A Natural Way of Living
One minute he was grazing, walking at a snail's pace, nibbling on the succulent grass tops. The next minute, the lanky four-year-old palomino gelding realized the herd was gone. Where was his herd? A panic like no other shook his very insides and he realized he was ALONE. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he ran blindly to the top of the hill and saw his beloved herd. Whinnying loudly, he slipped into the middle of the group and again felt safe.
As horses are naturally herd animals, being separated from other horses will cause them stress and anxiety. Safety, being the top priority in a horse's life, followed by play and food, is imparted by the nearness of the rest of the herd, even if it's only one other horse. Horses have evolved and survived due to this herd concept, which is a strong instinctual drive. A horse in the wild that became separated from his herd often perished. A life of solitary confinement goes against the very grain of what it means to be a horse.
As the rest of the herd dozed lazily in the afternoon sun, the paint colt and palomino gelding had other ideas. It was playtime and both had excess energy surging through their bodies. Now was the perfect time to do it, and a quick nip to the rump of the golden gelding signaled the start of play. The paint responded with a kick of both hind feet aimed at the intruder's chest; but instead of the bone-crushing impact, both of his feet stopped short as if to say, "I could have gotten you." The next weapon of choice was teeth. Both stood next to each together taking turns trying to nip the other's face. Although the sound of clamping teeth could be heard for miles, not once did those sharp teeth ever tear the skin, although small tuffs of hair occasionally floated to the ground.
The paint colt dropped to his knees and tried to bite the intruder's lower legs. Knowing this game, the golden one also went to his knees as each tried to knock the other off balance. In a strange way, they resembled horse "Sumo Wrestlers". Now full of adrenaline, the two playmates turned their mock fight into a horse race. As both ran wildly around their area, the palomino directed the colt where he wanted him by fake bites directed at his neck. They seemed to be dancing in a choreographed routine, flowing with each other as if attached by an invisible string.
All this excitement woke the others in the herd and soon there were a variety of colors and shapes dashing around playfully. Even the old copper mare kicked her heels up in delight. Although the scene looked very disorganized and dangerous, each horse had a keen awareness of what was happening around him and was careful to maintain enough control to avoid any mishaps. Soon the entire herd was breathing heavily and again it was time for a peaceful nap. The paint and palomino stood next to each other, mutually grooming until each one's eyes slowly closed and they rolled into a peaceful sleep, feeling safe that they were together.
Horses need to be in the company of equals around the clock. Although being able to see other horses helps a bit, they must be able to play with and touch each other. Socializing, either physically or through communication, takes place within the herd constantly. Nuzzling, mutual scratching, lipping, and just standing close helps to establish long-lasting bonds among the herd members. Also, because horses love to play, a good round of rearing and biting will raise their spirits and allow their physical bodies to stretch and get stronger.
By being turned out with a herd, a horse learns social skills. Learning to read other horses' body language, how to move out of the way when this reading is not correct or fast enough, and when and how to defend himself are all lessons he will learn. This is not something we can teach them.
Many people believe that if horses are turned out with each other, they will hurt each other. Granted they will play games of dominance with each other to determine the hierarchy of the herd, however actual contact is minimal, at least by horse standards. Often, when a horse is termed "unsociable", it is because of the human caretakers teaching or supporting this behavior. When turned out with a herd, a horse is taught the proper horse behavior by the other horses. If horses were such nasty, anti-social creatures, why would feral horses choose to establish herds? Because they have an instinctual need for preservation and comfort.
A natural environment
A natural living area for our horses provides enough room to be in almost constant movement except during rest and sleep. However, many horses are confined in small pens or even worse, box stalls. Not only does this hinder the horse physically, for example improper circulation in the legs and hooves, but it also adversely affects him mentally. This can show up in a variety of vices like cribbing, pawing and pacing, just to name a few. These behaviors are often taken for granted, as supported by the many anti-cribbing and other vice-breaking devices. Instead of addressing the horse's emotional and physical needs, some owners look for a quick fix, often finding a temporary solution in a physical device.
Remember that horses are very perceptive and curious creatures. Standing in a stall all day and night becomes very boring and unsettling. Having nothing to do to occupy his mind, the horse turns to "vices" to relieve his boredom and eventually these behaviors become a habit. However, once the horse is liberated from this jail, many of these vices disappear. Even if a horse's area is not as natural and challenging as it could be, toys can often be used to stimulate the horse's mind. There are numerous horse toys available on the market, though homemade toys work just as well. Orange traffic cones, plastic garbage cans, balls, and even plastic milk jugs hung from above will stimulate most horses. Use your imagination and try to see it from a child's point of view.
