Think about the many ways humans have "kept" horses. Yours. Those you respect. Those you disdain. The racing industry. Rodeo stock. Now enlarge your reflection to include geographical and cultural differences. Now let history touch your thoughts - American conquest and colonization (aka western frontier) , coal mines, the streets of London, the middle ages. Horses have endured, suffered, and thrived in their relationship with us homeo sapiens.
I'm highly influenced by "natural" horse keeping. What is natural? Horses have been domesticated for so many centuries. I wonder if, over time, more equines have lived in ways defined by humankind than have lived within human free bands. I have chosen to think of "natural" as what allows the expression of "hard wired" interactions with the environment.
I believe these things:
- Horses are prey animals and are acutely aware of their environment
- They are made, inside & outside for continual movement
- Their digestive system is designed to ingest frequent, small amounts of roughage
- Intelligent, emotional, and social, horses crave the company of their own kind and when in a group attempt to organize into age-old roles and functions
I also believe that when horses are able to live in ways close to these four criteria they will enjoy greater physical and emotional health. Increased rates of colic, ulcers, hoof deformities, respiratory illness, and emotional pathologies occur when horses live within artificial environments. Yet if you have a horse, it lives within an artificial environment.
Since returning to the delight of sharing life with horses, I have made the following decisions that shape my horse keeping practices:
- My horses will live in a herd & if this is not available, will share space with other horses
- Even though we "have" to rent a stall at Freshwater, my horses will live outside in the general pasture (this is why I board at Freshwater)
- I will feed as few grain based products as possible
- I will carefully consider the need vs. the risks of all vaccinations
- My horses will be iron free - hoofs and mouths
These choices are not meant as a critique of others. Am I basing my choices on solid evidence or romantic whim? Good question. Future blog entries will attempt to feature the growing evidence that supports a natural system of horse keeping.
My decisions regarding my horses shape the routines of my life. There are some personal advantages - I spend less time mucking out stalls, have no bill for bedding material, and for a few months buy less hay. There are also disadvantages and factors that require action. In winter and fall I have to slog through acres of mud in the rain. In the spring I have no way to limit the amount of exposure my horses have to grazing on sugar rich early grasses - removing grazing muzzles is a fun game in the general pasture. Another disadvantage is injury from other horses, Red was seriously kicked when a new gelding (the scruffy boy) tried to take his place in the herd hierarchy.
Throughout the winter months the general pasture is extremely overgrazed and many horses lose a dangerous amout of weight - like Lyra. This means each and every night I need to feed increased portions for my little herd. My original plan of rotating stall feedings is not currently possible because of Lyra's confinement issues. So it means I take more time and both horses have had to learn to tolerate eating their dinner tied side by side (too crowded at night in the Redwood Barn for separate tie posts.).
In fall and winter months, horse management takes me at least a couple of hours a day - I'm guessing this is about the same for most folks regardless of management practices. I try to ride every day yet when I am late getting to Freshwater, I may only feed, groom, play, talk, scratch, and otherwise delight in time spent with Red and Lyra. This is also training time that puts into practice the saying "training occurs every minute you spend with your horse, whether you know it or not."