Living as nature intended

Group living.jpg

A more natural approach to keeping your horse is possible for every horse owner, whatever your circumstances.

To help you discover how easy it can be, we asked equine welfare specialist and natural livery yard owner Lauren Johnson for her advice on common management practices.

She says you can make small changes for a happier, healthier horse, whatever your circumstances.

“In my experience, the main motivation for keeping your horse more naturally is the benefit to your horse,” says Lauren, “But you’ll also find the changes will benefit you as well.

“The basis for providing your horse with a more natural way of life is looking at how he would live and thrive in the wild, and how you can translate this to a domesticated lifestyle.”

Below, Lauren explains what changes you can make to several key aspects of your horse care regime.

A natural diet

Nutrition is one of the most important elements to get right, especially when you want your horse to live more naturally. A horse’s gut is an environment that requires an appropriate balance for it to be able to provide the right fuel for energy and warmth.

A wild horse will travel many miles every day in search of a variety of forage and, often, it’s of low nutritional value.

The gut is designed to extract nutrition from the most fibrous and awkward of plant matter. By doing this, it’s working at its best and common conditions like colic, gastric ulcers and laminitis are less likely to occur.

Other ailments, such as arthritis, recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID; also known as Cushing’s disease), and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) are a lower risk too.

“The best way to emulate this in a domestic environment is to consider the type of forage that makes up the majority of your horse’s diet,” says Lauren. “Look to provide a mould-
 and dust-free meadow hay with a variety of species of grass that are less sugar and starch dense.

“If possible, grass and hay that contains rye grass should be avoided as it can produce and store huge amounts of sugars compared to other hay types.”

These sugars unbalance the delicate gut micro-organisms and that’s when health issues start to occur. Unfortunately, many modern pastures are comprised of rye as it’s fast growing and hardy.

Don’t limit forage

As well as grazing, a horse will browse from hedges and shrubs and reach up to trees. But many horses, especially when stabled, are fed from a haynet at shoulder height, which isn’t a natural position for prolonged feeding.

Consider feeding from the floor or using a slow feeder — these are devices you can feed hay from that slow down the speed at which your horse eats his forage ration.

Both methods encourage him to eat with his head and neck lowered, which is important for a number of reasons, including maintaining a healthy respiratory tract, even teeth wear and mimicking a natural eating position.

Avoid letting your horse run out of forage. Providing him with ad-lib hay (essentially, he never runs out of forage to eat) is so important.

Even when your horse isn’t eating, his gut produces acid, and if the gut doesn’t have forage mixed with saliva in it to process, the squamous lining on the upper part of the stomach will be damaged by this acid, causing gastric ulcers.

Chewing is important, too, because it produces saliva, which also acts as an acid buffer.

Herd living

Horses in the wild live in groups. As a prey animal, they rely on their herd for protection. Essentially, it’s a case of safety in numbers.

As a herd they have more eyes and ears to detect threats, plus more bodies to help confuse predators and protect their young.

A study in 2015 by Nottingham Trent University showed that horses kept in isolation were more stressed than their counterparts kept in large or small groups.

A stable herd is preferable to a changing herd. When a group of horses are familiar with each other, they engage in mutual grooming, feeding together, playing and moving around to look for forage and water, providing protection and watching over herd members as they sleep.

Living in a group also helps lower stress levels, making the horse calmer to handle and work with. Often he’ll have a more confident demeanour too.

“Many people are concerned about group turnout and the risk of injury, but horses can also injure themselves in the stable, over fences and while being ridden,” says Lauren.

Introducing a new horse to a herd must be done safely, sensibly and never rushed.

“Every horse we bring into our herd is assessed during an isolation period and a plan for their introduction is formulated,” says Lauren. “In a larger group, it’s rarely as simple as turning out and hoping for the best.

“But, in my opinion, being able to provide a life for your horse that’s in tune with his physiology and psychology makes the risk worth taking.”

Don’t miss the latest issue of Your Horse Magazine, jam-packed with training and veterinary advice, horse-care tips and the latest equestrian products available on shop shelves, on sale now. Find out what’s in the latest issue here