Perception vs. Reality: Equine Myths and Mistakes!

One might think that with some 60 million horses in the world that we would, as a civilization in love with these beautiful animals, have a good understanding of the species – how to properly feed them, how to provide ample and healthy living conditions, when and how to ride them, what to feed them along with how much and how often, and how to best care for their feet without much risk of causing them any harm.

Many people think – or have thought at one time – that the idyllic setting for horses is something along the lines of the pastoral setting of Kentucky with their flat green carpets of grass surrounded by white 3-rail fencing for them to graze and frolic in by day and, at night, a beautiful, airy barn with large rubber-mat-lined stalls filled knee-high with fluffy pine shavings. In the more luxurious barns, a ceiling fan might be mounted over the stalls and a few toys are hanging from the ceiling to stave off any possible boredom. And for the especially pampered horse – often the prized breeding stallion - he might even have a window to the outside world so he can keep a watch on his harem. And then, when this hypothetical stallion is turned out, we can imagine how he will tear around his small paddock kicking and bucking in full of animated glory.


Perception:  What we think is 'natural' for horses!  Photo © Jill Willis

While it is certainly a pretty picture on the surface, there are numerous problems with the vision. Horses did not evolve to eat on the thick carpets of irrigated, fertilized grass so often provided them. Further, many - or most - domestic pastures have been planted with grasses that are so rich in sugars and/or high in carbohydrates that they severely impact the horse’s sensitive digestive system and can easily cause laminitis – a debilitating disease whose symptoms show up most glaringly in the hooves. In fact, just a quick glance in any direction in the U.S. Great Basin’s wild horse country is an arid environment with rocks and dirt as far as the eye can see and only the faintest sprinkling of desert grasses and plants. Their native habitats provide a little bit of a whole lot of different kinds of food ‘here and there’ that are positioned over great distances.

Reality: A wild horse grazing in a genuine 'natural pasture' in Nevada. Photo © Phillip Adams

Confinement to a cage or stall is another common practice that is contrary to the needs of the horse. The very fact that nature designed an animal who walks up to 25 miles per day in order to access both water as well as the sparse sprinkling of forage is a good indication that movement is necessary (i.e., required) for optimal health. If the biology of these animals requires that they walk great distances in their native habitat, one can only begin to imagine how their health suffers when they are unable – or uninspired – to move even a mile during a given day in their domestic environment.

Perception: A small pen (continued below)  Photo © Jill Willis

... or a stall is a suitable home for a horse.   Photo © Jill Willis

And in those instances where they are kept in a small pen or cage all day, their exercise is often limited to pacing – which would be more akin to the neurotic behavior demonstrated by confined animals that is not uncommon to see in zoos. Pawing, cribbing, weaving, sidepassing the walls or running their teeth up and down or across the bars of their cage are not actual ‘vices’ but they are responses to their unnatural – and, in essence, inhumane care.  Note the 'cribbing collar' worn by the horse in the photo above.

Reality: Horses need movement for physical and mental health.  Photo © Luca Gandini

Horses who pin their ears when humans approach their stalls are not necessarily ‘mean’ but they are likely very angry. Given that they are kept in such an unnatural manner would likely mean they are no better understood when removed from their stalls. Compounded with an unnatural lifestyle of isolation and confinement is the physical discomfort from gastrointestinal disorders that can easily result from fed in a manner that is similar to the way humans eat but is unsuitable for horses.

As well, horses are herd animals – which mean they need to be with others of their species. Many owners will state "my horse does not like other horses."  And while they truly believe this to be the case, the reality is most likely that their horses have suffered some element of psychological damage from the unnatural confinement and isolation they've endured and may simply need to be rehabilitated by providing them with a more natural lifestyle.  Unless the abuse has been exceptionally severe, most horses should be able to be rehabilitated.

Perception: Not all horses can be turned out with other horses.  Photo © Jill Willis

Reality: Almost all horses can and should be turned out with other horses but should have ample room to 'get away' or maintain some distance.  Photo © Jill Willis

For example, the bay gelding with the white star in the photo above was a stallion until he was almost eight years old and lived in and out of a show barn from the time he was just six months old in order to be shown as a yearling.  He was gelded because he was so 'rank' and the 'professional' opinion of some of the country's top horse trainers was that he would not be able to be turned out with other horses.  But just a few weeks of living a more natural lifestyle after his 9th birthday, he easily and happily adjusted to being out with a small herd.  Why?  Because that is what they want and need more than anything!

