It took me three years to finally boil this journey of ours down to a single simple point as it relates to how horses are supposed to live. It never ceases to amaze me how I can have something right in front of my face and not be able to see it because it’s camouflaged by some predisposition or learning sequence. Like this old logic problem: What do the words, first, hijack, and crabcake have in common? Stare at that for a bit and if you get it quickly, you’re doing better than I did. I spent several hours before finally, in desperation, I began to assign numbers to the letters, looking for some commonality of sequence, or totals, or something. Only after a number was attached to each letter did I see it. The answer literally leaped off the page. Do it yourself, assign numbers… ie: a=1… b=2…z=26, etc. You’ll see it very quickly. That’s the way it was with this concept of so-called domestic vs wild horses. How do you explain why wild horses have virtually no lameness issues, but lameness is rampant in domestic circles? Or why stalls cause such stress for domestic horses? As Kathleen and I stumbled along through our entry into the horse world, learning and internalizing, we were being told over and over again that the domestic and wild horse were like two separate species. That, in effect, we humans had messed up the domestic horse’s genetics. And his feet. Which is why the domestic horse must wear metal shoes. But the more research we did, the less sense those statements made. Until one day the light bulb popped on. I had just read about the science behind genetics and discovered that it would take more than 5000 years of selective breeding to change the base genetics of any species, including the horse.
And the veil lifted.
Humans didn’t destroy the horse’s genetics. We destroyed his environment, the way he is genetically programmed to live. Which is why a group of barefoot horses living out 24/7 in a herd with a proper sugar-free diet will always be happier and healthier. And and with a bit of trimming to help replicate what the horse would be doing to his own feet if he were out in the wilds of Nevada, he’ll have rock solid feet.
When someone speaks of “domestic” or “domesticated” horses, it conjures up images of wild horses that have somehow been changed to suit our “domestic” environment. But it doesn’t take much knowledge of science to understand that “domesticating” a horse is no more possible than “domesticating” a lion or a tiger. You can teach, and train, and work with a tiger, but you are not going to change his genetics unless you hang around for thousands and thousands of years. You can not turn a tiger into a household kitty any more than you can take the flight response out of a horse.
I have been talking genetics for a couple of years, but the simplicity of the concept had never occurred to me until I realized that Cash and a stallion in the wild were genetically the same. Which means that, genetically speaking, there is no such thing as a domesticated horse. There are only wild horses… in captivity. Or perhaps better put: only wild horses… in our care. Again, I’m speaking genetically.
And, of course, I don’t mean wild in the sense of a tiger or a lion or a wolf. A horse is not predator, but prey, and very generous and willing with humans given the opportunity to be, even when living in the wild. I have yet to meet the horse who wouldn’t ultimately choose to be in relationship with humans. I’m sure there are some around who have been abused enough that it might take Monty Roberts or Pat Parelli at their best to bring that out, but as the New York Times editorial after Barbaro’s death said: You would have to look a long, long time to find a dishonest or cruel horse. And the odds are that if you did find one, it was made cruel or dishonest by the company it kept with humans. It is no exaggeration to say that nearly every horse — Barbaro included — is pure of heart.
But the phrase: Wild horses in captivity seems to make it so much easier to see why all this works, so much easier to put everything in its proper place, quickly and neatly. The horse has survived on this planet for something like 52 million years. Survived without humans for the great majority of those years. Not bad for a prey animal. An animal whose only defense is to flee, to run. The next question, naturally, is: And just what does he need most in order to run?
Good, sound, rock-crushing feet?
Absolutely. And if Mother Nature had not developed such a foot, a foot that can go and go hard, over the worst kind of terrain, we would’ve never known the horse. He would’ve been extinct eons ago.
But he isn’t extinct and those genetics still know how to create a fantastic rock crushing foot, no matter how many folks say We’ve bred the hoof right off the horse… or… The domestic horse and the wild horse are not even the same species anymore. The truth is that there is not one shred of evidence from any scientific or medical source that would agree that fifty-five million years of genetics could be changed by a few generations of selective breeding, feeding, training, or whatever. Cannot be done.
As mentioned above, there is virtually no lameness of the hoof with horses living in the wild. Yet, the president of the American Farriers Association has said that 85%-90% of all “domesticated” horses in the world have some degree of hoof lameness. Pretty much all caused by us.
The genetics of the horse living in the wild are alive and well within every so-called domestic horse in the world. That’s why the right combination of barefoot that replicates the wild horse hoof, and replicates the lifestyle and nutrition of the wild horse works. It’s not magic. It’s not voodoo. It’s merely allowing the horse’s own genetic system to take charge and function as it is supposed to function.
We all have wild horses… living in captivity.
When a foal is born, she will be standing before the end of her first hour of life, eating and walking by end of hour two, and running and kicking before hour three comes to a close. By hour four, the herd could be once again on the move if necessary. And by the second day, that foal in the wild will be moving 10-30 miles a day with the herd.
We all know that. But has the importance of it ever really occurred to us? Hadn’t to me until recently.
