The romantic image of horses eating from fields of green grass is one that we’ve seen time and time again. But the truth is, overgrazing in in lush pastures is the reason for many unnecessary domestic horse deaths every year.
The picture of a beautiful horse in an open, lush green grass pasture is to most people, a very romantic site to behold. It is the idea and image of the horse that we have been given in our culture. But does this image actually represent the natural horse?
Certainly horses eat grass but you will see how this limited understanding has played a major role in the downfall of the healthy, domestic horse.
The natural state
These is simply a lack of genuine understanding of the horse’s innate biology. The question of what horses need and how we can meet those needs has not been the center of gravity in the equine-human relationship. In my opinion, the horse’s well-being has not been the highest priority, usually coming in down the line after how useful they are or are not.
Although I do not condone the “use” of any animal for anything, and hold that a human should only support them in living a natural life in accordance with their species’ needs, I cannot help but periodically ponder how much more “useful” a working horse could have been all these years if the people who owned them actually had a sound understanding of the equine biology and, more importantly, their needs as exemplified in the equine living in her natural state, as we see in the US Great Basin.
Horses of the Great Basin
If we step out of the romantic image for a moment, then we can step into the Great Basin of the United States- a rugged, unforgiving, yet magical environment, home to a totally sound and magnificent population of horses.
From our current understandings of the fossil record, we know that the equine underwent her adaptation in an arid, high desert type biome, very similar to the Great Basin, but also similar to the Eastern Steppes, and the high deserts of Mongolia and Arabia. Thanks to photographers such as Phillip Adams of Nevada Wilds Photography, we have stunning proof of the vitality, rigor, and sheer strength this population of equines embody. You will also notice in his photos further proof of the sound and impeccable hooves of these horses.
Even the simple act of witnessing these photos can change one’s perception. These equines seem as if they are from a different universe, and certainly exhibit a different equine than we see in our backyard.
But are they really that different? Through current understandings of biological evolution we know that the amount of time it would take a species to undergo any significant change is huge, and could not realistically happen within the small time frame these animals have been in domestication. This means that on a base genetic level, the horses in the Great Basin and the horses in your paddock are, in essence, the same animal with the same needs. That begs the question: How do the horses that Phillip photographs look that way?
The answer is that these equines in the Nevada outback live free of human meddling, free of any obstruction between them and the natural world that they evolved in. Our job as horse people should be to observe and study these animals, as they represent the pinnacle of equine health. Their life ways are what we must emulate. There is no farrier in wild horse country. There is no vet. Yet they live free of the domestic horse issues we see as epidemic today from colic to clubfoot.
Jaime Jackson took it upon himself to study these animals in the mid 80’s, and his four-year study represents the foundation and heart of the wild horse model of domestic horse care, including hoof care.
In the outback of Nevada, there is no lush green pasture. It is a sparsely vegetated desert with dry bunch grasses, wild herbs, roots, barks, and even berries, but no lush green pasture. Thankfully the greater world of domestic horse lovers are beginning to catch on and lush green grass pasture is becoming commonly known as not safe.
These rich grasses are not safe because they are too high in sugars/ carbohydrates. There is a delicate balance of microbial life in a horse’s gut, and these innate, good bacteria have their own biological requirements. If not fed properly, through a reasonably natural diet, then they are subject to being dominated by harmful bacteria that do not live in symbiosis with the equine.
The rich sugars feed these detrimental bacteria and facilitate their dominion. Through a complex series of metabolic events, these bad bacteria release waste by-products also known as endotoxins. These poisons travel the equine cardiovascular system, and once meeting the hoof, they initiate an enzymatic reaction that deteriorates the attachment mechanism that holds the hoof to the horse. This is commonly known as laminitis, and is the second most prolific killer of domestic horses today.
Unfortunately one area of research that still needs to be conducted is the diets of these free roaming horses of the Great Basin. We do not yet know the depth and complexity of the natural horse’s diet, yet we do know what works as far as what is available in the domestic horse world, and what absolutely does not. Remember, what I am talking about is a change in values, to the level that we start to compare our horses to the wild ones, and hold them as the standard.
Sure, someone might say their horses do just fine on green grass pasture, but to what degree of soundness and vitality are we talking about? How far are you willing to go to have a horse that lives pain free and is capable of carrying a rider over any and every terrain with no “protection” through steel or boot? This change in values, to holding this standard of health, is what will turn the wheel for the lives of domestic horses.
By emulating the life ways of these horses, we raise the standard of horse care, and become a living example for what is possible. Don’t know how to go about getting started? No worries. The AANHCP (Association of the Advancement of Natural Horse Care Practices) holds this model and its long history of success in applying it is a testament to its validity.
If you visit their site here, you can find a practitioner to consult with, and begin reading articles and getting books that will guide you.
There is a plenty of support in treading this path now, and the efficacy and truth of this path is indisputable now. At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding so to speak. Is your horse experiencing total soundness on all levels, on all terrains? If not, then know there is more to do, or perhaps less to do. Learn and know the natural horse inside and out. This knowledge will be your greatest ally as you face the inertia, stagnation, and resistance of a dying equine tradition rooted in pathology.