Those of us who know the signs or symptoms of healthy and happy horses have never seen one who is anything but ‘unhappy’ when forced to live in isolation and confinement. In fact, what can be perceived as passivity or even contentment in some horses is a psychological conditional called “dissociation” which is a state of detachment – likely a coping mechanism – that can result from repeatedly enduring stressful situations such as boredom or conflict. This is one of the most common conditions we see each time we visit a boarding or training facility. 

It does not take long before one can see that, as a society, we have created an infrastructure that simply does not hold the health or happiness of horses anywhere near the top of a priority scale and, to the contrary, prevention is almost entirely overlooked. But when you imagine the financial loss resulting from horses being kept in a healthy, natural manner, it is no wonder that those who promote such unnatural practices and procedures would scoff at the ‘silliness’ of ideas such as these. It is a multi-billion dollar business not only to treat the symptoms of disorders, diseases and/or various pathological conditions these practices create but also to cause them. It is the rare equine professional who will look to eliminate the cause of the problem.

Even horseshoes came about in similar manner of ‘treating the symptoms’ that these unnatural lifestyles and diets create.  When they were first domesticated about 8,000 years ago, horses spent the better part of their lives in the rugged mountains ranges, deserts and semi-arid regions of the world such as those ridden by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamians, Mongolians, Turks, Bedouins, Arabs, etc., and they were ridden unshod.

But sometime around 700 A.D., with the rapid development of kingdoms and castles– complete with cavalries and armies to secure or defend various geographic areas, horses had increasingly been removed from their free-roaming lifestyle and were moved into small spaces for reasons such as an easier prevention of theft and keep the horses close by in a location convenient to the desire to be able to tack them up at a moment’s notice. Of course,what was happening was the creation of the notion that it was acceptable to keep these 1,000 pound animals warehoused or ‘in storage’ so that they were easily accessible.

Perception: Horses need shoes for protection.  (Above is the hoof of a 5-year-old horse who just had its shoes removed a few moments earlier.  He was scheduled to be euthanized because his hooves were falling apart and could no longer hold a shoe.  Photo © Jaime Jackson)

Confinement and isolation for a nomadic, social, herd animal is not only likely to be torturous for them psychologically but also is physically unhealthy.  Consider that there are simply no competitive athletes who confine themselves to a small room while doing nothing 23 hours per day before vigorously competing or training during the remaining hour!  But this is precisely the lifestyle forced upon horses that first became popular during the Middle Ages and remains with us today! Of course, the most obvious consequence was the deterioration of the horses’ hooves. In fact, as the practice of caging horses grew, it is easy to understand why an epidemic of hoof problems was rampant throughout Europe. This, then, led to the technology called horseshoeing or blacksmithing, which provided an instant treatment to the symptoms of the unnatural care.

Reality: The health shows up in the hooves!  (This is the same hoof six months later.  New ownership brought new living conditions, dietary changes and the natural trim method (which the AANHCP uses as its guidelines for trimming) and the horse has all the protection it needs. Photo © Jaime Jackson)

Once kingdoms were replaced by cities, the management practices of horses did not change much with the Renaissance era or with any other, for that matter. Although horses ceased to be used for war, there was a period of time when a large segment of society was increasingly horse-dependent. So the practice of caging them continued and remained unquestioned by most for its ill-effects just as the practice of nailing shoes to their feet. In fact, by the late 18th Century – and the advent of the Industrial Revolution – most European, and later, American horses were routinely shod and the horse, often viewed as a commodity, was worked with little regard for its comfort or happiness.

Following World War II, automobiles and tractors increasingly replaced horses for transportation and farm work and the species became most popular as a means of ‘pleasure,’ ‘sport’ or ‘recreation.’ Interestingly enough, although many horses were kept on farms and ranches with large acreage, the traditions of keeping horses conveniently ‘warehoused’ in close confinement - and in shoes – remained a tradition. Although many ‘pleasure’ and recreational horses are allowed to remain barefoot, the norm for most competitive horses has been for them to be routinely shod as well as caged for the better part of the day. Most show barns do not allow the horses any turn-out time except on the ‘hot walker’ or during training or riding sessions. And if some minor turn-out time in a small arena is allowed, it is an extreme rarity for these social animals to have any time with other members of their species. Turnout is typically in isolation – in a round pen or arena and often the horses just frantically stand by the gate while frantically calling out to other horses while the humans misread the behavior as the horse not wanting to be out there. Of course, it is the isolation from others rather than the freedom that causes horses to be uncomfortable. Deep in their DNA – as animals of nomadic, herd animals of prey – is the message that they are ‘at risk’ when isolated from other horses.

