When I was fourteen and lost in my own dark mind, I found comfort in this particular paradox presented by my Buddhist father: everything is sacred and thus nothing is sacred; everything is profane and thus nothing is profane. To me it meant that there was freedom to really sink into life, knowing that it was all terribly serious and deeply light-hearted at the same time. That I could do my very best and still make mistakes and I might never know which was truly which.
Three years later when I met the mare who was to become my first horse, I was shocked by her violent rejection of the status quo. It seemed that everything in her body, mind and heart rebelled against the usual methods of horse-keeping and training – and so did everything in me, when I was truly honest with myself. And so I began a dogged quest for our joint freedom, which I thought would be found in one word: natural. Unfortunately, I still haven’t found it. I have, instead, found that same paradox present under all life.
Nothing is Natural
I don’t know about the rest of you, but while I use the term “natural” as a short-hand way of deeming a technique, feed or environment suitable for my horses, I have had to admit after years of chasing “natural” that it remains an indefinable, and therefore largely unhelpful, word.
“Natural” as a term has been taken over most obviously by trainers selling a form of control that doesn’t particularly emulate anything natural, as well as by companies selling food and gear that is formulated, manufactured, shipped and used in entirely unnatural ways. It works well as a selling point for those of us inclined towards providing our horses with more biologically appropriate, humane, or holistic regimes. Its counterpart, the term “unnatural”, on the other hand, is largely used to decry practices deemed detrimental or somehow unholy.
But here is the rub: as soon as horses come into human care, natural as a state ceases. Perhaps even before that, given that it is largely impossible for horses to live the way they evolved to without bumping into one human-made difficulty or another. Wild horse populations are managed (often brutally) or else they are left with meager range and in competition for resources with domestic herds raised for commercial meat production. Suffice to say that once we start influencing their lives, especially when we officially domesticate them, the horses’ lives are no longer natural.
Where It Really Went Sideways
Let’s be honest here: the real downfall of the word occurred as soon as Pat Parelli copyrighted the term “Natural Horse-Man-Ship”. The movement of horse training that sparked around this term utilizes unproven and largely anecdotal theories of equine behaviour to justify techniques that have less to do with a horse’s natural needs and more to do with the human achieving mental and physical dominance without overtly flogging the horse (okay sometimes overtly flogging).
And even as I have explored alternatives to the alternatives of horse training, I have yet to find anything that feels absolutely, completely, and without-a-doubt natural.
What About Barefoot, Free-Choice Feeding, and Herd Living?
Don’t get me wrong, I whole-heartedly support all of these practices for our domestic horses. But deeming them natural and ceasing to question them doesn’t do our horses much good, either.
Maureen Tierney has written a fantastic article about misconceptions in natural hoof care. Though thoroughly well-intentioned, much of the barefoot trimming community is fixated on recreating a mustang hoof on our domestic horses. What’s the problem? They’re domestic horses, not wild mustangs. Forcing their feet into any shape, no matter how natural it looks, simply isn’t natural. Hooves are a product of genetics combined with environment – there is no uniform shape that hooves should be. Some horses have terrible-looking feet that they are happy with and sound on – they don’t know what angle their hoof wall should be at. I have personally hacked away at stubbornly hideous feet for – I’m sorry to say – years…only to find that when I turned around and asked the foot to show me what shape it wanted to be, the horses became sound and the feet stopped growing crazily to make up for my well-intentioned butchery.
Jini and I have written many articles about trickle-feeding hay through slow feeders, which is a tremendous benefit to an animal designed to graze and forage 14-20 hours a day. But hay? Not natural. It’s cultivated, cut, dried, transported, stored, lacking in variety and nutrients – you get my drift. While I’m at it, eating well 365 days a year is also not natural, and neither is maintaining weight (free-ranging horses often fluctuate from laminitic to bone-rack over the course of a year).
And herd living, though always 900% better than isolating horses in absurdly small spaces, often equates to randomly selecting individuals from entirely different backgrounds and throwing them together to see how they do – miles away from the tight-knit, multi-generational family groups of free-ranging horses. Ensuing herd dynamics – such as physically aggressive communication – may have little to do with natural horse behaviour and much more to do with social and cultural misunderstandings between horses, different levels of socialization and herd learning, and results of trauma in individuals.
If Nothing is Natural, Then Everything is Natural
In my search for natural choices for my horses, I have never found perfection. In giving up that certainty, though, I have found a depth of learning and honesty that I cannot resent. And because each of us must make decisions every day about the way our domestic horses will live, it doesn’t serve them for us to cling to ideals any more than it serves them for us to throw up our hands in despair because we can’t create the right conditions here and now.
I suggest adopting a few principles to keep yourself sane and your horse as happy as can be:
Consider “biologically appropriate” as your new buzz-word. Learn how the horse’s body, mind and culture work as well as you can, and seek to inch their environments towards meeting as many biological needs as possible (Friends, Freedom, Forage, and Fun are a good place to start). While your horse may not have thousands of acres to range with her mother and sisters, she’d probably settle for a few acres of varied terrain and a buddy she’s bonded to. Not enough room for forage? Slow/free feed your way to calmer, happier horses. Question any and all institutional practices such as shoeing and hoof trimming, floating of teeth, sheath-cleaning, weaning, and riding – do your own research, come to your own conclusions. Ask, what does my horse need to be healthy and resilient? What does she not need?
Be brutally honest and deeply gentle with yourself. Tell it like it is. If you are choosing a method (or choosing to forego something) for the sake of your own convenience or enjoyment, own it. You don’t have to tell yourself stories about why it’s maybe good for your horses, just acknowledge that you’re doing it to make your own horsekeeping easier or more fun for you (that’s not a terrible thing, either!). If your horses are acting up or not looking their best, look into what you might be missing in their feed or environment – in my experience, 90% of issues can be solved by letting horses have room to move with some herdmates and free access to low-sugar hay (or just regular old hay if that’s all you can find).
Hey – You’re doing your best. You’ve got great intentions. If you slip up or learn you’ve been doing something wrong all this time, notice it, acknowledge it, and move on. Nobody, including your horse, benefits if you’re always worrying about everything. Be curious, be humble, and engage in the never-ending journey.
Oh yeah, and last but not least – listen to your horse! They can usually do a bang-up job of letting you know if you’re on the right track or not. Their behavior and health should give you the bulk of your clues, and your gut or intuition should fill in most of the holes. If you’re really not getting it, your horse might find a way to tell you in no uncertain terms what you’re missing. After all, we’re dealing with individuals here, who might want to have a say on what feels natural (or just good) to them!
Natural or unnatural, sacred or profane, it’s all part of our world and our reality. It’s possible to hold an ideal and never, ever reach it – or never even be able to define it. In fact, it’s imperative for all of us seeking something to keep holding that ideal up as a lantern to light the way. Be well. Have fun. Enjoy your horses.