their position of authority we assume their way is the right way, and that everyone out there is doing the same thing. I was in exactly this position until I took over a little farm with a herd of horses to manage, and learnt about some different perspectives.

Initial reaction

Initially I was totally stunned at how these horses were living out in the open. It wasn’t what I had been taught horses should do, so I assumed it must be wrong. These horses stood out whatever the weather, got soaked in the rain, had no blankets, no hay nets and had long fluffy coats.

At first I thought this whole practise was cruel, but as I had taken over an existing herd and they had survived until now, I decided to spend some time acquainting myself with this way of living. I committed to watching them and spending as much time as I could with the herd, to observe their behaviour and make my own decision as to whether changes were necessary. The thing that stood out every single time I went and spent time with the herd was just how happy the horses were. They had each other, played in a herd, groomed one another and simply didn’t seem stressed in any way whatsoever. It was at this point that I started to come to the realisation that everything that I had learnt and believed for the last 30 years, did not necessarily represent the only option available, and was not, infact, how I wanted to care for my own horses any more.

I had to take a hard look at my horse management views and ask myself some difficult questions. Although we provide our horse with a ‘safe’ stable, calorie dense meals and top notch health care, we do it all according to human standards and needs rather than equine needs. We seem to forget that horses are innately programmed to behave in a certain way for optimal health. Ignoring all of that and attributing them with human emotions and needs compromises their health. When we mess with the way they are engineered to behave in nature, we mess with their ability to stay healthy.

I’m certainly not going to tell you that the wild horse is healthier than your horse, because it’s not. A horse in the wild has a life span half that of our horses. Injuries that we can treat easily with veterinary care can mean the death of a horse in the wild. All I would like to say is that there are things that we can learn from the life of horses in the wild that can help us to improve the lives of our own domesticated horses. It would not be sensible or fair to our domesticated horses to suddenly throw them out into the wilderness and expect them to survive. Instead we must just provide care for our horses according to the principles inherent in the innate behaviour of horses, rather than the principles governing human behaviours. Horses kept in ways that match their natural instincts and wiring are healthier and happier horses.

Below I am going to outline a few of the benefits of living out for horses, or at least spending more time outdoors, to highlight how wild horses benefit from this scenario.

1)  They need to move!

For a wild horse, movement is the only means of survival. A wild horse will cover kilometres every single day foraging for food. Because of this, the equine digestive tract has adapted to require constant grazing of small amounts throughout the day. On top of this, the physical movement of the horse helps the movement of the food through the digestive tract.

Another benefit of a wild horse’s mobile existence across different terrains is the effect on the hooves. Wild and feral horses keep their own hooves trimmed naturally, and these hooves are generally found to be flexible, shock-absorbing and have great blood circulation within the hoof capsule. Even domesticated horses that live out of stables tend to have far better hoof quality than stabled horses, because of the increased movement leading to the better blood supply and growth. Stabled horses hooves are also affected by both the bacteria living in faeces, and the urine which can corrode the hoof structures and encourage thrush and bacterial growth. I am not saying that every single horse should be barefoot, but it should be noted that the benefits of living out on various terrains are phenomenal for the barefoot horse. However, those will shoes will also benefit from the increased movement.

Instead common practice today dictates that we lock our horses alone in stables and put shoes on their feet to compensate for the poor hoof quality. A lot of the issues we see in stabled horses would be improved if not resolved by allowing horses to move as much as they need to. Horses do not like being caged up. Being stabled is not something that they enjoy and often horses that appear happy in a stable are just habituated to this lifestyle. Horses kept in stables for long periods of time often develop vices, ulcers and become stressed and frustrated by the forced lack of movement.

If you do not have sufficient grazing for your horse to be out all day place their hay in smaller piles, a distance away from each other, to ensure that they walk around continuously. This can be done in any size of paddock and will at least encourage your horse to move more than he normally does. It isn’t a perfect solution but helps to encourage that all important movement.

Note: A major concern many owners have about horses living out is the cold temperatures. The cold does not worry horses if they have a good thick coat. They feel the cold much less than we do (unless they are clipped) and feel the heat much more. Many horses suffer all winter in a thick rug and even sweat at night. Horses in the wild move to keep warm, rather than minimising movement in a big thick rug to prevent over heating. Over heating in horses can cause serious health risks. When you rug a horse, his hairs are forced to lie flat. The movement of the hair of the horse helps with temperature regulation so when the coat is forced to lie flat, the horse is unable to regulate his own temperature. However the uncovered parts of the body will still get cold so the horse tries to warm these, but in fact ends up also making the rugged area even hotter and sweats. Our horses have a highly efficient thermoregulatory system from living out all year round. Through their skin they gain information about their environment but for this to work properly they need to have constant access to that environment, which is why horses are much healthier living out as much as possible. 

