FOR THE RIDER

Natural Horse Care - the Strasser Way

For the horse's health, he should be constantly exposed to his natural environment. His highly efficient, natural thermoregulation efforts are thwarted with conventional boarding habits such as blanketing, clipping, and stall-keeping.

 

One of life's greatest pleasures is riding horses. These beasts of burden have been designated so because of man's cleverness at spotting not only a sturdy beast, but an easy target as well, in that horses LET us expect cooperation from them. Try getting a rhino to agree to the things our horses agree to. Horses, when approached in a certain way, let us use them. And, unfortunately, let us abuse them. Especially if it is when we don't know we are doing it, such as when we think we are doing the right thing, or the nice thing, for our horses. They suffer silently, and with few complaints. Their feedback comes in a language we often fail to understand; we accept this feedback as something we just need to put up with, and we find a way to work around it. That is a typical scenario that happens far too often, but due to the ever-increasing observations and communications of some keen horse people, things are looking up for the horse. We love our horses and want to do the best for them, so it is time we open our ears to what they all have to say. Horses know the answers to many of their problems; we just need to understand them.

Horses are prey animals and naturally operate on instinct. They do very well on their own in the wild. But we find them so appealing and enjoyable that leaving them alone in their natural state is simply not an option we want to consider. So we remove them from the wild, but that doesn't mean we have to force them into a completely unnatural lifestyle. To have horses, enjoy our horses, provide the best domestic life possible for them with longevity and optimum health, and spend maximum time on their glorious backs, there are ways we can compromise to accommodate them, and honorably welcome them into our lives.

 

The Horse in His Environment

Moisture is essential for healthy hooves; the absorption of water keeps them elastic and supple and prevents them from drying out.

Most of the common health-related problems and lamenesses found in domestic horses today are man-made problems as a result of violations of the horse's natural lifestyle. In simpler terms, things we do. Hiltrud Strasser, Dr. Vet. Med., Tuebingen, Germany, says, "This can be a very bitter pill to swallow for those of us who really love our horses, and have been made to realize that the lameness from which they suffer, or have been suffering for years, is a result of the inappropriate treatment of them. This becomes especially tragic when we’ve already put a horse down because of a condition of 'incurable' lameness or disease."

The bright side is that horses have an incredible potential for healing. Dr. Strasser explains, "If the cause for the disease is removed and ideal conditions for recovery (and health) are provided, the horse will virtually always heal." These conditions may not always be the most convenient for a human, but they are what's best for the horse. The ultimate bonus is that once we know the causes of diseases, we have the power to prevent them and build a foundation for a lifetime of health and soundness.

When taking horses from the wilderness to the conventional stable or boarding facility, huge changes are imposed upon the horse, which are the very causes of many of the common health problems and the reduced life expectancy of today’s domestic horse. Dr. Strasser points out, "The complex interaction of an organism in its natural environment is similar to a lock and key - alter anything on either, and the system no longer functions." Under human care and supervision the horse is often subject to conditions that are completely contrary to his natural environment.

According to Dr. Strasser, "The danger of such deviance from this natural lifestyle becomes clearer when one realizes that the horse has evolved in this natural state for over millions of years and has adapted to it, and requires it, in order to maintain his health." Dr. Strasser has been studying and researching for twenty years the causes and cures of lameness and other common health problems of domestic horses. She has authored numerous books and articles in German, and two of her books that have been translated to English are A Lifetime of Soundness and Shoeing: A Necessary Evil?, both of which contain an enormous amount of insightful information on the needs of the horse. What follows in this article are her findings about those needs, and what we, as riders and caretakers, need to know.

