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Natural environment for horses

Everyone would agree that to have a healthy horse, we must provide them with the best possible care that meets all of their physical and psychological needs. Unfortunately, there are many different opinions on how we should manage horse care.

The path to healthy hooves not only involves providing a proper trim, but also a proper lifestyle that is going to maximize our horses' ability to meet the demands we place on them. To truly meet their needs, we must first understand the basic requirements of a horse (domestic or otherwise).

1. Movement on varied terrain
The ability to move freely is one of the horse's most basic and important requirements for health. Because of the horse's prey instinct, confining them to small areas for long periods of time can be psychologically stressful to them. There are also many negative physical side-effects to long periods of stall time: decreased circulation, muscle loss, development of bad habits, thermo-regulatory system problems (inability to adjust between extreme temperature changes), etc.

A horse who is moving constantly (searching for forage, socializing with herdmates) is providing all body functions with optimum circulation, because of the pumping action of the hooves. This is necessary for strong, healthy hoof horn growth, as well as hoof wear.

Many argue against 24/7 turnout because of their desire to protect their horses from injuries in the field. However, many people have found that horses on full turnout are much more sensible and careful when it comes to poor weather or footing conditions, because they are not overwhelmed with the energy of getting out after 8 hours of being indoors. Horses on 24/7 turnout are also more socially aware than stalled horses, and are more likely to avoid herd-related injuries.

Ideally, horses should have access to different types of terrain, including hard and abrasive surfaces.  A good rule of thumb is to provide in their living environment the surface you plan to do most of your riding on. If you hack on gravel roads, give them a gravel area.

2. Exposure of hooves to water
Because the hoof is designed to flex and move with the horse's movement, they need moisture. Unfortunately, hoof oils are not an effective way of providing that necessary moisture. In fact, hoof oils have been shown to clog the porous hoof (all hooves "sweat" and release toxins from the body) and cause breakdown of the hoof horn.

The best way to provide the moisture necessary to keep hooves healthy and functioning is by daily exposure to water. In the wild, horses wade into ponds and streams on a daily basis to drink. 15 to 20 minutes per day in a stream, pond, or even puddle or mud area is enough to keep the hoof flexible and functional. Some people build their own soaking stalls or paddocks, as seen in this photo.

3. Access to continuous forage
A horse's digestive system is designed to be constantly working on metabolizing small amounts of forage-type nutrients. The more often that we can feed our horses small amounts throughout the day, the better. Free-choice hay, or mixed pasture area for them to graze, is ideal. Weeds, herbs and different kinds of grasses and grass hay are wonderful to provide a healthy variety in a horse's diet.

If pasture is not an option, then free choice hay is another great option. However, instead of putting out a roundbale in a feeder, spread the bale out so that the horses can eat in a natural head-low stance, and move around as they eat to imitate grazing.

4. Interaction within a herd setting
Horses need interaction with their own kind to by psychologically healthy. They are social creatures, and in the wild are dependent on fellow herd members for survival. Touch, play, herd movement, and social pecking order are all a regular part of a wild horse's living circumstance, and should be provided for our domestic horses as well.

Horses who are kept stalled on a regular basis can develop social problems such as extreme aggression or timidity. They may also be more prone to horse-related injuries when turned out into an irregular herd environment.

5. Access to shelter
By providing a run-in shelter for our horses, we give them the choice to stay in or out. It is surprising how often they choose to stay out when we would prefer to have them in. However, we need to realize that most often the shelter we give to our horses is for our own peace of mind and not in their best interests.

6. Freedom from horse "clothing"
We are often tempted to use wraps, boots, sheets and blankets to protect our horses and keep them warm and dry. However, the horse has a fully capable thermo-regulatory system that dictates how the body responds to the weather around it. When we put a winter blanket or even a light sheet on our horse, this temperature regulation system can no longer work properly, resulting in a horse who is actually more exposed to the elements and who can potentially have their immune system weakened.

© Nature's Barefoot Hoofcare Guild Incorporated 2005.