2)  They eat from the ground

Wild horses graze grasslands and pastures and most of their food is consumed in a head-down position. Because of this they take smaller mouthfuls of food and chew it more thoroughly. The food is completely mixed with the saliva, and this reduces the risk of choking and impaction colic. The grazing position during eating allows for correct anatomical positioning of the structures of the mouth and throat and muscles of the jaw and oesophagus to help in swallowing of the food and its passage to the stomach. It keeps food from being aspirated into the respiratory tract, and prevents dust in the feed from being breathed in through the nostrils. When horses eat from the ground they actually chew more and food is better prepared for breakdown in the digestive tract. When digesting well-chewed food better nutrient absorption takes place so the horse receives all the benefits of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from the food they are ingesting. Instead we have been taught to hang our buckets of food up or put them into mangers to avoid dirt and manure contamination. We also hang our hay in hay nets to keep the hay off the shavings. In worrying about our own feelings about eating from the floor, we are instead compromising the health of our horses.

Note: Over grooming of domesticated horses creates issues. When we groom we take away the skin’s natural oils and therefore the skin’s defences. Horses living out don’t look as clean as domesticated horses, not because of lack of care, but because of a realisation of the importance of the oils for skin and general horse health.

3)  They eat a forage based diet

In the wild, the horse forages and travels large distances each day in order to obtain adequate nutrition. They consume a small amount in one patch of grazing, walk to the next patch and consume a bit more there. The horse’s digestive system needs small quantities of food throughout the day. This is because of their small stomach size and very long small intestine. The stomach also continously produces acid in the horse, so if the stomach does not constantly contain some food the unbuffered stomach acid can result in ulcers. Food moves into the intestine very quickly after the horse eats so the horse feels hungry again pretty quickly, which makes sure that the stomach does not sit empty for long, if at all.

Instead, we have been taught that we must feed according to a schedule, and that our horses must receive meals of grain. These meals are typically too large, and the horse struggles to digest them and is also at an increased risk of colic. We don’t prioritse the hay and instead spend all of our money on fancy concentrates, which are often full of sugar and starch. Over the last twenty plus years equine research has shown again and again that a horse is healthiest with a forage based diet. Good forage is obviously vital for this, as is an adequate supply.

4)  Horses live in herds for companionship and protection

Horses are highly sociable herd animals that prefer to live in groups. They are also prey animals, which means that they prefer the group lifestyle as it also offers safety and security. In the wild being solitary for a horse means danger, loneliness and almost certainly death. Horses in the wild are generally never found alone unless for some reason they have been rejected from their herd. Being alone is thus a terrifying situation for a horse. Some horses in domesticated environments do appear to cope if they can see but not touch other horses but the point is that by denying your horse company with another equine, you deny your horse’s basic needs, like mutual grooming, play and companionship. It is also important that your horse’s companion is a horse that they get on with, as a horse can be just as unhappy in the company of another horse that bullies him as he can being kept on his own. This is especially important for older horses and special consideration must be given to them.

We are mostly taught that we should keep our horses separately, or at least that is the practice at most yards. We tend to separate them for their ‘safety’ and for our convenience. No doubt it’s expensive when horses get hurt and we’ve all known the frustration of a horse that doesn’t want to be caught and leave his buddies. However, a horse in a stable who cannot commune with other horses often suffers stress, and becomes anxious, flighty and hard to manage. Others develop ulcers and negative behaviours such as weaving and cribbing. Interestingly, these behaviours are never seen in the wild horse.

“I have seen many owners experiencing, in some cases, extreme behaviour problems with their horses, which have been the direct result of them being kept on their own.”

NOTE: Being kept in a confined stable, especially if it is not well ventilated can lead to horses developing coughs and small airway inflammation. This is especially the case if the hay or shavings in the stable are dusty.  

5)  They communicate with each other

Horses communicate through a variety of mechanisms including vocalisation such as nickering, squealing or whinnying; touch such as mutual grooming and nuzzling; smell; and through body language. Because of their fight-or-flight instincts wild horses use body language as the predominant means of communication. A herd of wild horses use a wide variety of mechanisms including ear position, neck and head height, movement, foot stomping and tail swishing to communicate with each other.

Discipline is maintained in the herd first through body language and gestures, and then, if needed, through physical contact such as biting, kicking, nudging, or other means of forcing a misbehaving herd member to move. Watching the hierarchy of a herd is just incredible. Putting a youngster into a herd is the best and most natural way to teach him manners and behaviour.

Yet our past education dictates that we ignore the cues given to us by our horses and dominate them into having a relationship with us. Good training is not about confrontation and punishment – it’s about building a communication system that develops trust and respect. Horses have a complex communication system that with a bit of effort we can all come to understand. This would allow for our training methodologies to be far kinder and more in-keeping with the horse’s wants and needs.

Take home message

I know that we all try to do our best when it comes to horse care. However, we all have restraints due to time, finances or other demands that make us more prone to provide care that fits our needs and convenience and not that of our horses. However, if we look at wild horses and just incorporate some mechanisms to mimic their natural behaviours into our equine programs, we can help to reduce stress, injury and illness and truly have happy horses.

Please note that this article represents the author’s opinion and is not aimed at discrediting other equine lifestyle choices.