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Evidence-Based Horsemanship in a New England reality

Published: 11/10/2012
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By Maddy Butcher

In Evidence-Based Horsemanship, Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black make a powerful argument for ‘Nature is Best.’

That means horses moving a lot.

It means horses hanging out in a herd.

It means horses grazing most of the day on a range of grasses and even weeds.

It means braving the elements. Regardless.

Wild horses don’t have the problems domestic horses have, Black and Peters write. Our overzealous care may actually compromise horses’ well being instead of improving it.

The Nature is Best model works brilliantly out West, where 20 acres often come with your house. Here, two acres is more like it. In the real world of New England horse ownership, Nature is Best takes effort.
If you’re thoughtful and diligent, you CAN follow the model. Your horses will probably thank you. It will be cheaper for you and likely less stressful for them.
But it takes research, persistence, and a certain amount of tenacity to swim against a tide of naysayers. Those naysayers – they’re here at the Equine Affaire in force – advocate 'Managed Care.' They think Nature is Best is bunk. They offer everything from stall bedding to supplements to blankets to grooming supplies. There are billions of products out there, flooding us with the idea that spending more, adding more, buying more will necessarily be better for our horses.

The opposite, suggest Peters and Black, may be true.

Consider the following scenarios.
Which camp do you land in? We’d love to hear from you!

1.    A horse has whiskers.
Nature is Best recognizes these whiskers (called vibrissae) around the eyes and muzzle as crucial sensory features that help a horse feel objects it cannot see. Whiskers go unshaven, vanity notwithstanding.
Managed Care has special whisker trimmers. Horses are shaved clean and ready for the judges (or whoever). Notwithstanding that stick in the eye.

2.    Horseplay.
Managed Care isolates Frisky from Thunder and Shadow because they act up when they’re together. Frisky once went through the fence and all hell broke loose. Frisky goes in a stall by himself. He weaves back and forth, longing for his buddies. But there are no more loose horses or busted fences.
Nature is Best turns the boys out together. Yes, they get rowdy every once in a while, but the fence is rebuilt to accommodate this issue.

3.    Crappy, low quality hay.
Managed Care owner fusses that the horses aren’t eating the hay. Convinced they’ll be malnourished and lose weight, she spends oodles on supplements and grain to keep her horses good and plump. She monitors them vigilantly, worries constantly because her vet says large amounts of grain and such will increase their chances of colic.
Nature is Best owner figures her horses will eat when they’re hungry. To compensate for the poor quality hay, she buys more, knowing that horses tend not to eat goldenrod, sticks, and briars. They constantly nibble, take forever to eat it, but still seem fine.

4.    It’s cold out there.
Nature is Best owner watches the horses getting wooly. As it gets colder, the horses get hungrier and more eager for calories. This owner makes sure they have ready access to hay and a place to get out of the weather if they so choose.
The Managed Care owner watches the thermometer. At 40 degrees, the horses get light weight blankets. At 20 degrees, they get a medium weight blanket. At 0 degrees, they get the heavy weight blanket and are confined to their stalls. It's time consuming and expensive to use blankets, but the horses never shiver.

Read about modifications for Nature is Best horse management.

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11/15/2012 Kathy
I have used both methods in the 20 years I've had horses. I have only two horses now. They are mature and are on pasture all day until the snow gets too deep or it's ice covered. At night I put them in a large paddock where they have access to two run-ins. My hay is not great but they have free choice in the colder months. They waste a lot but they are just picking out the best parts. I only blanket if its freezing rain. They come in only if we have severe weather like a nor'easter. They seem to appreciate being in during really awful weather. My mare is 28, the gelding is 14. No problems.
11/20/2012 Jennifer Bukowski
I liken myself to the Lorax except I speak for the horses....I ripped the stalls out of our barn and use pea stone to line the floor; My hoof care practitioner said he hopes his horses hoofs will be as tough as mine some day. I put hay out for my ponies every 4 hours and I feed them two meals a day which I hand make out of fresh veggies, fruits and nuts. I will never use a restrictive devices on any of them and am working with a trainer to learn communication through feel. I will never shave their whiskers, rip out their manes or shave them because I know they need all of those things to protect them from the elements which translates into a no blanket zone on our farm. I do everything in my power to foster their emotional, physical and spiritual well being and abide by the 10 Horse Commandments. I am definitely not the New England norm and am proud to be breaking the mold!!!!
11/20/2012 Maddy at Nickernews
Great comments. Thank you so much for providing your perspectives!
11/26/2012 Angela
I was directed to your blog from a friend and am so happy to read this. Very refreshing. I too was at Equine Affaire and had to laugh at all the STUFF we are made to feel our horses need. My horses live outside in cold New England which I get a lot of criticism for, but they are happy, healthy and never have the problems I see in stalled horses. Thank you for a great article!
12/9/2012 Molly
I agree with Nature is Best - However I am the one with the I suspect most NE horse owners are - I try very hard NOT to blanket, offer as much hay as possible, limit grain intake, keep out all day...notice all day -I DO bring them in at night - at this point they hang out at the gate when it gets dark and stare at me with those large eyes, IN? they seem to say - I bring them in - below zero? heated water buckets I hate braking ice out of the buckets. Blankets? no not unles one is shivering- well its a balance I can live with and they seem to be fine - No I don't trim them for shows anymore, I trail ride and chase cows - I do clip a small bridle path...sigh I am trying... my horses seem happy and healthy and I do enjoy them DESPITE the work and expense LOL...:)
12/19/2012 Abbey Farm
I agree nature is better however we need to be mindful of the type of horse that is kept out in the elements. Domesticated horses today that are kept indoors don't seem to be as hardy to withstand harsh elements. I have two BLM Mustangs. That have not been altered for hundreds of years. Their coats get very think in the winter months. On the plains of Navada they withstand harsh conditions. I don't think I would treat a domesticated horse the same way I treat my Buddy and Spirit.
1/4/2013 Brenda
Common sense and observation of your horses is a guide. I have a horse who just does not grow much hair and is anxious on cold mornings. I think he needs a blanket. Cold rain all day long= horse goes in. Warm summer rain, with no lightning= horse stays out.

"Nothing on four legs is quicker than a horse heading back to the barn" - Pamela C. Biddle/Joel E. Fishman