Healing Horses Naturally - Part 1

In the last few weeks I have had so many conversations with clients regarding their horse’s health and soundness. Skin conditions, Laminitis, stomach ulcers and joint stiffness seem to be the issues creating concern for many owners again and again.

By the end of last week I was beginning to feel like a bit of a broken record because I must have recommended the same course of action half a dozen times that week. So, I think I’d better use this blog to put my thoughts together because I have found that healing horses naturally starts with natural horse care…

What is ‘Natural Horse Care’?

Well, it’s a term that I have only recently come across as a ‘thing’, but it seems to be something I have been using, developing and research for a long time now. The term ‘Natural Horse Care’ or NHC (bless the Americans for their love of Acronyms) has been developed as a philosophy by Jamie Jackson, the author of Paddock Paradise and one of the most influential voices of the ‘Barefoot Movement’ – more on that in a moment, and since has been widely used as a concept by a number of authors and horse professionals around the world.

Whilst there are many variations on a theme, the principles or ‘Pillars’ of NHC are –

  • Natural Boarding (Livery)

  • Natural diet (within reason of a domestic environment)

  • Natural Horsemanship / natural balance training

  • Natural Trim (Barefoot hoofcare)

Now whilst I am an advocate of the Barefoot horse this blog is not about barefoot vs shod horses, this is about healing horses naturally and as you can see from the above list the ‘Natural Trim’ is only 1/4 of the concept of NHC, and I strongly believe that all horses, regardless of type, size, breed or disposition will benefit from a natural approach to the lifestyle they are offered. In NHC the foundations are not barefoot, but the pinnacle.

Perhaps this is better illustrated like this –

Natural Livery

Natural livery is the foundation of the concept, also called ‘Track System Livery’ or ‘Paddock Paradise’, I think I have even heard the term ‘Enriched Equine Environment’.

Whatever the current trendy term is the concept is pretty simple. Instead of providing your horse with a ‘nice warm, cosy stable and access to individual turnout’ – the generally accepted norm for UK Livery yard with varying degrees of poshness (is that a word? – you get my point). You provide your horse with a track to roam around with another equine friend or small herd (herd size depends on space). You offer natural shelter such as trees and hedges, or a run in shed. Your offer hay feeding stations around your track. You allow the horses to wear away the grass. And if you are lucky enough to have your own land or a really understanding land owner or a purpose built track livery – various surfaces to walk on, natural barriers like logs to walk over, a water crossing (if you have uncontaminated ground water you don’t mind them drinking). More detailed info is available from books such as 'Paddock Paradise' and 'Feet First'

Basically, your horse lives out 24/7, and doesn’t eat lots of rich sugary grass. This is where the natural healing benefits start to show.

  • Horses with laminitis have limited access to sugary grasses, maximise movement as they move around the track for water and hay browsing, movement burns calories, assists digestion and increase blood circulation providing a detoxification effect

  • Horses with stomach ulcers have access to constant forage, the stomach is doing what it is design to do – gently digesting, constantly processing fibre. Low grade movement around the track also promotes good gut function. Plus stress is reduced by allowing horses to be with a herd and participate in innate equine behaviours – group eating, sleeping, herding and playing.

  • Horses with joint or tendon issues again will benefit from constant low grade movement. Horses living out 24/7 tend not to hoon-about because their needs for constant movement are met and the psychology of herd living provides enough stimulus that they don’t have pent-up energy and emotions of solitary stabled horses.

  • Horses with stress disorders such as box-walking, weaving, cribbing or wind-sucking are able to express themselves in a herd, move around, browse constantly on a high fibre diet, this relieve anxiety and boredom

  • Fitness levels increase, bye-bye horsewalkers for low grade exercise, because horses move miles more when tracked compared to square paddocks, muscles are gently toned and worked in a natural way.

‘Well that sound great but… Yikes!’ I hear you say, ‘That sounds like a lot of work and I’ll have to feed hay all the time, it sounds difficult and expensive’.

It is true that the set up cost of tracks are dear, but if you already have some electric fencing you can set up a track quite easily and cheaply, otherwise it's a onetime investment – still cheaper than vets bills. You don’t have go mad with making everything perfect all at once, it can start basic and evolve over time. And hay costs, well, if you are able you can harvest your grass from the unused areas of the pasture, if this isn’t possible and you are on a more traditional livery arrangement. Also if you currently stable your horse either day or night or both, it’s highly likely they already eat lots of hay and you also pay for bedding – straw, shavings etc – which you will no longer need.

The other often discussed big issue is ‘It will trash the land’ or ‘My land is too wet for a track system’. Well, yes it will ‘trash the land’ or at least a 5-8m strip of land around the edge of your field. The rest will be nice grass land which will encourage wildlife and plants. The ‘My land is too wet’ issue is a big one for most people in the UK, particularly with the winters we have had recently where we have been battered week after week by Atlantic storm bringing high winds and torrential rain. Many horse owners where reaching for the waders and snorkel just to be able to do the basics.

The answer to this issue is complex, because every horse owner out there is in a unique situation, each horse is an individual and how they cope with wet and mud or the alternative of 24/7 stabling is again very individual. The slightly witty phrase that springs to mind is ‘If you don’t like where you are move, you are not a tree!’ The whole hearted commitment to NHC is a challenge, I know I have left many a livery yard because goal posts moved or suddenly my horses did not have what they needed, including turnout. So I have moved, many times, still haven’t found exactly the right place yet – but that’s another story.