Environmental Temperature

No matter where the horse lives, and the wild horse population has spread over the entire world, the air temperature varies through the day and night as well as seasonally. As with most mammals, the internal body temperature must stay within a narrow range to survive. If the internal temperature exceeds or falls below that range the animal becomes unwell and can succumb to health problems or death. Despite the fluctuation in temperature and changing weather conditions, the horse readily maintains his internal temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

In his natural environment, a horse generates heat to keep himself warm by moving and running about and by shivering. Shivering involves muscle action, and if a horse is unable or unwilling to move about, he can generate warmth by shivering. The skin is the sensory organ by which the body can feel the changing environmental temperature and regulate its own temperature. Blood vessels dilate to get rid of excess internal heat, and raising the hair coat increases the insulating layer. Sweating is also a cooling action. Horses are more concerned with getting rid of body heat than producing it because heat is a natural byproduct of movement, which is almost constant for them.

The horse's highly efficient, natural thermoregulation efforts are thwarted with conventional boarding habits such as blanketing, clipping, and stall-keeping. Blanketing prevents the skin from raising the hairs to keep the body warm and prevents air from reaching the horse’s skin to dissipate heat. A horse can easily overheat with a blanket on, even in the winter! Clipping removes the protective winter coat and blanketing prevents the growth of one, and when the horse is stripped of his blanket he will not be prepared to deal with low temperatures. Blankets often wear the hair off at spots, press into the skin to the point of bruising, and may also rub sores. The temperature in enclosed barns and stables stays fairly constant, so horses kept in these conditions, whether blanketed or not, lack the temperature stimulus necessary for controlling body temperature when exposed to a change in environmental temperature. The muscles necessary for keeping temperature constant are not 'trained' or exercised, and therefore do not function properly. The horse’s internal body temperature can then fall below or rise above its healthy range, which often leads to sickness or infection.

Says Dr. Strasser, "Though one's intentions may be well meant, the human is not capable of judging, and therefore should not interfere with, a horse's thermoregulation. For the horse's health, he should be constantly exposed to his natural environment."

Horses don't cover themselves in nature, other than coating themselves in mud or dust to discourage insects.

Leg Protection

Another detrimental man-made practice is wrapping the horse's lower legs with bandages and other 'protective' wear. The application of leg wraps limits the blood vessels' natural ability to increase in diameter and regulate blood flow to and from the leg and hoof. This is less damaging to the tendons as long as the horse remains still, but once the horse starts moving, they snap against the bandages and tendon sheath inflammation can result. Blood is pumped downward through the tough arteries of the lower leg but cannot be properly returned up the less resilient veins of the wrapped leg, causing damaging 'ballooning' in the vessels. The lower leg has no muscle for the blood vessels to divert into, so the veins suffer the consequences.

Wraps also press the tendons closer to the bone, causing chafing and inflammation. "Wrapping forelegs to protect them from the impact of shod hind-leg over-reaching is not a sensible solution," says Dr. Strasser. "Removing the shoes and addressing the cause of the over-reach makes more sense."

Movement

For millions of years the horse lived the nomadic lifestyle and his entire physiological makeup has evolved around it and depends upon it. Horses must continually graze and roam. A wild horse will roam from 10-15 miles a day, over various terrains, to obtain the necessary water and food for survival. Horses move about through play, and through the establishment of herd status every day.

The heart of the horse is relatively small compared to the rest of the body, and the muscles, joints, and hooves, through constant motion, support the heart's circulation of blood through the body. The hooves especially play a very important role, in that with every step they assist the heart in pumping blood back up the legs to the body.

When a horse is stall-kept, he does not get the freedom of movement necessary to maintain a healthy heart and circulatory system, respiratory system, skeleton, muscles, hooves, and more. A horse living in a stall and ridden only an hour a day may travel a few miles per day, but compared to the healthy, natural 10 to 15 miles for optimum health, this is much too little movement. That one hour may be an intense one as well, because there may be hard work required of the horse and/or the level of pent-up energy the horse wishes to expend may be great. Thus it is seldom a gradual transition from standing to working, which is hard on the heart.

Dr. Strasser explains, "Without constant motion, the circulatory system will function below average, and regions of the body receive inadequate supplies of blood, leading to any of a variety of health problems. It reduces bone density in adults, and in foals it prevents the entire body from developing properly, from hooves to lungs. Prolonged standing also results in improper hoof growth and function, hoof deformation, and conformational flaws."

