If you ask most people to conjure up the image of a beautiful, healthy horse in a natural setting, they’ll describe a horse grazing in a lush, green pasture. This is the image that literature and media have fed us for hundreds of years, writes Narayan Khalsa.
Unfortunately, it’s precisely this kind of grass that can be extremely harmful to horses. In fact, a limitless access to lush green pastures contributes to the death of many domestic horses every year.
It was this idea, as well as a piece written by my mentor and friend Jill Willis (Perception vs. Realityon the AANCP site), that inspired me to address the disparity between the popular image of a horse and what’s actually healthy. Pondering this disconnect made me ask myself a critical question: How can we navigate our way through hundreds of years of accepted practices to discover what works and what may actually be harmful?
In this piece, I seek to give you a deeper understanding of why one traditional practice doesn’t work so that you can better make informed decisions about your horse’s diet and lifestyle.
What is Natural
While every horse caretaker we know cares deeply for their horses, we find that many simply don’t have a full understanding of natural equine biology. Unfortunately, horses’ true biological needs aren’t usually central to most conversations regarding our relationship with equines. As a result, the health of the horse hasn’t always been the highest priority – it usually seems to fall somewhat below the ways in which they can be useful to humans.
While I believe that no animal should be “used” for any purpose and that our role as humans is to simply support animals in meeting their natural needs, I wonder why others have not realized that working horses would be more “useful” if their owners understood their biology better. How much healthier would these horses be if all owners took their caretaking cues from the horses of the US Great Basin?
Great Basin equines
Let’s leave aside for a moment the poetic imagery of the horse in green pastures. Instead, I’d like to take you to the US Great Basin, a landscape that’s tough, demanding, and yet exquisite in its perfect suitability to its amazing equine population.
Fossil records have shown that horses evolved and adapted in dry, highly elevated, desert-like environments not unlike the Great Basin. Other similar biomes include elevated desert lands in Arabia and Mongolia, as well as the Eastern Steppes.
For an idea of how these magnificent equines live, look to the impressive photography of artists such as Phillip Adams of Nevada Wilds Photography.
His photos clearly illustrate the vigor, robust health and perfect barefoot hoof health of these horses. It’s exactly this kind of horse that drives home the point that equines don’t need human intervention to thrive.
Once you see these images, your whole concept of equine health changes. The animals pictured may seem foreign to owners of domestic horses, but how different are they really?
According to evolutionary science, not very different at all. For a species to evolve in any significant way requires a staggering amount of time, certainly more time than humans have been domesticating equines. What that means is that there is no real difference between your horses and those that roam the Great Basin – they are the same animal with the same biological needs. So, why does there seem to be such a vast difference between your horses and the ones in Phillip’s photos?
Well, there’s actually a huge difference between domesticated and Great Basin horses. The latter exist entirely on their own, without humans acting as the middleman between them and the natural world that shaped their evolution. And the result is perfect health.
They are not treated by veterinarians or farriers; they aren’t fed; and their hooves aren’t tended to in any way. Yet, these horses do not exhibit clubfoot, colic, or any of the other common health issues we see so often in our domesticated horses.
In the mid-1980s, Jamie Jackson began to study these magnificent wild equines. The natural horse and hoof care model he founded grew directly out of his observations during this intensive 4-year study.
One major realization that Jaime had was that this ideal equine environment doesn’t contain any lush pastures of green grass. On the contrary, the Nevada outback is a desert with sparse vegetation, dry grasses, roots, bark and wild-growing herbs. Fortunately, many domestic horse owners have become aware of this and it’s becoming increasingly common knowledge that the lush, green grass of romantic horse myths are unsafe.
What makes them unsafe is their high levels of carbohydrates or sugars. We think of horses as hearty animals, but their gut is quite delicate and must maintain a strict balance of microbes in order to stay healthy. When a horse’s diet doesn’t respect this balance, it’s easy for bad bacteria to take over and wreak havoc.
Bad bacteria release endotoxins, which are a type of waste that acts almost like poison on a horse’s system. They move through the cardiovascular system and when they reach the hoof, an enzymatic reaction is triggered. This reaction results in a deterioration of the mechanism that keeps the hoof attached to the leg. You know this as laminitis, and you probably know that it’s the second most common cause of death in domestic horses.
The Future of Domestic Soundness
We still need to know much more about what makes up the diet of Great Basin horses. But, thankfully, we know enough to understand what’s healthy for domestic horses and what’s extremely detrimental. And this knowledge must prompt a real value shift. We need to begin shaping our horse care practices around what we know about the wild ones.
Some horse owners may think: “My horses graze on lush, green grass and they’re perfectly fine.” But, what is the precise definition of “fine” in this context? And what would you be open to doing in order to have horses that don’t experience pain and are able to travel with riders on any type of terrain without shoes? The biggest challenge may be in our own willingness to accept such a dramatic change from the traditional horse care practices that are so ingrained in the culture. But letting go of those beliefs is what will ultimately transform the wellbeing of all domestic horses.
If we can learn to apply the lessons we’ve learned from wild Great Basin horses, we can vastly improve the lives of our own horses and all domestic horses in the future. If you’re unsure about how to get started, the AANHCP (Association for the Advancement for Natural Horse Care Practices) is a great resource. They’ve been applying these lessons to horses for 30 years with great success. Visit the website to consult a NHC (Natural Horse Care) practitioner and to find valuable articles and books that can help you begin the journey.
We’re lucky to be living in a time when there is so much information and support available for those who want to transition to a more natural path for their horses.
We are certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that this approach leads to soundness. If your horses are anything less than perfectly healthy, it should be a sign to you that something more (or maybe less) is needed. Just let yourself be guided by innate equine biology and you will discover what your horses truly need to live long, sound lives.
Narayan Khalsa is a co-founder of Effective Pet Wellness, a company specializing in horse wellness and clearing infectious disease is equines, cats, and dogs.
Effective Pet Wellness provides 100% guaranteed herbal formulas that are designed to eliminate all known infections, including strongyles Lyme Disease, and EPM in horses.
Narayan also has a successful hoof care practice in Colorado. His methodology is based upon the Great Basin wild horse model taught within the AANHCP.