Newsletter October 2016
Dear Horse lover,
In this mailing, Veronica Machado contributes a feature about natural boarding systems. Veronica is a consultant who specialises in equine behaviour and promoting physical and mental well-being of horses through transitioning to a more natural setting.
In the next mailing, I will address a reader's question for my opinion on coconut oil in horse feed.
Have a wonderful time,
Natural Boarding Systems
By: Veronica Machado – Natural Boarding Systems Consultant for
I was first introduced to natural boarding systems in my undergraduate degree. My equine instructor asked that I begin my Bachelor studies with a course titled, “Domesticated Equines: Understanding Behavior, Management, and Welfare.” Naturally, as a lifelong practitioner, I scoffed and expected an easy ‘A’! I smile now, but during my educational process, my foundation was painfully shook, questioned, destroyed, and eventually, completely rebuilt to change and enrich my life as an equine practitioner.
There are many opinions in the equine world about best management practices. And, to be honest, until my studies, I don’t know that I ever questioned the traditions that I was brought up in: the kinds of feed we provided, how many horses we had, housing measures, what their needs were, or how all of these aspects were connected and affected their well-being
Studying natural boarding systems, I became aware of the correlations between the rates of illnesses present in domesticated horses, and the types of environments in which they are housed. The number of equines suffering from digestive issues, mental neurosis, behavioral problems, and poor physical care is alarming. According to Walt Taylor, co-founder of the American Farriers Association, “of the 122 million equines found around the world, no more than 10 percent are clinically sound”1. Whether we realize it or not, equine management systems can either prevent, reverse, or negatively impact the rates at which mental and physical ailments, and training and safety issues occur.
Natural boarding is a result of years of scientifically studying the effects of domestication on equines. Findings have uncovered that the best management practices understand and incorporate the natural needs of horses into their care. The more appropriate housing measures are for horses, the more positive results are seen in performance, work roles, training retention, and physical and mental health.
After my course, I became so enthused by this research that I started my own equine consultation business for natural boarding systems. I now help other practitioners transition into natural boarding management. And, as a result of many of the changes implemented, I’ve seen great improvements in preventative health, and the recovery of stable vices and other ailments. Furthermore, because the animals are no longer physically or emotionally ill, practitioners are able to affect better working relationships with their equines.
Sometimes, this body of research and scientific study can be hard to accept, especially when it challenges decades of tradition. However, as in my case, the more open-minded I became on the subject, the more logical it became. With all of the modern of advances of technology and science, it is a pivotal time to question and challenge traditional equine models of management as being effective and humane.
Understanding Equine Behaviour
Upon my first consultation meeting with any client, our session always begins with instruction of understanding equine behavior. It is extremely important to note that domestication has not altered the inherent needs of equines. In fact, if domesticated horses were to be released, they would surely follow the behavioral patterns of those of their wild cousins.
Domestication has not altered the inherent social, nutritional and spatial needs of equines
Species-specific behaviors are natural actions expressed by members of a species. For horses, these behaviors have been studied in wild bands and include: constant movement and migration, unlimited access to various types of forage, uninhibited herd socialization, and the ability to engage in shelter, rest, and watering areas. Ideally, a welfare-enhancing environment would consider and incorporate all of these dynamics into management practices. When any these behaviors are restricted, the results are the development of all too common stable vices and illnesses.
Natural Movement Patterns
The most critical thing to recognize about equines is their movement patterns as migratory and prey animals. Horses live in bands of families, and constant migration protects the herd and makes them less susceptible to predators. Horses that are given the opportunity to roam freely travel an average of 15 miles a day2. The horse’s movement patterns in the wild are distinct and purposeful. Not only are they beneficial to their survival against predators, but also aid in providing adequate nutrition, good muscle tone, behavioral requirements, digestive, hoof, and dental care systems.
Each family group travels within their own designated home range, which can cover up to hundreds of miles. Within their own respective habitats, equines produce specific tracks to navigate their home ranges. The network of tracks and routes created by the herd produces a map of the area which leads members to specific regions in which they can acquire all of their nourishments, and interact with other bands1.
