Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against the “natural” movement, in fact, I’m quite the believer! I avoid the use of chemicals in my home, opting instead for natural products. I mix my own facial oils using essential oils. I absolutely believe in the benefit of herbal & natural remedies & I am a huge advocate of Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy, a remarkable treatment that harnesses the natural power of magnetic energy to assist the body in healing itself. However, the prevelance in the use of the term “natural” when it comes to horse care has given me a reason to pause for thought.
“Natural” feeding, “Natural” horsemanship, “Barefoot” hoof care & the list goes on. But is this really just another marketing gimmick? & is it necessarily good for the horse….. what a question to ask you may think, of course “natural” is better. Well, arsenic, botulism, e-coli & many more toxins I could mention…… all natural, but far from good….. So just because something has the word “natural” attached, does not necessarily make it good. Shock horror!!
The thing is, the minute we own a horse & place it in either a pasture or a stable, everything stops being “natural” & we have a responsibility to that horse to provide for every aspect of its needs, be it nutrition, shelter & even mental stimulation. Unfortunately, in our quest to do the right thing by our horse, we can at times be misguided & common sense can go out the door. Sometimes we may also do something for our own ego, because it makes us feel good, but may not necessarily be the right thing for our horse.
So, you have the joy (& privilege) of saying that you are a horse owner. You put your horse in a pasture & leave it be with little interference from you. No rugs, perhaps some hay from time to time (as long as it isn’t too cold for you to go out, besides, there’s grass for it to eat). You claim this is “natural” for the horse & therefore good. Well, quite simply, using the “natural” tag is an excuse to neglect your duty to your horse. Their nutritional needs are unlikely to be met, if they are on their own, their mental needs will not be met & it is unlikely any of their other needs for a healthy, happy life are being met either.
So, putting a horse in a pasture & leaving it to its own devices is far from natural. Horses evolved as grassland grazers, roaming over vast areas & being able to satisfy their nutritional needs by grazing on a wide variety of plant species. They could seek out shelter & living within a herd satisfied a number of survival needs as well as mental stimulation through play, mutual grooming etc. Covering huge distances over a variety of terrain for the most part would also take care of hooves. As soon as we restrict a horse within a certain boundary & start to place the demands of being ridden on it, there is no longer a natural environment & it is up to us to meet their needs. Some of these needs are what I want to discuss further in regards to “natural”.
Recently there was an article going around claiming that blanketing your horse was bad & in fact harmful! I recently read another blog that stated the “study” that this article referred to was bogus. I haven’t followed that up myself, but when I read the first article, I thought to myself “what a load of B.S.”. Common sense, practicalities & individual circumstances come in to play in the decision to blanket or not. If your horse is carrying good weight into winter, has access to shelter & is able to move about to keep warm, then perhaps all that is needed might be some extra hay. On the other hand, some horses may need blanketing, if shelter is lacking or if they are light in condition. If you are going to use multiple blankets, be sure that you are available to change them around if the need arises. I even go to the extent of checking the daily forecast to decide on what blankets my horse will wear that night & the next day. Horses do in fact die from cold in the wild!
Additionally, if your horse grows a heavy coat through winter but you ride to the point that they sweat reasonably heavily, then you have another welfare issue to consider. Will the horse dry off quickly & sufficiently so as not to get a chill. You can’t turn out a wet horse into the cold, even in an enclosed stall they will get cold! So then you may consider clipping, either a pattern clip or a full clip. If this is done, so as to allow you to continue to work your horse throughout winter & allow it to remain comfortable, then you will absolutely need to blanket.
The fact is, horses are individuals & you also need to do what is practical for you. The fat little Shetland pony is not going to need the same in terms of blanketing as the highly bred thoroughbred. Ponies are known to “run on the smell of an oily rag”. They tend to convert even poor quality feed into fat much more readily than the “hot” blood breeds. They also grow much courser & thicker winter coats & have a smaller body to keep warm. Of course individual circumstances must be considered. Older ponies & horses, or those convalescing from illness may need blanketing more than they otherwise would. Assess each horse as an individual & make a decision on what is best for that horse.
The barefoot argument…… now, I am no expert on barefoot trimming, but I know there are some adamant advocates for it. For me, I wonder what the difference is between a “barefoot trim” compared with a normal trim from an excellent, well credentialed & experienced farrier…… I currently have my mare barefoot….. in terms of being without shoes. She has never had shoes. I am not against them in the least, however my mare & the work she does simply doesn’t require them. Common sense. She has good feet & is worked 4-5 times a week on sand surfaces. If I was to do more road or trail riding, my preference would be to invest in boots for her, merely out of an economical decision. I would rather spend a couple of hundred dollars on boots that will last several years for the few times my girls hooves require the protection, as opposed to spending a hundred odd dollars on shoes every 6 weeks. I see some horses at my barn being regularly shod, however I am yet to see them even out of their stable! I simply don’t see the point in that. I do appreciate that some horses absolutely require shoes & I don’t think it is the business of anyone other than the owner to make that decision. Just use common sense.
Now, when it comes to feeding, yes, I am an absolute advocate of a more “natural” way of feeding. Horses evolved as grazers. Their diet absolutely must be based on roughage & suit their dietary requirements. Supplemental feeding depends on the life stage, workload, current conditions & a variety of other factors. The sheer number of products on the market can make working out a diet daunting, & you could be forgiven in thinking you should be feeding a whole host of supplements in order to have a healthy horse. This topic alone would fill volumes & I will endeavour to address this in another post at another time. What I would really stress, is the importance of taking the time to formulate a diet that meets both your horses needs & your own practicalities. Furthermore, I would suggest if you need assistance with this, seek out an independent nutritionist who can help you. This can be a valuable & indeed cost saving exercise. Don’t get caught in the trap of feeding this & that because it looks, smells or tastes good to you!
One other thing about feeding. Please reconsider providing feed in a raised feeder or hay rack. Horses are designed to eat from the ground. Their respiratory system is designed in such a way that the horse needs to lower its head in order for the natural mucolcilliary clearance to work effectively. Additionally, feeding from a hay rack has the effect of developing the muscles on the underside of the neck, which will have a negative impact on getting him to work correctly under saddle. This is one area you can absolutely provide a more “natural” aspect to your horse care. I’m not really sure why the practice of feeding up high even developed.
“Natural” Horsemanship. Now what is that really? As I see it, it is learning & understanding a horses natural behaviour, including instinct, body language & psychology, & applying it to communicate effectively with the horse in order to achieve desired training objectives. Great! But if you think about it, isn’t this what all the good trainers do? Isn’t this what training, regardless of discipline, is all about?
So when it comes to the “natural” tag, don’t allow yourself to be shamed into something because it is termed “natural”, & be very sure you aren’t using it as a defense to not making the effort to attend to your horses every need. Don’t just blindly follow what others tell you. Ask questions, always ask; Why? Does this make sense? Is there a better way? (there always is!) Do your own research & become informed. Don’t get caught up in the marketing hype.
Cheers for now & Happy riding!