Natural Horse Management
Horses have been evolving for almost 60 million years in order to survive in their changing surroundings. Whilst our horses are of course domesticated it is important to remember that we have only been domesticating them for around 6000 years and this is very different from evolution.
In evolutionary terms 6000 years is a mere blink of an eye. The horse is still so close to that of its wild ancestors. All we have done is breed for size, shape, colour, athletic abilities and temperament. But the horse is still that same prey animal that evolved 6000 years ago, it just looks a bit different due to domestication.
Horses form close bonds with other herd members for safety reasons, not least to have another pair of eyes to keep a lookout for danger, especially when sleeping. Each time a horse is moved to a new home or sold, they have to start forming attachments all over again.
We owe it to our horses to make their lives as stress free as possible. To do this we need to look at the wild horse ethogram to see how they would live given the choice in the wild.
A herd of feral New Forest Ponies. Look at the spacing between 3 distinct bands, but all the same herd, sharing one water source on a hot day without conflict.
What do horses really need?
Horses need a stable herd. This is the number one priority for every living horse. They will usually form strong attachments to one particular horse. This is essential for horses in the wild because that pair bond helps to keep them safe and well. This is sometimes considered undesirable as they can develop separation anxiety when removed from their pair bond. However, if they have never had multiple owners/homes, this is often not the case.
If they have not been abruptly removed from a herd where they felt safe or weaned early and abruptly, they are usually secure enough to come and go from their herd mates, knowing they will still be there at the end of the day. For others who do suffer from separation anxiety, there are ways of working through their issues with time and patience. There is never an excuse for keeping a herd animal alone. In cases of horses being aggressive to others – this is a human made problem that can usually be resolved.
It is of course preferable for horses to live out in their herd for 24 hours of every day. Whilst this might not be possible at all livery centres, it really should be something we are striving for in the future. Where turnout is limited, keeping the entire herd in a large airy barn for part of the day rather than individual stabling is adequate, provided correct steps are taken to introduce the system, especially where there are horses who resource guard.
Horses need to feel safe enough to sleep properly. They must lay out flat to get the essential R.E.M. sleep every day. Often they do not feel safe enough or have the space to do so in a stable.
Wild horses spend 16 – 18 hours a day foraging and browsing a variety of plants and trees.
Giving them browsing opportunities not only fulfils their nutritional needs but also provides mental stimulation and can be naturally rewarding for them.
Please see my BLOG POST on what they can safely eat.
Feeding hay in multiple piles prevents conflict and encourages movement. No haynets!
Horses need an environment that is stimulating enough to prevent boredom. Most large zoos especially those involved with conservation are pretty good at providing enrichment for their animals, but we have catching up to do in the horse world, with most horses living in barren fields or stables with no variety from one day to the next.
Use your imagination to make their environment interesting. Hide food in the field for them to find. Give toys to play with. Keep an eye on my Facebook page for ideas.
Horses need an environment that is stimulating enough to prevent boredom.