Horses produce specific tracks to navigate their home ranges which can cover up to hundreds of miles
Grazing is also very much intertwined with the horse’s movement patterns as they spend the majority of the day in search of nutrients and finding seasonal graze1. In addition to fibrous material, the search and consumption of other plants, fibers, and lipids, helps the horse to maintain good physical health and weight, and has even been theorized as being a preventive diet for infections such as cancer. Additionally, the incising, tugging, grinding, and plucking of these varieties of roughage assist in naturally wearing the horse’s teeth and gums. Pawing, and digging for natural minerals and nutrients also aids in natural hoof care and trimming.
Pawing and digging aids in natural hoof care and trimming
As an herbivore, the horse’s digestive system is designed to have a constant supply of roughage passing through. Continuous movement and grazing allows fecal matter to be pushed through the equine’s digestive system regularly, and with ease. Because of combination of constant movement and unlimited access to forage, wild horses – unlike their captive cousins – never suffer from digestive issues.
Other movement in the home range centers around watering holes, shelter, resting and mating areas. The variety of terrain that horses cross over in their home territories (wet, dry, rocky, and sandy) all contribute to strong muscle tone and health, as well as natural foot and hoof care maintenance.
Movement in the home range includes travel between watering holes, shelter, resting and mating areas
When natural movements, social interactions, or grazing patterns of horses are interrupted, the results become seriously grave. There is a strong body of research indicating increased physiological stress and health concerns in confined horses. Conversely, animals that are allowed to engage in species-specific behaviors in their domestic environments tend to have much lower rates of mental and behavioral issues, as well as physical health problems.
In visiting most domestic equine settings, or boarding facilities, there are common practices and standards that can be noted in each environment. In the average private setting, facility design typically includes large amounts of space such as arenas, pastures, or large pens. Horses are either kept together as a group, or – for various reasons such as bickering among herd mates, or food requirements – are separated to reside in independent living spaces.
A boarding facility with individual, private stalls
Larger boarding facilities and businesses, which house tens to hundreds of equines, are typically designed to include several individual, private stalls. These ‘runs’ traditionally measure 8’ x 10’ (2.4 x 3.0 meters) in space, and keep horses isolated at all times. The aim for this type of facility design is to be able to manage as many equines as possible, and to accommodate the wishes of each individual horse owner. If a horse owner desires, and is willing pay extra costs, their horses can occasionally be turned out for a few hours a day to graze with other equine members.
When horses are kept in small and stagnant environments they become very limited in their activity and become highly distressed. To cope with their restrictions, horses can develop anxious and nervous behaviors referred to as ‘locomotor stereotypies’. In domesticated horses, these locomotor stereotypies are also frequently known as ‘stable vices’ and are repetitive behaviors, seemingly without function.
The most common stable vices include behaviors such as weaving and pacing. Weaving is a behavioral pattern where the horse rocks its weight from side to side and its head and neck back and forth. Pacing includes the production of paths and circles in and around their stalls, or back-and-forth movements in their enclosed areas. These behaviors appear to be coping mechanisms for reducing stress and anxiety, and are a result of “confinement, inability to graze, isolation, and a lack of companionship”2. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that particularly, confined racehorses and performance horses exhibit much higher rates of behavioral and training problems2.
Weaving has been linked to a reduction of serotonin in the horse’s body. Serotonin affects the nervous system, cognitive functioning, memory, and learning. Any formula that includes mental suffering, difficulties of cognition, and instability of mood, is a recipe for a disastrous and unsafe interaction.
It is imperative to note, that allowing a horse to be out of their stall for a few hours a day, or riding or exercising them for up to one to two hours daily, does not substitute or satisfy their demand to move up to fifteen miles per day. Horses will also build up stamina to exercise, so any ‘excess energy’ is not released. Permitting the horse to be out of confinement for short periods of time is very much comparable to the imprisonment of a human being, who during recess is allowed to spend a few hours a day outside, but must then return to confinement, or worse, isolation. Similar to imprisoned humans who show a variety of mental, physical, and behavioral problems, so do confined, and restricted horses.