Lifestyle

A horse living in the wild with a herd is a very well balanced and psychologically sound animal. A well balanced mind is important for the proper health of the entire organism. The herd brings safety in numbers. Each member of a herd must know every other member of the herd and each must defend its own position within the herd, and so on. When standing alone in a stall, left alone in a pasture, or kept with goats or sheep, the natural herd lifestyle of the horse is impossible. Horses need the company of equals, 24 hours a day, not part of a day, and not from a distance; herd life is instinct. A horse must make contact, play, see, and interact with his kind to maintain balance and correct brain activity. If the horse cannot maintain this balance, his physical and psychological health suffer.

Says Dr. Strasser, "Separation from the herd, whether from other horses or a human it has come to accept as lead horse, is a death sentence. This is why 'round pen reasoning', for instance, works so well."

The horse's psychological state strongly influences behavior and biological function. Psychological imbalance affects the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for sending messages to the brain centers and thus to the organs. Stress and fright therefore influence the digestive system (colic) and fertility, and can result in aggressive behavior, anxiety, and replacement actions such as running in circles, wind sucking, cribbing, weaving, and others. These replacement actions also serve to help the horse escape from intolerable circumstances, such as unnatural living conditions. "How humane is it," asks Dr. Strasser, "to subject a highly social herd animal to a solitary lifestyle where it cannot see, touch or interact with others of its kind day and night?"

Nutrition

A wide variety of vegetation is vital to proper nutrition. Horses have an instinctual ability to know what plants are good food and good medicine. This instinct will drive horses great distances to search out what they need. Grains are found in small, scattered amounts, as are seeds, nuts and fruits. The physiology of the horse is the same regardless of where he lives, and instinct guides him in his choice of vegetation. This is why horses can survive all over the world and graze safely in many environments, even if they were born and raised in another country.

Horses in their natural environment will graze from 18-20 hours a day to get the nutrition they require to survive. Small amounts of food on a continuous basis are required to accommodate the small stomach and large gut with which the horse evolved due to feed availability and lifestyle. Continually processing roughage helps the horse to maintain healthy teeth and digestive organs, and good health.

Horses living in stalls or confinement don’t have the ability to choose a variety of vegetation, or the quantity and quality of food to meet their needs. The horse may know what he needs day to day, but the human does not. Sometimes we see horses eat things considered inedible, but they are trying to do what they can to meet their needs.

Dr. Strasser explains, "The balance of the digestive system is easily upset when it does not receive a continuous supply of food, or gets large portions in a short amount of time. The acids of the stomach can cause stomach ulcers, and the bacterial balance in the large intestine can become disturbed, which can result in many digestive disorders and behavior problems," she says. "Chemical dewormers, medications, excessive or improper mineral supplements, and toxins released from buckets and troughs can also upset the balance of the digestive system. Pasture quality must also be maintained; due to grazing and haying, some plant variety will be lost and nutritional deficiencies may develop."

Body Posture

The horse's natural body posture is with his head to the ground. The long head allows the horse to see and hear his surroundings as his nose is buried in grass. Because a horse naturally spends the greater part of 24 hours in this grazing position, his body has adapted to and is dependent upon this posture. The center of gravity is normally forward with the weight on the forehand and the toes of the hooves. The wall of the toe is thicker than the rest of the wall so it can withstand wear from the increased weight.

The lower the horse's head is, the higher his spine is, because the 'dorsal' ligament which runs along the back is attached to, and supports, the spine. It acts like a suspension bridge, and as the head rises the back drops, and as the head lowers, the back lifts. This low-headed posture is the normal posture for the horse, and it allows the horse's body to function normally. The mechanics of this posture affect everything from the mouth to the hooves, and as the head lifts, it changes angles of shoulders, hips, legs, pasterns, and more. When the horse travels, the head is naturally carried about the height of the withers, with the neck in an almost horizontal position to maintain the forward center of balance.