Interestingly enough, most basic ‘boarding facilities,’ offer the option of a healthier and more natural social structure through ‘pasture board’ – most often at a lower price than the more prestigious (but unhealthy & unnatural) stall board. However, pasture board can also be problematic if it provides your horse with an all access pass to a carpet of thick, green grass – like turning a child loose at an all you can eat buffet of sugar and saturated fats masquerading as doughnuts, cupcakes, candies, cookies and pies. Of course, the term ‘insulin resistant’ has become a popular buzz word to describe some horses, but the position of the AANHCP is that all equines are susceptible. In other words, the species, equus ferus caballus, is most likely an insulin resistant one and what is not good for the horse labeled “IR” is not good for any of them. But it is not only the high carb and rich, sugary engineered grasses that can be problematic for our horses. Much of what is found packaged at the local farm and feed store – or through internet retailers – is not any better.

The entire infrastructure for managing our horses needs to change and the intention set by those of us at the AANHCP is to do all we can to make this a reality. But as is often the case, change does not come easy and those who profit most from the unhealthy and unnatural traditional methods will fight these steps in every possible way. From those agricultural industries that profit from sales of their waste-products utilized by the ‘feed industry’ to the commercial sales of these leftovers – and often, ‘floor sweepings – that fill the beautifully packaged bags sold as ‘horse feed’ are not likely going to go away willingly. Nor are the makers of ‘stall toys’ who have created an entire industry to help lessen the symptoms of psychological abuse that afflicts most horses living in constant long-term confinement and isolation. Of course, all these manufacturers could turn their sights on what is healthy and natural for the species and create products that enhance the quality of the horse’s life and promote well-being and longevity. Our desire is not to put anyone out of business but instead, inspire the manufacturers to change their products to meet the needs of the species rather than the needs created by the vast pathological symptoms and conditions resulting from an infrastructure created for convenience to the participating humans involved with these animals.
Contrary to the belief of many, horses do not need to ‘work’ or ‘have a job’ to be happy and/or healthy but they do need to move. So what is the ideal? While we frequently hear ‘there is nothing natural about ‘keeping’ or riding a horse.’ While this may be true, that does not mean that society should resort to doing everything in the worst and most unnatural manner possible! In fact, the more natural of a lifestyle and diet you can provide for your horse, the healthier he will be and, it would appear, healthy horses are happy horses.

So if you are one of the many who have decided you would like to better meet the natural needs of your horse, you would do the following things:

A simulated natural environment at the AANHCP Field Headquarters in Lompoc, California.  Photo © Jill Willis

• Limit (or eliminate) free-choice access to pasture grasses unless they are those native to a semi-arid, high-desert biome.

• Track your pasture with by adding an interior (or exterior fence) that runs parallel to your existing fence in order to instigate more movement. (See “Paddock Paradise: A Guide to Natural Horse Boarding for more information.)

• Feed your horse the right kind of diet in the right manner. Provide free-choice access to many different kinds of low sugar grass hays as possible. Depending upon the time of year, horses can easily eat up to three percent of their body weight in hay per day. And don’t worry that your horse will get a ‘hay belly’ or gain weight. Just like humans on a crash diet, starving a horse will only make them store more fat cells in addition to the painful complication of gastric ulcers that can result from long periods without access to any food. Horses secrete hydrochloric acid 24 hours per day whether they have access to food or not and thus, these digestive acids essentially eat away at the stomach and intestinal lining when food is not present to be broken down. Think of the typical ‘show barn’ manner of feeding: three meals per day of alfalfa and large quantities of grain followed by many hours of nothing and you have an ideal recipe for ulcers and, even worse, colic.

Scatter hay along the track or hang it from small hole hay nets to prevent waste.  Photo © Jill Willis

• Wait until your horse is fully mature before starting to ride and you will likely have a sound, healthy horse for a lifetime. Ideally, wait until the age of six when their skeletal structure has completely matured. (My own personal all-time favorite horse to ride was a mare who did not get started under saddle until she was 10 years old. I often wonder if her extreme athletic abilities and gymnasticized body was an accidental but wonderful consequence of having been fully mature before she was ever ridden.

• Cease thinking of stalls as ‘equine bedrooms’ and begin to view them for what they are – cages or storage lockers. Use them sparingly – for grooming or for isolating your horse while he is eating supplements.

