Does it ever seem like the better you take care of your horse the more likely it will get sick?Does all the great nutrition, veterinary, dental and farrier care you provide always translate into a healthy horse?
If you are like most horse owners you have thrown your hands up and said, “Horses in the wild don’t get $10/bale hay and they are just fine!”
Domestication has been both a blessing and a curse to the horse. Although we do provide our horse safe stables, calorie dense meals and top notch health care, we do it according to human convenience and needs rather than equine needs. We tend to forget that horses are innately programed to behave a certain way for optimal health. When we go messing with the way they are engineered to behave it messes up their ability to stay healthy.
The horses in our care are the same animal that lives in the wild, genetically speaking. They are designed just like a wild horse to live in wide open spaces, eat small bits of grass forage around the clock, move up to 20 miles a day, go with bare feet and live in herds for safety and security.
Don’t worry, I’m 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 a domesticated horse. Injuries that we can treat easily with modern veterinary care can mean the death of a horse in the wild. For example, a wild horse rarely suffers from impaction colic, but when they do their chance of surviving it are slim. And the list goes on.
Because of this we could say a domesticated horse is “better off” than a wild one, however, there are things we can learn from wild horse behavior that can help us improve the health and happiness of our herds. In this article we will look at providing care to a horse according to the innate behavior of all horses, instead of according to our human needs.
In my experience there are FIVE behaviors of a wild horse that should be recognized in a horse management plan to achieve ultimate horse health; which to me means both mental and physical health. Each one of the five is natural or wild behavior and can easily be provided, or mimicked, by its human caretaker.
1) They Need to Move
In the wild horse transient behavior is a must for survival. A wild horse can cover 20 miles a day foraging for food. Because of this the equine digestive tract has adapted for constant grazing of small amounts all day. The physical movement of the horse actually helps the movement of the food through the digestive tract. For optimal health a horse should have an almost constant supply of food to keep their digestive system working properly.
This behavior in wild horses is also must to avoid predation. If they are under attack they flee. This is their first line of defense. Many of the horse’s natural behavior patterns, such as herd-formation, are directly related to their being a prey species. It’s the reason humans can train them.
Another benefit of a wild horse’s mobile existence across different terrains is the effect on the hooves. Their hooves are naturally trimmed, are flexible and have increased blood circulating within the hoof capsules.
So what do we do to the domesticated horse? We lock them up, separate them and put holes in their feet. When we confine a horse we eliminate this behavior of movement and all the benefits that come with it.
Riding an hour or two a week doesn’t do the trick, especially when we feed them energy dense feeds. It’s like humans, if you eat a lot of calories that one hour workout will help, but you need more if the other 23 hours of the day you are sitting or reclining.
Domesticated horses don’t move enough throughout the day to keep their feet naturally flexible and trimmed. I saw this first hand when my retired sedentary gelding was moved to a different farm without his long time buddy. He walked the fence line for hours a day. Within days his unshod feet became worn, just from the walking. Of course this was not a desired behavior and eventually he bonded with his new pasture mates, but the effect of the movement on his feet made a lasting impression on me.
What Can We Do To Mimic This Wild Horse Behavior?
- Set up a turn out that requires movement. There are many paddock systems like the Paddock Paradise System that are designed to encourage a horse to move in order to get fed and watered, much like wild horse behavior.
- Throw your hay in small piles all over the pasture instead of in a large pile or use multiple feeders so the horse has to move between food sources.
- Use slow feeding nets in various places, which not only requires movement, but also slows down the eating process.
Image: Nibble Net
- Put the water source in a different place than the hay, or better yet, have a few smaller watering tanks.
- Provide daily exercise to your horse.
- If at all possible let your horse go barefoot, at least part of the time, like in the winter when you are not competing or trail riding as much.
2) They Eat off the Ground
Wild horses graze vast grass and pasturelands and most of their food is consumed in a heads down position. As a result, they take smaller mouthfuls of food, chew it more thoroughly, it mixes with saliva better, which helps reduce the risk of choking and impaction colic.
The grazing position during eating allows for correct anatomic positioning of the structures of the mouth, throat and muscles of the jaws and esophagus to aid swallowing of food and its passage to the stomach. It keeps food from being aspirated into the respiratory tract, and prevents dust and debris 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 absorption takes place so the horse receives all the benefits of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from the food.
So what we do to our domesticated horses? We worry about dirt and manure contamination so we hang a bucket for feed, a net or rack for hay and wonder why our horse gets sick, chokes and need their teeth filed.
What Can We Do To Mimic This Wild Horse Behavior?
The best way to encourage your horse’s natural feeding posture and promote better health is to feed him at ground level.
- The simplest way to encourage ground-level feeding is by offering your horse free access to a healthy pasture or a paddock with a ground-level slow hay feeder.
- Use electric fence kits to divide a pasture to create tracks or a rotational grazing system.
- Use a ground-level feed tub to help protect your horse’s food from contamination and promote a more natural grazing posture.