In an ideal world you can create an ‘All-weather track’ – using gravels, sands etc. – even if this is just a small part of your overall track system and you have a summer extension when it’s dryer, that’s fine. Also, if you have horses that can tolerate eating winter grass, particularly if said grass is now the rough, seeded and ‘over’ type you will cultivate inside your track then open it up in the winter and rest the track.

If you are in a situation where your horse lives in a bog or clay pit, and you have zero turnout from October to April then it might be time to make a change, unless you have a land owner that will allow the laying of all-weather.

Natural Diet - Forage

What is a ‘natural diet’ for a domestic horse? Grass is natural, hay is natural, and the horse feed that says it’s ‘All-Natural’ is natural –right? Ermm…. Well, yes and no.

Grass is natural, it grows the world over, but the grass we grow here in the UK has been carefully cultivated to be high-yield grass – excellent for raising cows and producing dairy and beef products. Grass to some has become the devil plant, to be avoided at all costs, and it is true that some horses just cannot tolerate grass. There are loads of different species of grass and grass is what wild horses eat, but the types of grass our equine friends have evolved to eat has a very different nutritional balance to the green and pleasant land pastures of our small wet island.

The one of the key differences is the sugar to fibre ratio, modern grass is high sugar, high moisture and relatively low in fibre. The horse’s gut has evolved to process fibre from multiple species of grasses and extract the required nutrients from a high fibre diet. Wild horses seek out a variety of grasses and herbs because each has a different nutritional availability of key vitamins and minerals. Now whilst the grass seed sales merchants seem to be catching up with the ‘Natural Horse Grasses’ trend, most of us are stuck with existing pasture and are not in a position to change it. So what’s the solution?

Again, this is very individual (there’s a theme here – one size does not fit all!), some horses can tolerate grass, some only certain type – or at certain times of year (winter grass), others not at all. We know that horses are designed to eat high fibre forage so to provide this hay becomes the substitute for grass.

‘Wait – what – but hay is grass?!!!’ Yes, hay is grass, but it is also processed in such a way that the moisture and sugar content is reduced, particularly the way we tend to make hay in the UK, as we cut after the grass has seeded, thus increasing the fibre and reducing the sugar.

Sadly, all hay is not made equal. There are many many grass lays that have utilised the fast growing, high-yielding, rich grass types – a ‘Italian Rye and Clover blend’ is very popular for hay and haylage making (and yes – I know Clover is technically a legume). It’s fast, reliable and responds really well to nitrogen fertilisers and you might every get 2-3 crops a year off it. Great if you are a farmer maximising yield – bad, terrible, and possibly lethal if you are a horse owner. So how do we know what we are buying?

Know your grasses is my advice. You don’t have to become a grass nerd, but know what rye grass looks like and clover, both are very distinctive and easy to spot without becoming an expert. If it’s wrapped hay or haylage, ask the farmer. Granted they may give you a funny look but they’ll know what their grass is. Look for mixed meadow hay on old lays, older grasses are less perfected for high-yields, upland meadows are better than brand new pastures – unless these are very non-rye horse grass friendly. Knowing what you are feeding is half the battle.

Rye Grass (left) & Clover (right)

If you really want to go to town on it or you are at your wits end and can’t work out why the horse still has laminitis, bad feet, bad skin or stomach ulcers then forage analysis will tell you lots. There are two type of analysis – nutritional and mineral. Nutritional analysis deals with things like Digestible Energy, Crude Fibre and Protein levels, similar to what you have on the back of the average feed bag. Mineral analysis is all about essential mineral availability in the forage, things like iron, copper, zinc, calcium, magnesium – the building blocks for cells in the horses body to use to make muscles, bone, hair, skin, feet – that stuff.

So what do you do then? It kind of depends on the results, but you could discover that your hay is really high in sugar and not suitable for a laminitic. You could discover that your grass is really high in iron which is blocking the uptake of copper or zinc. You could discover any number of things, but what this information will give you is the start of a plan, a plan that is tailor made to your grass, your hay and most importantly your horse. There are many companies offering forage analysis, and good hay merchants will probably have at least a nutritional analysis available if you ask. The company I used was ForagePlus, lovely people, really helpful, not only did they provide the analysis but also the golden ratios of the mineral needs for horses so it was easy to see the forage minerals available versus the ideal.

So the healing benefits of a natural forage based diet that is high in fibre and balanced in nutrients allow us to ‘treat’ various ailments –

  • Skin issues where no matter what lotion, potion or rug you use your horse has bad skin, missing hair patches, scruffiness, oily, scabby or itchy – the correct mineral balance is essential to the health of all tissues – including the hair and skin

  • Feet – thin soles, brittle hooves, cracks, separation of the white line - a correct diet of high fibre, low sugar, nutrient and mineral balanced forage will provide the horse with the building blocks he need to grow and maintain good feet

  • Stomach ulcers – when a horse has a comprised gut everything else suffers; skin, feet, muscles. Once a diet of high fibre, correctly balanced forage is available the gut can heal and the whole horse can function properly again.

I’m sure I have missed at least one or two ailments that are in my opinion 100% man-made and created by the rather unnatural lifestyle most of our horses tend to lead. To make the change to a NHC approach might seem like a big step, but there is a lot of support out there – friends, facebook groups, natural horse care professional (of which the numbers are ever growing) – help is available. Take the step, make the change – your horse will thank you – if you’ll pardon the blatant anthropomorphisation .

Part 2 of this blog will go on to discuss feeds and supplements, plus the other two pillars of NHC – yeah, there may be more than 2 parts.

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