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:

Slow Feeding Horses

Forage-Only Diet for Horses?

Forage:  The Most Essential Part of Your Horse’s Diet

5 Reasons to Test your Hay (and How to Do It)

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!)

DSC04652

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!

horse pushing other

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.

horse whiskers

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. . .

herbs

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:

Equine Parasites: A Holistic Approach

Herbal Dewormers for Horses

Management Tips for Controlling Equine Parasites

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.

ermine spots

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!

Ta-ta,

Casie

Casie

Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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10 Responses

  1. Regina says:

    Fabulous list!!

  2. AnneMarie Azijn says:

    Other than feeding from the ground it’s all done.
    This last one I cannot do for hygienic reasons and because we live on the top of a mountain – not very handy having to go 100 metres down to pick up the hay bags every day 🙂

  3. Robynne Catheron says:

    Thank you, Casie, brilliant as always, and exact echoes of my own beliefs. I’m going to forward this to my dear hubby, so could you please add pasture sanitation, i.e. manure removal, to the list? I can’t seem to convince him how important that is when trying to control internal parasites 🙁

  4. Janice says:

    This is simple but interesting. I have recently begun to think how the way I feed has changed in that my horse’s feed has so many supplements! A little bit of this and that oh and a bit of that too. In fact I realised he is only having the high fibre cubes so that I can give him the supplements!!!! It started when a yard I was on had varying haylage quality. Where I am now it is consistently good every time but I still feed the supplements ‘just in case’! I am starting to cut back on the extras. He does eat his haylage off the floor and he is in a massive barn stable that could be split into 4 traditional sized stables, so we are lucky. His stable also opens out into the field but is very wet at the moment so not out that much. I am also amazed at how much feather he has! Also I have noticed a difference in how he walks without shoes. One thing I would like to ask because even when Arthur was trimmed and pulled and looked very neat all the time, I have never cut a bridle path even when put under pressure to do so. What is the reason for this? I always think that it must prickle and feel uncomfortable when the bridle is on?

    • Casie says:

      Hi Janice–glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂 As for the bridle path, I’m sure it’s all for looks. I still cut one with scissors sometimes. (maybe out of habit?) I just don’t trim the whiskers or around the feet. Those hairs are there for a reason!

  5. Sophie says:

    Most of this is gold but some of it is not practical like the clipping. If you have your horse in full work over winter they simply get too hot and sweaty. Also the half hour grooming it takes to get them clean enough to ride robs them of their natural oils. However it is important not to over cover and keep them toastie as this is uncomfortable for them. I also have tried really hard to get my flat footed TB barefoot but he is so lame and uncomfortable it is kinder I think to shoe him and stop worrying whether it is “best”. For him I think it is.

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