• Throw any and all beet pulp or feed with beet pulp in the top 15 ingredients into the garbage or compost heap. Whether organic or GMO, many unshod horses are ‘foot sore’ or ‘sensitive’ on hard ground or gravel until the beet pulp is removed from the diet. This is one of the biggest waste products that you can put into a horse (with rice bran, soy, corn and various grain by-products running closely behind. They serve no healthy purpose for the horse.

The more natural the environment, the better!  Photo © Jill Willis

• The health of the horse shows up in the hooves! The best environment and diet is up to the horse owner or the boarding facility. The person trimming the hoof may be able to provide advice and conduct a great natural trim but is not capable of providing a horse with a healthy hoof. That is up to the person managing the animal. Proper hoof care is going to come from a competent, skilled hoof care practitioner who understands the naturally shaped hoof. This can be facilitated through trimming but the horse needs to grow its own healthy foot.

• Let your horse live with other horses – of all ages, sexes and breeds. It is not natural for these very social creatures to be forced to live alone without the ability to run together, eat, groom, play, fight and bite.

• Remove the shoes. In this day and age where we have easy access to all terrain vehicles, off-road carts, automobiles, tractors, motorcycles, and dirt bikes, it is simply not necessary for horses to be used in a way that exceeds the ability of their feet or bodies.

• Use a good farrier, hoof care practitioner or trimmer. Get references. Educate yourself so that you know what a naturally healthy hoof looks like. (See photo albums on the AANHCP facebook page or get a copy of “The Natural Trim: Principles and Practice” by Jaime Jackson. Horses should never be sore following a trim. If anyone suggests the hoof can be carved to look a particular way – like a wild horse for instance or, worse yet, says the horse will be in pain temporarily as a part of its ‘rehabilitation,’ ask the person to leave and send your horses off running in the other direction!

Educate yourself on what is and is not a healthy hoof!

• When you do start riding, ask around to find the most humane and skilled trainer available. This won’t be easy. If the trainer does not know how to properly care for their horses, it is unlikely that they have any better insights to their minds. I know I would never (never, ever!) condone sending a horse to or blindly following the methods of a trainer who adds molasses to the water to encourage hydration, keeps them in a fertilized, irrigated green pastures for marketing purposes or begins riding them as babies to start building a return on their investment. So you have to ask yourself why you would feel comfortable following the training methods of someone who clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the basic needs of these animals.

One of the earliest books on truly natural horsemanship by the Greek Cavalry General is a must for any serious equestrian! 

If you need assistance, seek the help of one of our practitioners or trimmers located on the Find a Trimmer listing. Or, seek a consultation from Jaime Jackson or myself to get the diet and living conditions for your horse in the best optimal manner possible. Follow logic, follow nature and educate yourself. And beware any ‘equine nutritionists’ who might deviate from the advice provided here. The diet of the wild, free-roaming equines in the wild has never been studied and thus, there is no research on the nutritional needs or requirements of these animals. What we know is that the more we can provide our domestic horses with a diet that is similar to those of their cousins living in the U.S. Great Basin, the better off they remain. The equine world is a confusing and often misleading one and the goal of the AANHCP is to help horses around the world not only to survive but to thrive and be happy. And once you have stumbled upon this information, you owe it the horses to share this as far and widely as possible.

Understand the lifestyle of the horse in the wild and their natural gait complex in order to be a better guardian for your domestic horse.

This was Jaime Jackson's first book, released in 1992, following a four-year period he spent in and out of wild horse country in the U.S. Great Basin.  It is the foundation upon which the AANHCP was formed and is at the heart of its vital mission.

Jill Willis, April 2, 2014

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  • Jill rodger on

    This article makes so much sense and highlights the ancient malpractices that have kept our horses as permanent invalids. I will resend it to my horse keeping friends. Thank you

  • Katia on

    An article on how to feed a horse on the equator or tropics please. Where rains and lush grasses are the norm. Where they no wild roaming horses on the equator. Don t green grasses have a good role in the bacterial gut environment they should not be completely removed. Like any diet it should be balanced. An article on how horses live on the tropics would really help. Thanks

  • Sarah Cunningham on

    Excellent read ,thank-you I will share this post!

  • Paul Merritt on

    This is a great article with sound advice that translates into what should be common sense with regard to proper horse care! Hopefully as horse owners become more informed, the benefits of natural horse care will become more prevalent.

  • Barbara Warner on

    Many thanks for all the excellent advise. Will share.

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