In the resting position, horses normally do not need to spend any energy to sleep standing up. They can lock their legs into a standing position without having to engage muscle to maintain an upright position. However, if the heels of the hoof are high and the coffin bone is not parallel to the ground, then the stay apparatus cannot function and the horse must engage the muscles to stand.

In a conventional boarding situation the horse may be fed hay from a rack above head height, forcing the horse to have his head in an unnaturally high position much of the time. Dr. Strasser cautions, "This adversely affects the entire musculo-skeletal mechanics, and also affects the respiratory passages if at table height. The unnatural posture bends the respiratory passage so that inhaled air 'rams' against the throat instead of being drawn smoothly into the lungs. Inhaled particles get embedded in the mucous membranes, which results in opportunity for disease." 

If the stall-kept horse is fed low, he cannot see his surroundings, and since a horse always seeks the contact of others (even if just eye-contact) he will hold his head up high enough to look around. This shifts the center of gravity backwards, placing stress on the back muscles, and puts weight on the heels instead of the toes, causing additional stress on the ligaments, tendons and joints of the leg.

Body Weight

A horse’s body weight in the wild will vary about 40% throughout the year. During a good growing season the horse will gain about 20% more body weight, and after winter he will have lost about 20% of his normal body weight. However this is a very healthy horse, even if he shows some ribs. The horse's natural metabolism is to gain fat in the summer for use in the winter. His weight fluctuates slowly so no stress is placed on the hoof or the metabolism, and his body gains and loses fat slowly to help him endure the climate changes. Horses fed in conventional boarding conditions are not forced to activate their bodily reserves, but they are subjected to the instant weight increase of a rider. Though this is not normally a problem for the healthy horse, it can be harmful if the hooves, back, legs, etc. are not in good health.

Resting Places

Natural living for the horse is the ability to sleep where it likes, in the open where it can see predators approaching and flee if needed. Resting places are chosen for survival and safety. Horses rest for only short periods of time day and night, either standing or lying down.

Stall-kept horses spend part to most of the day confined, with a million years of instinct conflicting with this unnatural environment. To a human, the stall is a safe and warm place to sleep. The horse, however, is trapped and unable to flee if a predator appears. He cannot find security without being in contact with his fellow herd mates, and he is faced with hours of boredom. Dr. Strasser explains, "The fact that a horse goes willingly into its stall tells us that it knows where its food can be found, a survival factor, and that its natural instincts can be suppressed. The stress, however, remains on some level, affecting its physical and psychological health." This can show up in many unwanted behaviors later on.

The stall environment has other harmful effects. Ammonia gas from the urine and manure easily builds up, and because it combines readily with moisture, can damage the lungs and respiratory passages. Foals are in greater danger of harm because they lie down more often and are closer to the more concentrated levels of ammonia with less airflow. Bedding is used because it is absorbent, and not only does it absorb urine, it also draws moisture from hooves. The dry hooves come in contact with the ammonia, which is destructive to the protein of the hoof. Consider also that the ammonia is now combining with the drinking water in the stall producing a mild base (ammonia cleaner), which can damage the stomach.

Exposure of Hooves to Water

Moisture is essential to hoof health. The absorption of water prevents the hooves from drying out and keeps them elastic and supple. Horses in the wild spend part of each day in a body of water drinking, playing, and cooling off. Hooves require a certain amount of moisture to be healthy, and horses kept in stalls, with little or no exposure to water each day, have feet that dry out. With the loss of elasticity from drying out, the mechanical function of the hoof is impaired, resulting in less shock absorption and increased contraction of the hooves. Says Dr. Strasser, "It is not water that is harmful to the hooves, but the lack of it."

In nature there are no applications of grease or oil to the horses' hooves; they survive without these artificial products. These products can actually inhibit the hoof's ability to absorb moisture as needed, leading to dry, cracked hooves. Not only do these products create a moisture barrier, they can also decay into volatile fatty acids and esters that can damage the hoof.