- In the stall feed from a pan constructed of durable, yet flexible, crack- and chew-resistant reinforced rubber. This helps prevent injury should your horse become agitated while in the stall or run-in shelter.
3) They Eat A Forage Based Diet of Frequent Meals
In the wild, the horse eats prairie grasses and will travel significant distances each day in order to obtain adequate nutrition. It’s a small meal here, walk to the next patch, small meal there.
The horse’s digestive system needs small quantities of food numerous times daily. This is because of their small (2-4 gallon) stomach size and very long (75 foot ) small intestine. Food moves into the gut track very quickly so horse feels hungry again about an hour after eating.
So what do we do to the domesticated horse? We feed according to our schedule; 2 flakes of hay and a scoop of grain in the morning then the same at supper time. We rely on inferior hay and load them up with cereal grains full of sugar and starch.
Over the last 20+ years equine research has shown time and again that a horse is healthiest with a forage based diet. Good forage, and mostly forage. A diet heavy on grain fed in infrequent meals can unbalance his intestinal bacteria, resulting in stomach disturbances, diarrhea, and colic. It can also contribute to gastric ulcer disease, estimated to afflict 60% to 90% of mature domesticated horses.
So What Can We Do To Mimic This Wild Horse Behavior?
- Allowing your horse free access to pasture or grass hay, while cutting down on grain and concentrated processed feeds is the first thing. (Health permitting).
- Using a slow feeder for hay reestablishes a more natural feeding pattern and wakes up his foraging instinct. They also encourage continuous feeding which is better for gut health.
- Horses in the wild have a grass based diet but eat a variety of herbs, berries and other feedstuff. Make your free choice hay grass hay, such as Bermuda, Timothy, Orchard, Brome and Rye. Add a few small meals throughout the day of alfalfa hay or grain to give your horse a variety of textures, tastes and nutrients.
4) They Live In Herds for Companionship & Protection
Horses are highly social herd animals that prefer to live in a group. They are also prey animals. The purpose of the herd for a prey animal is safety and security. Wild horses do not like to be separated from their herd, because to be alone is to be exposed to predators on all sides.
There is safety in numbers so being with other horses is quite literally a safety net. There are more eyes to see trouble coming and there is comfort in that. Being deprived of that comfort can create stress and vulnerability.
So what do we do to the domesticated horse? We 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 stall who cannot commune with other horses suffers stress and many domesticated horses become anxious, flighty and hard to manage if they are isolated. Others develop ulcers and negative behaviors such as weaving and cribbing, behaviors never seen in the wild horse.
What Can We Do To Mimic This Behavior?
- Turn horses out in groups if you can. Separate geldings from mares to reduce the risk of injury.
- If that just isn’t an option at least provide turn out where the horses share a fence line so they can commune over the fence.
- If you only have one horse provide a stable companion such as a cat or a goat that offers the horse company and reduces stress.
- If your horse must be alone and is still fretting think about adding a calming supplement (designed for long term use) to their ration.
- Be a friend to your horse. All horses are able to form companionship attachments not only to their own species, but with other animals, including humans.
5) They Communicate With Each Other
Horses communicate in various ways; vocalizations such as nickering, squealing or whinnying; touch such as mutual grooming or nuzzling; smell; and 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 ear position, neck and head height, movement, and foot stomping or tail swishing to communicate with each other.
Discipline is also maintained in the herd first through body language and gestures, then, if needed, through physical contact such as biting, kicking, nudging, or other means of forcing a misbehaving herd member to move.
They express camaraderie through mutual grooming which helps new ones bond into a herd.
So what do we do to the domesticated horse? We ignore their cues and dominate them into a relationship. In the animal kingdom, humans are predators and horses are prey animals. In order to work with horses, we have to figure out how to bridge this gap.
We can do this by establishing a trusting relationship. Let them learn that we are a safe haven rather than a predator out to do them harm. Good training is not about confrontation. It’s about building a communication system that develops trust and respect.
What Can We Do To Mimic This Wild Horse Behavior?
- Body language is the universal way to communicate when a common language is not shared. So use body language that represents a non-hunting predator or in the role of leader. This includes no sudden movements or violent gestures.
- Don’t ignore the horse’s side of the conversation. Pay attention to the cues. How is he breathing? What are his eyes and his ears signaling? Respond to these cues, if his cues say “nervous” use reassuring tones and touch.
- Don’t forget to use your voice as an important aid in training and communicating with our horse. A “Good Boy” or a “No” can go a long way to reinforce your physical cues.
- Grooming can be a powerful influence you can use to gain control and trust. Horses groom each other to bond, for reassurance, and to socialize. Make your daily grooming a part of your relationship building strategy not just a chore to get through before you ride.
We all try and do our best when it comes to horse care. We have restraints due to time, finances or other demands that make us more prone to provide care that fits our needs and behaviors not our horses. If we look at wild horses and incorporate some methods that mimic these natural behaviors into our equine wellness program we can help reduce stress, injury and illness.
Peace and good rides, til we meet again.