Why isn’t that foal lying around for a week or two with it’s eyes still closed, like a puppy? Or why isn’t the foal like us when we’re born? No walking, talking, learning for months and months? Because the foal is encoded for survival. Mother Nature knows that our mama and daddy are predators and can protect us. Same with a puppy. But the foal is going to have to move in order to eat, drink and stay ahead of predators. And move immediately.
Whether born in the wild, or in a barn, the horse is genetically predisposed to:
Move 10 to 30 miles a day searching for food, water, and staying ahead of predators…
Be with the herd, physically – and thus emotionally – safe, unstressed…
Spend 16 to 18 hours a day eating… from the ground, a variety; continuous uptake in small quantities to suit their small tummies and the continual needs of their intestinal tracts…
Control their own thermoregulatory system, thus controlling their own internal body temperature with no outside assistance, including heat, blankets, and the like…
Stand and walk on firm fresh ground, not in the chemical remnants of their own poop and pee… nor be breathing the fumes of those remnants, plus the excessive ammonia and carbon dioxide that accumulates inside a closed structure…
Get a certain amount of unstressed REM sleep, which can only be achieved by lying down and will usually only happen when surrounded by a herd with a sentry on guard… again, safety and security are the horse’s chief concern… and the herd provides that.
But, come on, what harm can it do to show a bit of TLC by storing them away in a nice comfy stall, with central heat and air, a bit of velvet on the walls, and a soft, cushy floor?
A lot of harm. Believe me when I tell you: a lot.
What we humans feel our sweet babies should have is most often exactly the opposite of what they need for health and happiness.
When I was standing out in the cold rain, without a rain coat, feeling sorry for my horses, I wasn’t wanting to hear, “Your horses are fine, Joe. Leave them be.” It was difficult for me to believe, as miserable as I was feeling, that the horses weren’t miserable too. But the truth is, they weren’t. And the things I’ve been seeing are always pushing me to learn more, to dig, to throw out the marketing-induced guilt of the barn and blanket makers, the “traditional” reasoning, and try to get to the truth. For no other reason than I care for my horses as much as they care for me.
When we take control of one of these lives, when we say I will be responsible for this animal, his care and feeding, his health and happiness, we tacitly promise to give him the very best care that we can. To learn everything we can about the horse, and how to give him the longest and very best life possible. Not the life we think he should have because that’s what we’d like, but the life we know is right because we’ve studied it and are certain.
Yet the majority of so-called domestic horses in the world are kept in some sort of stall for at least part of the day/night cycle, if not all of it. Often within a closed structure, like a barn. Some stalls are bigger than others, but the vast majority of box stalls in closed structures are approximately twelve by twelve feet. The accumulation of negatives from this lifestyle is devastating to an animal born to be outside, on the move, with the herd, day and night.
The most frequent argument we’ve heard is This isn’t a wild mustang, it’s a domesticated horse. As if the declaration, “He isn’t running free” would somehow change the millions of years of genetics that have made him what he is. As if such a statement would make the ammonia from poop and pee eating away at his feet disappear; or cause his physical structure, which was built to be on the move constantly, to be suddenly fine with standing still twelve to twenty-four hours a day. As if it would make his respiratory system, which is built to be outside breathing fresh, clean air, suddenly find good health in breathing ammonia and high quantities of carbon dioxide in a closed environment with little circulation of fresh air. The average horse breathes 62 litres of air a minute, producing 150 litres of CO 2 per hour. And ammonia is so destructive to protein, it is actually being taken off the market in some countries.
Saying ” This isn’t a wild mustang” does not compensate for the reduced blood circulation he’s suffering while standing still in a stall, wearing metal shoes that keep the hoof from flexing as it is designed to do. Reduced circulation that, in turn, weakens the hoof. And reduced circulation that doesn’t efficiently pump blood back up the legs to the rest of the body, adding stress to the heart and affecting the immune system.
And whether mustang or domestic, it isn’t healthy to eat from a bucket, feeder, or hay net hanging at table height when his body is built to eat from hoof level. Nor does being domestic negate the claustrophobia and stress he lives with at some level, caused by feeling trapped, unable to flee, alone, away from any semblance of a herd, and bored. Never mind how willing he might be to go into the stall either because he has always been forced to, or because he knows that is where the food is.
Because he’s a wild horse living in captivity. He and the wild horse living in the wild are the same, genetically.
Is it any wonder that domestic horses, on average, do not have near the life span of horses in the wild living under good conditions?
This information is readily available. In studies. In books. On the internet. Backed up. In depth. With consensus. So don’t take my word for it, or anyone else’s for that matter. Know it yourself because you’ve taken the time to study it. There are links all over our website that can take you to knowledge by the bushel. And beyond.
The wild horse model works. It’s simple to create. It doesn’t take acres of property. And the horses are not only healthier, they’re happier. Just ask our Cash. Or Mariah. Or Pocket. Or Mouse. Or Skeeter. All wild horses… in our care.