Horseshoes

In nature, the hoof does not require any kind of protection, even with all the miles and varied terrain it covers. However, in the horse's recent history it has been mankind’s belief that the hoof requires protection against excessive wear and hard surfaces - through shoeing. While shoeing has long been considered a necessary evil, it is not necessary, but it is evil, in many ways. With the best intentions, the horse owner unknowingly subjects his shod horse to numerous evils. Among the adverse and damaging effects of the properly applied horseshoe are:

It prevents wear of the hoof (its intended purpose), but this allows the hoof to grow longer than it naturally would, resulting in unnatural forces on the hoof.

The shoe destroys capillary tissue and hoof horn, especially the wall, through vibration of about 800 Hz on hard surfaces. Dr. Strasser says, "The effects on living tissue are similar to what is known in human medicine as Raynaud’s Syndrome, involving necrosis, or tissue death, and abnormal modifications of tissue."

It restricts the natural expansion of the hoof with each step (imagine how it would feel to wear metal shoes!), thus decreasing the shock absorption capability as much as 70-80%. Says Dr. Strasser, "It has been discovered that a shod horse walking on pavement receives 3 times the impact forces of an unshod horse trotting on pavement." This contributes to ossification, arthritis, and structure stress of the leg.

It limits the natural flexibility and movement of the sole, resulting in the coffin bone bruising the sole.

The nails driven into the hoof wall reduce the insulating factor by allowing coldness closer to the interior of the hoof, thus lowering the temperature of the foot enough to disrupt cell metabolism.

It inhibits the natural blood pumping action of the hoof, also reducing hoof temperature (the natural, sound hoof is warm where the shod hoof is cool), proper hoof growth, and integrity of horn and all hoof tissue. Proper circulation is imperative to proper hoof growth. This also puts undue stress on the heart to make up for this reduced circulation.

A shod hoof is far more damaging than an unshod one to the environment, and is far more dangerous to the horse and others if kicked.

The extra weight of the shoe (add to this the turf it readily collects) adversely affects joints, tendons, and ligaments.

The shoe's rigidity affects the course of motion of the hoof, stressing and ossifying the lateral cartilages and thin ligaments.

Its rigidity causes contraction and other distortions of the hoof.

This is not a complete list of the 'evils', and if a horse is improperly shod, the damaging effects are further exacerbated.

"Assuming that few people would intentionally subject their horses to these harmful effects," says Dr. Strasser, "then we must consider that it is the widespread lack of knowledge of hoof physiology, coupled with the ignorance of the true effects of shoeing, that are the reasons why this practice is still so widely accepted. Shoeing is not necessary if the horse is provided with proper, natural living conditions."

Back to Basics

By deviating from the horse's natural living conditions, we are denying his biological needs. This serves only to weaken him, make him more susceptible to disease, and to cause health problems. By meeting his basic needs, we allow for his optimum health and facilitate his return to health and happiness. And that can only serve to insure our own.   

"It must be understood, however," says Dr. Strasser, "that the damage being done to the horse's health and psyche by this utterly unnatural, harmful lifestyle is not the result of ill will toward the horse. Rather it is man's desire for convenience, his failure to understand the full ramifications of seemingly innocent actions, and more importantly, his tendency to humanize the creatures he domesticates and to assume they need what he needs. It is difficult to make the connection between the causative factors that have been going on for so long and the visible, resulting harm when the damage of the unnatural lifestyle may take years to become obvious."

More about Dr. Strasser and natural hoof care will appear in the next issue of Natural Horse.


 

For more information:

A Lifetime of Soundness by Dr. Hiltrud Strasser

Shoeing: A Necessary Evil? By Dr. Hiltrud Strasser

Horse Owner's Guide to Natural Hoof Care by Jaime Jackson

www.hufklinik-strasser.de (Dr. Strasser's German website)

www.alltel.net/~star/index.html

Star Ridge Publishing, 870-743-4603

The Hoofcare Specialist Certification Course textbook will become available to the public in November.

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