Horses need free-choice grass or grass hay 24/7. And they need movement around the clock. It’s in their genetics. So we make sure our guy and gals have fresh grass and/or Bermuda grass hay (quantities of each dependent upon the time of year) around the calendar and around the clock. After every feeding, morning and evening, the hay goes into the Gator and gets distributed in what we call a hay trail, small piles strung out across the pasture, where the horses can play musical hay piles to their hearts’ content. During the winter, or in the dry lot when we lived in California, at each feeding if there is any hay left from the previous feeding we put out a little less. If it’s all gone, we put out a little more. So it will always be available. Free choice. When it gets really cold we add more because grass or grass hay is the only fuel to the horse’s internal heat engine. During the summer we pull it back to a half bale per feeding because grass is readily available. The warm season grass hay (Bermuda) gives them an additional low sugar alternative to the many cool season grasses in the pasture. And the hay trail helps to stimulate the movement their genetics are calling for.
This is one of the most important things your can do for your horse. It’s a must because, in the wild, horses are moving and eating 18-20 hours a day. Their tiny tummies (comparatively speaking) need to be eating little bits of grass or grass hay pretty much all the time. Unlike the human’s, the horse’s stomach is programmed to release digestive acid around the clock. It doesn’t turn on and off depending upon the presence of food like human digestive acid does. When grass forage is not dribbling in on a regular basis the acid has nothing to work on but the insides of the horse itself! The acid is in the stomach, where it can reach the upper squamous region that has no protective mucus lining, which is where most ulcers form. So the grass forage needs to be there. Free-choice. Around the clock. Our guy and gals have just celebrated their seventh anniversary out on pasture 24/7 in middle Tennessee, where legend has nicknamed our new homeland Founder Valley. Done right, it isn’t. You can read about all that in the book Horses Were Born to be on Grass. Suffice to say they are all happy, healthy, and without issue.
Back in the beginning our herd all lived in a manner diametrically opposed to what their genetics were calling for. They were cooped up in tiny little stalls where they could move, by actual count, an average of only 800 steps in a 24-hour day as opposed to the 8-20 miles a day their genetics called for. And we ultimately discovered that such a huge differential was not just affecting physical structure, it was affecting their digestion, their breathing, the health of their feet, and thereby immensely affecting their stress levels. This virtual continuous movement when horses are out, we’ve learned recently and I mentioned earlier, is likely to be one of the most important pieces to the entire jigsaw puzzle.
And we discovered that a horse in a stall who cannot commune with other horses gains yet another level of stress to endure. The purpose of the herd for a prey animal is safety and security. Being with other like animals is quite literally a safety net. There are more eyes to see trouble coming. Being deprived of that comfort, at some level, breeds huge amounts of stress.
One of the things we discovered when we moved out of dry rocky California over to the luscious green grass of middle Tennessee is that when horses are given the opportunity to live as closely as possible to how they would be living in the wild and are provided the choices they need to balance their own diets, they will. When they’ve had enough of the high sugars of the cool season grasses prevalent in middle Tennessee, they’ll switch to crab grass or Bermuda (warm season grass, low sugar), or the Bermuda hay we put out, even in the summer, to give them more choices.
Science tells us that domestic horses and wild horses are genetically precisely the same. The horses in our back yard are really wild horses in captivity. Just like a baby tiger would be, even though his mom, grand mom, and triple-great grand mom were all born in captivity. That baby’s genetics are still the same as those beasts roaming the African jungles. The scientific fact, we discovered, is that it takes between 5000 and 10,000 years to even begin to change the base genetics of any species.
Which means the horses in our back yard have been programmed for millions and millions of years to live in wide open spaces where they can see predators coming, eat small bits of grass forage around the clock, move 8-20 miles a day, on bare feet that can flex with each step to circulate blood within the hoof capsules, live with multiple horses for safety and security, and even balance their own diets if provided with enough choices to do so.
But as mentioned earlier, we knew none of this fewer than ten years ago when we made the big leap into horses without a single clue. Maybe it helped, as they say, to come in with a clean plate. No baggage. No knowledge. Just an obsessive and compulsive urge to offer our new family members the very best life that we could. That urge-turned-insane-quest not only culminated in our herd living a life very close to the one they were genetically programmed to live, it spawned our first two books, The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd, a National Bestseller thank you so much, and its Amazon #1 sequel Born Wild – The Soul of a Horse, which together, with all of our other books, have changed the lives of thousands of horses and people all across the planet, for which Kathleen and I will be eternally grateful. Thankfully they are also humorous books. When you start where we started and really push the envelope there’s going to be a lot of stumbling around, a bunch of wrong turns, botched efforts, and, yes, stooopid mistakes. But, the trip has been so worth it and we are ever grateful to God for the opportunity to help make this world a little better than we found it.
Which is why we needed to know all this. Our horses were born to be wild and we needed to know why. And what we should do about it. Cash, Mouse, Noelle, Mariah, Pocket, Saffron, Firestorm, Zeke, and Skeeter have all told us over and over again how grateful they are, and I can promise you there is no better feeling on earth.