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