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Living Requirements for Horses
WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor   [July 5, 2002]

In today's world, a very large percentage of conventional boarding environments are based more and more on the needs of the horse owners than on the needs of the horse. These sacrifices, which are generally done to make horse keeping more "convenient", are instigating health problems and reducing the horse's lifespan and natural healing abilities.

Most horse owners do not realize that the horse is very much different from ourselves. We need to start taking the horse's natural lifestyle into account and stop "humanizing" them. For example: Many horse owners believe that their horse is most comfortable in a stall deeply bedded with shavings or straw. However, this is not true (explained below). The horse does not find comfort in many of the things that we conventionally provide it.

This article is intended to help you, as a horse owner or student, to understand the proper natural environment in which horses are born to live in. After all, the horse's environment plays the key role in it's overall health and lifespan, and we all want the very best for our much-loved horses.

Picture: Tawny & Grace © Linda Harper

24-7 Freedom of Movement. No stalling.

When a horse is kept in a stall or otherwise confined, even for brief periods, the heart becomes over-stressed which results in heart and circulatory problems. In addition, due to this lack of circulation, the horse begins to lose bone density, develop conformation flaws and the hooves begin to deform. 24-7 freedom of movement is absolutely necessary to maintain the health of your horse.

In addition to stalling being a health risk to your horse, I also believe it to be a moraly incorrect arrangement. Many of us love our horses to pieces, yet, we don't realize how much our horses being kept in 12x12 box stalls is comparable to a human inmate in an 8x8 prison cell. The horse stands in the stall day-in and day-out with no real reason to live. It usually cannot socialize through the stall walls and is commonly unable to have enough movement to maintain optimal health, both physically and mentally.

The bedding also plays a large role in the horse's overall health. When a horse is traditionally bedded on wood shavings, those shavings wick away moisture from the horse's feet, drying them out. Both shavings and straw retain ammonia from the horse's urine, which futher break down and destroy the hoof structure. Not to mention the decreased air-flow in a stalled environment causing many types of respiratory problems in horses. Also, in the wild, a horse who sleeps on soft footing does not survive because it is too difficult to stand and run quick enough when a predator approaches. This fear is not only present in wild horses, but just as much in our domesticated horses too. They become mentally and physically imbalanced when kept in stalls.

Bad habits and behaviors may also develop due to boredom, lack of herd environment, and lack of exercise. Horses that are stall-kept are often found chewing wood, cribbing, pacing, pawing, weaving, head shaking, etc. How often do you see wild horses or free-roaming horses exhibiting these behaviors? Walk into a conventional boarding facility and a very large percentage of the horses will have some degree of these behaviors.

The answer? Try finding an arrangement as close to 24-7 grass pasture and freedom of movement with a shelter or barn that you possibly can. Allow the horse access to free-choice salt and mineral blocks that are designed for horses. When you allow the horse to make it's own choices, whether it wants to stand outside or inside at any given moment, you will find that most horses will even stand outside in the rain and snow when given the choice. Your horse's system will begin to work as it is intended by nature, and he will live healthier, happier and longer because of it. However, if you live in an area that is known to have free roaming predators, be sure to take the proper measures to keep them out of your horse's pasture. A strong, tall wire-mesh style of fencing will keep most predators and animals out of your pastures.

Natural Herdlife.

Horses have a very complex social structure and crave the company of other horses. Without the structure and pecking order of a group or herd, the horse will suffer psychologically. We know from our own human experiences how much a psychological imbalance affects our existance and overall health. It is the same for horses. Horses rely on the group or herd for their own safety. When a horse in the wild becomes separated from their herd, they are destined to be eaten by a predator. This instinct lives just as strong in our domesticated horses today.

In most conventional boarding facilities, horses are kept in stalls and out of the view from other horses, or on individual turnout without direct contact with other horses. I do not believe that it is right to take our horses, of which are highly social herd anmials, and put them into an environment where they cannot interact with other horses all day and all night. Horses need this social interaction not only at certain times of the day...but ALL day long.

Picture: Anna, Cowgirl and Smokey © Carol Lewins

Free-choice Grazing/Hay, Fed at Ground Level.

The horse's stomach and intestines require the processing of roughage nearly all day and all night. The horse's stomach continually produces digestive acids which are present even when there is no food in it to digest. When the horse goes for prolonged periods (horses that are fed only 2-3 meals per day), the stomach lining becomes damaged and may result in the bacterial imbalance in the intestines which causes colic or poisoning.

In addition, wild horses rarely eat grain, and grain tends to "lump" when mixed with the horse's saliva resulting in further stomach and intestinal problems. The only grain found to be well-digested by the horse is oats. I recommend feeding horses free-choice hay and/or enough pasture grass to allow the horse to graze continually all day and night.

To help your horse's feeding situation even further, all hay and feed should be fed at ground-level. The wild horse's food is almost always found on the ground. The horse's conformation allows for ground-level feeding to be the healthiest for it. In conventional boarding facilities, you will most often see grain being fed to horses at shoulder level and hay fed in nets and racks secured high on walls. When the horse eats with a raised head, respiratory problems can result. Not to mention, increased risk of inhaling bacteria, viruses and germs in addition to the excess stress on the horse's entire body due to the un-natural stance.

10-20 Miles of Movement Per Day.

The natural movement of the wild horse is approximately 10-20 miles per day. Wild horses in their natural environment need to move almost constantly between feeding areas and watering holes to ensure that they receive the proper nutrition. This movement helps to condition and support the horse's circulatory system by the continual pumping done by the horse's heart, muscles and hooves. Horses need this amount of activity daily in order to ensure maximum health and longevity.