Horses' requirements may be met by other things than the most luxurious of stables
While cushioned and heated floors, air-conditioned, and lit barns are completely comfortable for the horse owner, equine requirements do not need or want the luxury most stables and barns market. Oftentimes, with suitable housing measures stable vices and physical and behavioral problems can be completely avoided, or reversed. Positive results have been shown when formerly confined horses are released into more natural settings.
Social and Group Housing
Horses are social animals. In fact, it is this great attribute that has allowed us to approach, connect, and interact with them. In the wild, they live amongst each other in herds, and are very dependent on one another. Most of their development occurs from within the herd and through their family connections. It is from other members that equines learn their social instincts, are taught acceptable behaviors, and survival skills. Together, they also engage in play, protection, mating, argument, and mutual grooming.
Several studies have supported the positive impact pasture companionship has on learning. And, conversely, negative results have been observed when horses are housed separately and their interactions restricted.
Management techniques which limit equine’s communication, or keep them separate, or completely isolated, have been directly linked to behavioral problems, delayed learning, and training difficulties. Stalls and fences serve as barriers between contact, and they compromise the horse’s instinctual need to socialize freely. For a socially minded animal, it is logical that separation would negatively affect its well-being and content state of mind. Keeping a horse in a stall, or separate from other animals can again be compared to a prison system, where inmates can only interact in limited opportunities, over fences, or through bars. In this context, it makes clear sense that equines housed “in inappropriate socials group may be less responsive during training”3.
Stalls and fences serve as barriers between contact
In the domestic setting, horses should always have the company of other herd mates. Social or group housing is a term used for settings that allow the whole herd to reside and interact freely, and without interruption. There is no separation of any kind which would inhibit their natural behaviors and interactions. Most horses in domestic settings can live with other herd mates without difficulty or injury, as long there are sufficient resources for each member, and personal security is never compromised.
Nutrition and Feeding
Most cited research about wild horses indicates that they spend half of their lives feeding. In a twenty-four-hour time span they will graze for 16 to 17 hours a day2. In domestic settings, feed patterns can magnify anxiety and physical ailments in horses. In many equine practices it is typical for horses to be fed two to three large meals a day; usually, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This type of practice is a perfect example of anthropomorphism: the attribution of human qualities or behavior to an animal, or object. While it might seem logical or even convenient to feed in this manner, this custom is very unnatural to the species, and disturbs their quality of life.
It domestic settings horses are often fed three large meals in contrast to their natural setting where feed is continuously available
Providing a few super-sized meals each day leaves the stomach and digestive system empty for long periods of time, making the stomach prone to the buildup of acids, which cause ulcers. This case becomes even worse when horses are fed grains and concentrates. Grains and concentrates are digested at even quicker rates than fibrous material. And, if the horse confined, and its movement restricted, it is the perfect recipe for colon impaction, or colic. Colic and ulcers are extremely common illnesses in domestic environments. They are expensive to treat, are deadly, yet they are completely preventable.
The effects not being fed regularly also causes horses become insecure and fearful around their meals; they consume their food very quickly, and even become protective of it against other herd members. This mentality is like one of a prisoner’s whose resources are limited, and he must adapt and do anything necessary to protect himself and survive.
Locations that feed on a rigid or timed schedule demonstrate just how distressed equines become during their mealtimes. Because the horse’s design is intended to graze on small amounts of roughage all day, feeding large meals cause equines to withstand long periods of time without nutrients, and as result, they experience greater hunger. Feedings become quite a disorderly event and the horses become very activated, triggering impatient behavior. They kick and paw at stalls or fences, pace in their environments, nicker loudly, begin to trot or gallop, and even become aggressive towards handlers and other herd mates.
The solution for preventing and curing anxious and physical ailments due to unnatural feeding patterns lies in providing a constant gut fill for equines by using hay nets, or multiple small feedings per day. Feed should be rationed according to your horse’s weight, and should be natural in substance for best physical results. By disarming the feeding schedule, horses no longer anticipate their food, thus relieving and minimizing anxiety around feed schedules. Also, making it safer for you and other herd members.
