It seems natural is all the rage these days.
Take a walk through any grocery store and you’re likely to see this label on anything from ice cream to granola bars and maybe even soda. And if it’s natural, it must be better, right? Well, hopefully we’re not all falling for this…
With that said, there are some instances when natural really is best—especially when it comes to certain aspects of horse care. Of course, our domesticated horses aren’t ever going to live completely natural lives, but there are some simple changes you can make to allow them to live more as nature intended.
1. Allow your horse to have near-constant access to forage
Did you know that free-ranging horses will spend between ten and 14 hours a day foraging? In fact, they only spend an hour or two at a time not eating. Having near-constant access to forage has many benefits for horses—starting with just the act of chewing, which stimulates saliva production and, in turn, helps to buffer stomach acid.
The horse’s stomach (which only makes up about 10% of the entire digestive system) is designed to take in small amounts of food on a regular basis. When it becomes empty for any length of time at all, digestive issues like ulcers or colic are more likely to occur.
2. Feed your horse hay from ground level
It’s how the horse would naturally eat in the wild, and eating for extended periods from raised feeders can put strain on not only the skeletal system, but the neck and jaw muscles as well.
3. Let your horse move!
I know some boarding situations make this difficult, but it might be worth your while to change barns. Studies have shown that horses who have the freedom to move throughout the day are less likely to suffer from colic or stereotypical behaviors such as cribbing. Movement also promotes better circulation, which helps to keep your horse healthy (and even speeds healing).
4. Give your horse a buddy
By instinct, horses are herd animals, and their health can suffer when they’re housed alone long term. Having an equine friend or two decreases stress and also allows horses to sleep better. (Ever seen a “guard” horse standing over the rest of the sleeping herd?) If having another horse isn’t feasible, consider getting a goat or another companion animal—they can often make good substitute herd members.
5. Use Natural Fly Sprays
Many commercial fly sprays contain potentially harmful chemicals. For example, the chemical pyrethrin (though derived from the chrysanthemum plant) is highly toxic to fish and moderately toxic to birds and bees. Another commonly-used chemical, permethrin, is fatal to cats and fish and is highly toxic to bees and other beneficial insects.
6. Let your horse grow a winter coat
I know this might not be popular with the show crowd, but there are many advantages to letting your horse grow a fluffy winter coat. Number one, it’s how a horse naturally keeps himself warm, and it’s much more effective than a blanket.
Yes, there are times when a blanket might be called for (such as in very young, old, or ill horses), but most horses do just fine with their own coat of thick hair. As you may well know, keeping your horse blanketed on a regular basis prevents thick hair growth. Also keep in mind that blanketing a horse with a winter coat will actually squash those hairs down and may make it more difficult for him to stay warm.
7. Reconsider your deworming program
You may be aware that the old recommendations for deworming horses have changed due to parasite resistance to many of the chemical dewormers. So if you’re still blindly rotating dewormers every few months, there’s a good chance that you’re wasting your money. And if the dewormers aren’t working as intended, you’re also adding to the parasite resistance problem.
Instead, use fecal egg counts to determine if your horse needs to be dewormed in the first place. Then, use a targeted approach to deworming instead.
Remember: the goal isn’t a zero worm count—it’s a low worm count. Having some parasites is a natural part of life for horses. You may also want to consider natural alternatives to chemicals, such as herbal dewormers. Additionally, manure management can go a long way in preventing parasite re-infestation.
8. Replace drugs with herbs/nutraceuticals when possible
I’m not saying drugs are never called for, because they certainly have their place. But there are also many natural alternatives that can be just, if not more, effective. One example is the herb, turmeric, which can be used instead of Bute or other NSAIDs for horses with arthritis.
9. Don’t trim your horses’s whiskers!
Did you know that the horse’s whiskers are actually an important sensory instrument? Or that each whisker has its own nerve supply? Horses use their whiskers to judge texture and distance to objects, and without whiskers around the muzzle or eyes, they may be more likely to bump into things and injure themselves.
10. Consider alternatives to metal shoes
I know this one is controversial, but I’ll just say that there was a time when I thought pretty much all performance horses, including my own, needed to be shod with metal shoes. I’ve since learned that this simply isn’t true.
Metal shoes prevent natural expansion and contraction of the hoof, which actually reduces flood flow to the area. Today, there are many alternatives to metal shoes, including shoes made of polyurethane and other more flexible materials. There are also a wide variety of hoof boots made to work for nearly every discipline and horse. And of course, there’s always transitioning to barefoot!
I guess my final tip would be to always take the label, natural, with a grain of salt. Do your research and check ingredients on products you use for your horse (and your family). Not everything labeled natural really is. And, of course, there are some instances when naturally-derived ingredients (such as pyrethrin) aren’t actually safe!
About the Author
Casie Bazay is a freelance and young adult writer, as well as an owner/barefoot trimmer and certified equine acupressure practitioner. She hosts the blog, The Naturally Healthy Horse, where she regularly shares information on barefoot, equine nutrition, and holistic horse health. Once an avid barrel racer, Casie now enjoys just giving back to the horses who have given her so much.