Creating a Natural Equine Environment

A natural equine paradise might sound like a difficult thing to achieve, but it’s actually easier than you might think. By designing an environment for your horse that’s as close as possible to what his wild counterpart would experience, you too can create a natural paradise for your equine partner. All it takes is the desire to allow him to be what he is – a horse – and to understand some basic concepts about equine nature and behavior.

At home in a herd

Horses are herd animals, so being separated from others of their kind will cause them stress and anxiety. Being part of a herd, even if it’s only one other horse, imparts a sense of safety and is a strong instinctual drive. Horses have evolved and survived because of this herd concept; a wild horse that became separated from his herd often perished, so a life of solitary confinement goes against the grain of equine nature.

Many people believe that if horses are turned out together, they will hurt each other, but this isn’t the case. Horses need to be together, to touch and play with one another. Although they will play games of dominance to determine the hierarchy of the herd, actual contact is minimal, at least by horse standards. Often, when a horse is termed “unsociable”, it is due to lack of socialization skills with other equines. If horses were truly antisocial creatures, why would their feral cousins choose to establish herds? It’s because they have an instinctual need for preservation, comfort and companionship.

Socializing, either physically or through communication, takes place constantly within the herd. Nuzzling, scratching, lipping, or just standing close helps establish strong bonds. Also, because horses love to play, a good round of rearing and biting will raise their spirits and strengthen their bodies. Horses can only learn proper equine behavior by being with other horses and watching their body language. It isn’t something humans can teach them.

A stimulating environment is key to equine well being

Ideally, we need 100 acres for our horses to roam on. This is rarely possible in the real world, but even a small property can offer your equine companion a natural environment. First and foremost, a natural living area should provide your horse with enough room to be in almost continuous motion except during rest and sleep. Horses are built to move, and in the wild will cover a total of ten to fifteen miles a day. When not able to exercise, body circulation is hindered, causing problems in the legs and feet. When a horse moves, blood from the lower legs is pumped back through the body to the heart by the hooves, tendons and muscles. In order to have strong, healthy feet and legs, therefore, a horse needs constant freedom of movement. This activity also stretches and strengthens the muscles and joints and promotes healthy gut function, helping to cut down on the risk of impaction colic.

Unfortunately, many horses are confined to small pens or, even worse, box stalls. Not only does this hinder the horse physically, but it also affects his mental well being. Horses are very perceptive and curious, so standing in a stall day and night becomes boring and unsettling. Having nothing else to do, a confined horse turns to “vices” such as cribbing, pawing and pacing to relieve his boredom, and eventually these behaviors become habitual. Once the horse is liberated from his jail, however, many of these vices disappear.

Give your horse as much room as possible and don’t be afraid to include uneven ground – hills, rocks, fallen logs, shrubs and trees. It is human nature to assume that what we find comfortable is also good for the horse. We therefore think we should level the ground and remove rocks and other “dangers”. This means the horse has nothing left to do but mindlessly wander between his feed and water areas. How can this be physically or mentally stimulating?

A more challenging environment is easily created. Obstacles can often be obtained for free in the form of large rocks, or branches from trees and shrubs. You can acquire logs from specialized lumberyards, often for free from their scrap pile – just don’t use wood that splinters or has been treated with chemicals. Native plants, many of which have excellent beneficial properties, can also be added, while trees and shrubs of various heights and sizes are ideal for horses to scratch against.

If you find it difficult to add these elements to your property, toys can be used to stimulate your horse’s mind. There are numerous horse toys on the market, though homemade alternatives work just as well: balls, orange traffic cones, plastic garbage cans or barrels will stimulate most horses.

By creating a natural and challenging environment, and giving your horse a chance to run and play, he learns how to use his body. This learning is paramount both for his sake and his rider’s, since finding his balance and knowing how to move his feet independently around obstacles is not necessarily inborn. Only by practice and trial and error does a horse learn to be handy with his body. And in order to learn, there must be a challenge.

Adapting naturally to seasonal changes

As the seasons change, a lot of people feel they need to help their horses adjust to the switch. In the summer, many horses are kept in a climate-controlled barn. In the winter, blankets and heaters are used. Again, what we consider comfortable is not necessarily what is healthy for horses. In fact, the best protection a horse can have is a natural hair coat.

Horses don’t normally seek closed-in shelters. They are naturally able to deal with seasonal changes because their coats provide insulation against both heat and cold. They can also actually raise, lower, or turn their coat hairs to warm or cool themselves. Blanketing not only interferes with this process but may also cause the horse to overheat and sweat, even in cold weather. This is because the legs, belly, and head are not covered and are exposed to the cold air. In order to keep these areas from getting chilled, the whole body warms up, which causes sweating under the blanket. Furthermore, blanketing interferes with the horse’s ability to grow a proper winter coat. In short, blanketing and indoor climate control take away a horse’s natural defense against the elements.

Another common practice that interferes with a horse’s ability to protect himself is to clip his ear hairs and whiskers, and trim his mane and tail. This might make the horse look tidier, but we are in fact taking away more of his natural defenses. Clipping ear hairs allows dirt, foreign matter and insects to enter the ear canal. Many types of gnats often feed in the inner ear, causing a horse to violently shake his head and sometimes work himself into a frenzy. Trimming the mane and tail limits a horse’s ability to combat flying insects, while clipping the whiskers takes away his ability to sense his surroundings.

All the above practices are relatively simple to apply. First, give your horse a companion to play with and learn from, even if it means adopting a retired or senior horse. Secondly, give the horses room to roam on natural terrain – even a small paddock, round pen or arena equipped with toys is better than a box stall. Finally, allow your equine friend to adapt to environmental changes without hindrance. Just think naturally and the changes will come easily.

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