10 Simple Changes Towards a Naturally Healthy Horse
“It is always the simple things that change our lives. . .” ~Donald Miller
This morning as I was out feeding, I found myself thinking about how differently I do things with my horses now. Not huge changes, but small changes made slowly over time–all in an effort to allow my horses to live more natural and healthy lives. I’ve found that sometimes, it’s the small things that can make a big difference though. . .
I never set out to be a natural horse care expert, but I constantly seek to become more educated and to do things as naturally as I can–not only for my horses, but also for myself and my family. I’ve come a long ways!
So I thought I’d compile a list of some of the changes I’ve made from a traditional to a more natural way of managing horses. They’re surprisingly easy to do, if you take them just one step at a time.
1.) Feed a forage-based diet, and ensure that your horse has continual access to forage. Growing up, it was unthinkable to not feed grain or a commercial feed of some sort. That was paramount–and of course, I’d throw them a few flakes of hay as well. . . But now my focus is solely on the forage–their natural food! Sure, horses need a variety of vitamins and minerals as well, but you’d be surprised by how many of these that good forage can provide. By getting your forage tested, you can learn how it meets your horses daily needs–and then go from there. My hay almost always meets my horses’ protein and energy needs. I usually just have to supplement a few minerals and Vitamin E in the winter.
And by ensuring that your horse always has something to munch on, you will be supporting his natural grazing behavior and greatly reducing the incidence of issues like ulcers, colic, and even stereotypic behavior such as cribbing.
For more information on a forage-based diet, check out these posts:
2.) Feed hay at ground level. Why? Because this is a horse’s natural eating position. This allows for less strain on their skeletal system and soft tissues and also allows the horse’s jaws to function naturally. I have these nifty hay feeders that my husband built in each of my stalls, but I don’t use them any more. I just spread their hay out around the pasture now. (Slow feeders like The Hay Pillow are great for ground-level slow feeding as well!)
3.) Allow as much movement as possible. While this might sound like a no-brainer, it can be tricky sometimes. For example, I have two insulin resistant (IR) horses and lots of grass (for about 8 months out of the year, anyways). I want them to be out in the pasture, moving around instead of locked in a stall or pen, but I don’t want them gorging themselves on grass. So I use grazing muzzles for part of the day in the spring and summer. I’m also building a track system, based on Jaime Jackson’s Paddock Paradise concept. This will allow for lots of movement and very little eating of green grass!
4.) Let your horse to grow a real winter coat. This is also easy to do for the most part–just don’t blanket! If you don’t interfere with your horse’s natural thermoregulation abilities, they can usually take care of themselves just fine. See this post for more on blanketing. . .
5.) Lose the clippers. I don’t even own a pair of working clippers anymore. When I showed my horses (a very long time ago), I liked them to look clean and pretty. I trimmed the whiskers around their muzzles and eyes and I also trimmed around their fetlock areas. I’ve since learned that trimming these whiskers and hairs can be somewhat detrimental to your horse. Muzzle whiskers help horses estimate the distance between their muzzle and an object, such as a water source or the ground when grazing. The whiskers above the eyes help do the same when vision is limited.
I’ve also learned that the long hairs around the fetlock act as a ‘rain gutter’, helping to keep the heel bulbs dry, so I leave this area alone too now.
The only thing I do trim now is a short bridle path–and I do this with scissors usually!
6.) Use natural fly-sprays. The less chemicals we can use on our horses, the better. And there are plenty of natural alternatives nowadays. You can purchase a natural fly spray (this one worked great for me!) or you can make your own–see this post for some recipes.
7.) Replace drugs with herbs/ nutraceuticals whenever possible. Sometimes, a drug can save your horse’s life, but many are harmful, especially if used long term. Fortunately, you can replace many drugs with natural herbs or nutraceuticals, so I do this whenever possible. Some examples are using turmeric or Devil’s Claw instead of bute. Or using glucasamine chondroitin instead of joint injections. . .
8.) Get off of the chemical dewormer merry-go-round. For years, we were told to deworm our horses every two or three months and rotate classes of drugs. This has resulted in many problems–one being widespread parasite resistance to several of these drugs. Many horses are living healthfully without chemical dewormers now thanks to diligent management practices and natural dewormers, which make the internal environment of the horse much less hospitable for worms.
If you do use chemical dewormers though, using fecal egg counts to determine their efficacy is very important. Many horses don’t need to be dewormed but maybe once or twice a year at most. Find out who your high and low shedders are and treat each horse accordingly.
For more information on natural parasite control, see these posts:
9.) Re-think vaccinations. I think yearly vaccinations are another thing that we tend to do out of habit or fear. If you think about it, we don’t get immunized for the same diseases, year after year (except maybe for the flu–but not me!) I believe we tend to do an overkill with vaccinating horses and it can seriously compromise their immune systems. Several of my horses have had scary reactions to vaccinations in the past and after doing some research, I decided to stop vaccinating every year.
See this informative post by Dr. Madalyn Ward for more information.
10.) Go barefoot! Of course, I can’t leave this one out. . . Not too many years ago, I kept my barrel racing horses shod for the majority of the year. My pasture pets were barefoot but were only trimmed every few months or so. I’ve since learned that our horses’ hoof health is crucial to their overall well-being. But it’s not just about being barefoot–which has so many benefits–but about maintaining their feet regularly and properly. I have quite a few posts on barefoot hoof care. See this page for a complete list.
Of course, those are just a few of the changes you can make to allow your horse to live more naturally–there are others that may have come to your mind as well. Hopefully you’re already doing some of the above, and if not, maybe you can strive to make at least a couple of these changes in the near future.
Please feel free to share any changes you’ve made towards having a naturally healthy horse below!