To meet the recommended 10-20 miles per day exercise, you can do a number of things. The first and most important is to allow your horse a 24-7 pasture arrangement with a shelter. One simple suggestion is to place the horse's watering area and hay/grazing area further apart so the horse needs to walk back and forth between the two areas throughout the day. Another suggestion is to keep horses in groups so they will run, jump and play with each other to encourage movement. If neither of the above 2 options is feasible, hand-walking and riding will help. However, it is better for the horse to have less movement over a longer period of time (half a mile of walking per hour), than to have one hard ride each day just to get the recommended miles in. Having less movement over a longer period of time allows the horse's circulatory system to exercise all day similar to the wild horse, instead of, say, 1 or 2 hours per day.

Daily Exposure of Hooves to Water.

Wild horses drink from streams, creeks, lakes, etc. The horses will stand in the water while they drink. The benefits of standing in water 5-10 minutes daily are great. Over millions of years of evolution, the horse's hooves have become dependent on water to maintain elasticity and suppleness. The water is absorbed by the hooves, which helps to keep them from drying out, and also allows them to mold and conform better to whatever terrain they are travelling on.

If your horse does not have access to a pond, creek or lake, here are some suggestions: hose your horse's hooves for 5-10 minutes daily. Or, try using soaking boots. I have seen many horse owners build "hoof spas" by using a tarp and four 8-10 ft. logs to form a square which will hold water in, placed in the pasture or shelter to allow the horse to stand in it whenever it pleases.

Picture: Moon & Zippie © Sherry Froemming

Correct Barefoot Trimming. No Horseshoes.

The barefoot hoof is a very complex organ which is especially important to the horse's health. On weightbearing, the hoof expands, allowing blood to flow into it. As the horse lifts the foot, it contracts, which pumps and squeezes the blood back up to the horse's heart. In the presence of shoes nailed onto the horse's hoof, the hoof is unable to expand and contract, reducing blood flow. This reduction in blood flow damages the internal structures of the hoof.

In addition to this, studies have shown that this expanding and contracting motion makes up for 70-80% of the horse's shock absorption. When a shoe is applied to the hoof, the horse will lack 70-80% of it's natural shock absorption. This damages the internals of the hoof.

Here are a few more problems that horseshoes cause our horses:
  • When a shoe is applied, the horse can no longer feel the ground it walks on, increasing the possibility of stumbling and injury.
  • The horseshoe vibrates at 800Hz on hard ground, which damages the living tissue not only in the horse's hoof, but all the way up the leg also.
  • The horseshoe provides an anaestetic affect on the hoof, which hides underlying problems. Underlying problems should not be "numbed" with shoes, but rather, the shoes should be removed and the underlying problem allowed to heal through correct, natural barefoot trimming.
  • Structural deviations of the lamellae are found in nearly all shod horses.
  • A horse without shoes trotting on pavement is exposed to 3 times LESS the impact forces of a shod horse walking on pavement!
  • Repetitive shoeing causes the hoof to become squeezed together, deforming bones and creating irritation and pain.
  • Nail holes invite ammonia, bacteria, rust and other harmful substances into the internals of the hoof, causing infection and other problems.
  • Horses and humans have an increased risk of injury or death when around horses wearing horseshoes.
  • Shoeing contracts the hoof, pinching the internal structures and causing the horse pain, irritation and discomfort.
  • Did you know that Founder and Navicular are completely man-made problems? Attempts at corrective shoeing have produced extremely low success rates in treating these problems over the years. However, I have seen an extremely high success rate (over 95%) in rehabilitating lame horses using a physiologically correct barefoot trim and natural environment.
  • Many More...there are so many negative sides to using horseshoes, I cannot list them all here. However, the problems listed above should give you a general idea of how harmful the horseshoe is to the horse's overall health and longevity.

What about orthopedic or corrective shoeing? Horseshoes have such a horrible affect on the horse that healing can not take place properly, due to a decrease in circulation caused by the shoes. The shoes need to be taken off and the horse will need a proper physiologically correct barefoot trim, performed by a certified professional hoofcare specialist. Most farriers have not learned to perform a physiologically correct barefoot trim.

For more information about barefoot transitioning and high-performance barefoot trimming, or to learn more about the negative effects of shoeing, I highly recommend Dr. Hiltrud Strasser's books: "A Lifetime of Soundness" and "Shoeing: A Necessary Evil?" These books can be ordered at: www.MarthaOlivo.com. I highly recommend both books to anyone who owns or cares for horses.

No Articles of Clothing.

In a natural setting, wild horses do not wear blankets, leg wraps or other clothing materials. Horses have amazing temperature regulating systems. The horse's skin has insulating properties in addition to each hair shaft being connected to muscle tissue, which allows the hair to raise or lower, changing the thickness of the haircoat, in order to cool or warm the body. When a blanket is applied to a horse, it does not allow for the horse's natural temperature regulation to warm the body.

Leg wraps are another article of clothing that should not be used. When a leg wrap is applied to a horse, the blood vessels are restricted under the wrap which decreases circulation to the lower leg and hoof. Leg wraps have no benefit which is worth cutting-off circulation to the horse's lower extremities.

As we can now see, most conventional boarding situations are more damaging to our horse's health and longevity than we could ever imagine. When we took the liberty to domesticate horses and utilize them for our own personal reasons, we have taken them from their natural environment and have caused many problems for them while doing so. Horses have evolved over millions of years to not only be able to tolerate their natural environment, but to require it in order to live a long, healthy life. Let's do away with these harmful "conveniences" and bring our horses back to an environment in which they can enjoy a long, healthy and natural lifestyle.

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This article was published on: July 5, 2002. Last updated on: July 5, 2002.