You can provide a constant gut fill for your horse by using hay nets, or multiple small feedings per day
Scientists and horse advocates have created tools to assist handlers in achieving these ideals in the domestic setting. Hay pillows, hay nets and slow feeders prolong the horse’s feeding patterns, and easily maintain a consistent supply of grass or hay. They help replicate foraging, plucking, incising, and grinding; behaviors that are all necessary for the horse’s digestive and dental health.
Both the owner and the horse will have to transition into this new feeding system, but benefits can include not having to rush home for feed times, less illness in your horse, and veterinary expenses. If you have ever witnessed a horse colicking or suffering from ulcers, it is a very sad and uncomfortable state to have to constantly endure. There is no doubt that relentless illness affects performance and work roles.
When creating housing measures the best rule handlers can follow, is to create an environment, which will suit the equine’s mind, not the owner’s.
Natural Boarding Systems
Alternatives to traditional care of managing horses lie in Paradise Paddocks and track systems. These designs aim to replicate, as best they can, the wild horse’s environment, and encourage equine-specific behaviors and patterns in the domestic setting. They have been created help horse owners maximize the use of their lands, and to construct an area which will be advantageous for their equines.
The track system in practice at the Yavapai Equine Initiative Center. The track is the tan portion of the design. Feeding and shelter stations are spread apart to encourage movement and rescued horses are housed on this track day and night.
In the domestic environment, this simulation can be done with minimal land settings, and low to efficient costs. One acre of land for a small herd of horses would be sufficient enough to create this space. Material required would include: a sturdy outlining perimeter fence, an inner electric fence to help create the paths, shade, watering, resting and play stations, as well as variety of terrain and multiple feeds stations.
The perimeter fence outlines the living area
Tracks are created within the environment to promote constant and unrestricted movement. Just as within the wild, the tracks or paths will lead the herd to feed, resting, play, and watering stations. In designing posts, which are distanced from one another, the horses are motivated to constantly move and engage in their natural patterns of behavior. The variety of terrain implemented, which includes muddy, soft, sandy, and rocky areas assists with strengthening and developing muscle tone, as well as aiding in natural hoof wear. In this type of environment, where constant movement is encouraged, horses always stay ‘warm’ for performance and work roles, but most importantly, remain mentally sound for their handlers and riders!
These natural implementations are also much more beneficial for the environment, and they do not require a significant amount of maintenance or production costs. While these methodologies seem perfectly logical after cited research, for the horse world it means a complete adoption of a new set of conceptions and attitudes towards management and health. The adoption of natural horse care means the destruction of old traditions, business models, and barn and stable environments. This a challenge within itself, as oftentimes, emotion and misinformation will override science and fact. However, as a society we should “no longer accept confinement as a humane system for boarding horses”1.
Natural boarding will absolutely affect your horse’s well-being in the domestic setting. Its mental and physical health will improve; training will be strengthened, and with less physical and emotional stress, there will be less safety concerns for handlers and riders. If any of the concerns listed above seem evident, the first area of analysis should be housing measures. There is absolutely no doubt in the correlation of illnesses and behavioral problems to the types of environments in which domesticated equines are housed. Please feel to contact me with any questions and concerns. This information changed my life, and I hope it impacts many others as well.
Veronica Machado is the owner of Spear M, an equine consultation business for natural boarding. Veronica consults with clients to teach them about equine behavior, and how transitioning to a more natural setting for horses can be used as a preventive measure for mental and physical health, positively impacts training, and can reverse and even cure common stable vices and illnesses such as, colic, weaving, and pacing.
- Jackson, J. (2014) Paddock Paradise: A Guide to Natural Horse Boarding. Saline, Michigan, US: Star Ridge Publishing
- Peters, S. & Black, M. (2012) Evidence-based horsemanship. Shelbyville, Kentucky, US: Wasteland Press
- McGreevy, P. & McLean, A. (2010) Equitation science. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell
In the next mailing:
- 'What about feeding coconut oil to my horse?', by Alexandra Wesker