Eleven months ago we moved from dry, rocky southern California to middle Tennessee. I had done my homework and had conversed a lot with my pasture mentor Melanie Bowles (The Horses of Proud Spirit Sanctuary). Still I was very nervous. Our guys and gals had been living on hard rocky desert-like ground. All barefoot. Their hoof trims every eight weeks amounted to maintenance trims as they were wearing their hooves much like they would if they were in the wild. But they were moving to the soft (it turns out mushy) green grass pastures of middle Tennessee and we were being advised by many that our herd simply could not be out 24/7 on the “rich grasses” of this area. We pulled in on September 17th during a seven-inch rainfall that went on to define the wettest fall ever in these parts. There was literally no time during the fall that the ground fully dried out. This was followed by the worst winter in 25 years, followed by the floodingest spring ever, and now we’re three days away from recording the hottest summer on record.
How have the horses fared? They’ve been out 24/7 through it all. Because they don’t have the hard ground and rocks to wear their walls down, we now trim every six weeks (instead of eight). And the photo above, taken two weeks ago, is pretty much how all 24 hooves look. It’s Cash’s left rear which had only a wall trim and a mustang roll. The sole and frog went untouched. Natural hoof specialist Mark Taylor (holding the foot) called it a picture perfect hoof. Cash smiled.
Here are the before and after California shots. Quite a contrast :)
As most of you know, we look to the wild horse model whenever there’s a question or potential issue relating to the horses. Because all horses on the planet (wild or domestic) are genetically precisely the same, it seems to me that the more we can replicate what they’d be doing in the wild of the Great Basin of the western United States (where they evolved for 50-plus million years), the better off our herd will be. Our pastures are all steep, some parts very steep. Designed to encourage movement, movement, movement. Horses in the wild move 10-30 miles a day, every day of their lives. This movement flexes their hooves (think toilet plunger) with every contact of the ground which sucks an enormous amount of blood into the hoof (which cannot happen with a shoe nailed to the hoof) and circulates that blood throughout the hoof capsule. When the hoof lifts off the ground the reverse is true. The hoof contracts from the flex and squeezes that blood back up those long legs taking workload off the heart (the heart rate of a barefoot horse, on average, will be 10% less than a shod horse).
Movement also assists proper digestion and keeps all parts of the horse’s body functioning as it should. For all these reasons our pond is on one end of our long, skinny (roughly 23 acres of) pastures and the best grass and/or hay placement is on the far other end. In the middle is the barn with the breezeway open on both ends, always available to the herd if they choose to use it.
None of the pasture areas have been fertilized in at least 9 years (chemical fertilizer is very bad for horses – read about the problems excessive potassium can cause). The pastures contain various mixed grasses (Bermuda, orchard, crab, unfortunately fescue, and miscellaneous other native grasses) with lots of weeds, brambles, berries, trees, etc. Much like they’d find in the wild. Many, many choices. And it’s been proven that given lots of choices the horse will always choose what he needs most at the moment. And he knows better than we do what that might be.
I’ve seen many (mostly flat) pastures here in middle Tennessee that appear to have been completely stripped so that one very rich kind of grass could be planted and fertilized like crazy to make it even richer. Thus full of potassium, sometimes a thousand times more than a horse ever needs. No weeds or brambles or trees. In other words no choices. If horses are hungry they ARE going to eat whatever’s available, even if it’s ultimately bad for them. If they have choices they’ll eat what’s good for them.
Another pattern that works against the horse is letting them out to graze for a limited number of hours then putting them back into a stall or a dry lot paddock. Studies show that this causes horses to gorge when they’re out, to eat constantly, and to especially ramp up the intake when it gets close to the time to go back in. They know these things. Then, once back in confinement, often they get no hay (horses should be munching small bits of grass forage at least 18 hours a day which should be available to them free-choice around the clock. The proper functioning of their gut requires it – listen to our Tele-Workshop on Diet and Nutrition by clicking the turquoise box in the column to the left). And all too often, not only do they not get free-choice hay, they get fed a couple of big grain-based-molasses-bound meals a day (which their tummies are not designed to handle) which substantially ups their sugar and/or non-structured carbohydrate intake (which turns to sugar once inside the horse). And, of course, none of this is replication of what the horse would be doing for himself were he or she in the wild.
Anyway… many thanks to all of you who have been asking for this report. We’re very happy to pass along that except for a few allergy issues from flora never before encountered (all of which have been handled) our little herd of six are all well, happy, healthy and their feet are terrific. Knock wood and praise God :) We’ll keep you posted as we approach the first year anniversary. – Joe