For the horse, almost constant motion is natural. Horses in a natural environment will move ten to fifteen miles a day, as this is what they are built for. When a horse is not able to exercise in a natural way, body circulation is hindered. When a horse moves, the blood from the lower legs is pumped back through the body to the heart by the hooves, tendons and muscles. In order to have strong, healthy feet and legs, freedom of constant motion is needed. The movement also stretches and strengthens the muscles and joints in the entire body. Furthermore, this activity also promotes healthy gut activity, helping to cut down on chances of impaction colic.
Give your horse as much room as possible to move with uneven ground, hills, rocks, fallen logs, shrubs and trees. It is human nature to assume that what we find comfortable is for the good of the horse. We often level our ground, remove the rocks and other "dangers" that we perceive, and many horses could navigate their living area with their eyes closed, mindlessly wandering between their feed and water areas. How can this be physically or mentally stimulating at all?
We ask our horses to go out on trail rides and expect them to be sure-footed when we may never have given them a chance to learn how to place their feet and find their balance before hitting the trail. We add the additional weight of a saddle and rider (often unbalanced), and expect them to keep us safe. What a burden to place on our horses.
A natural environment is easily created just by using your imagination. Obstacles can often be obtained for free, as friends and neighbors always seem to have cut-off branches from trees and shrubs as well as rocks "growing" in their yard. Natural logs of all sizes can be obtained from specialized lumberyards, often for free from their scrap pile. Just remember to only use natural logs and branches, no lumber or wood that splinters or has been treated with chemicals.
By creating a natural and challenging environment and by giving your horse a chance to run and play he can learn how to use his body. This learning is paramount both for his sake and his rider's sake. Finding his balance and knowing how to move his feet independently around ground obstacles is not necessarily inborn in him. Only by practice and trial and error does the horse learn to be handy with his body. Remember, in order to learn, there must be a challenge.
Protection from the elements
As the temperature changes, humans feel that they need to help their horses adjust to this change. In the summer months many horses are kept in a climate controlled barn. In the winter months, blankets and heaters are used. Again, what we consider comfortable is not what is healthy for horses. Eventually they may be caught out in the elements without their man-made protection and, due to our interference, their bodies will not be ready for it and they may have trouble dealing with it. There is just no substitute for a natural hair coat.
Horses are naturally able to deal with climate changes because their coats provide insulation against both heat and cold. If given the choice, horses don't always seek out closed-in shelters. In addition to having seasonal coat changes, horses can actually raise, lower, or turn the coat hairs to warm or cool themselves, and caretakers should allow them the benefits of this natural process without interference.
Blanketing not only interferes with this process but may also cause the horse to overheat and sweat even in cold weather. Since the legs, belly, and head are not covered and are exposed to the cold air, these areas feel the chill. In order to warm them up, the whole body must be warmed causing sweating under the blanket. Furthermore, blanketing interferes with the horses' ability to grow a proper winter coat. By clipping, blanketing and controlling their indoor climate, we are taking away their natural defenses against the elements.
Another common practice is clipping the horse's ear hairs and whiskers, as well as trimming the mane and tail. Our attempts to clean up our horses have taken away their natural defenses. Clipping ear hairs allows dirt, foreign matter and insects to enter the ear canal. Many types of gnats often feed in the inner ear causing a horse to violently shake his head and sometimes work himself into a frenzy. Trimming the mane and tail limits the horses' ability to combat flying insects, while trimming the whiskers takes away the natural ability to feel their surroundings. Pity the poor Quarter Horses who are still sporting the ridiculously short, trimmed tail of the 1970's. Those large, hulking horses, frantically flopping a swag of hair to protect their bodies, are in constant misery. All this we do in the name of what we consider beauty.
All of these natural boarding practices are very easy to apply. Just allow your horses room to roam on natural terrain. Even a small natural paddock, a round pen, or a small arena is better for your horse than a box stall. Give him horse companions to play with and let him learn the much-needed social skills, even if that means adopting a retired or senior horse. Help stimulate your horse mentally with objects and new toys. Allow him to deal with environmental changes without any hindrances. Just remember to think naturally and the changes will come easily.
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