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).
Much of what is currently considered “natural” horse behaviour has been debunked by actual equine ethologists, such as the flight animal response, or the horse’s need for a herd leader.
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.
A barefoot hoof trimmer, a singer/songwriter, an amateur farmer – these are some of the hats Kesia Nagata wears when she’s not full to bursting with wondrous equine co-creation.
41 thoughts on “The Paradox of Natural”
Wow. What a great article, through and through. You said it all! Thank you!
Thank you Gabrielle!
Fabulous article!! Helpful, insightful, articulate and just what I need. Thank you.
You’re so welcome, Sari, and I’m really touched that this was helpful to you…
WOW…just wow, your words, so eloquently written, really hit home!!….I have struggled over the last 16+ years of teaching ‘horsemanship’ with wording…I know in my heart what is right, but writing it down, having people understand and embrace it…and then want to have lessons with you, is proving very challenging….but, I must maintain my integrity and follow my moral compass….I was one of the “Parelli-ites” who drank the kool-aid and did whatever was necessary to MAKE my horses perform the parelli tasks to obtain a colored string….but it’s not just Pat Parelli…it’s all the other ‘Natural Horseman” who fall into the same category….I have lost more students that I have currently because I won’t help them ‘phase’ their horse into submission…there are plenty of teachers out there who can help with that in this day and age….I have changed the wording on my website more times than I can count because I am a ‘people trainer’, not necessarily a horse trainer….I teach people to teach their own horses…..I am sticking with the wording on my website and social media pages of my teachings are ‘relationship based used positive reinforcement methods’ …for now anyway….thank you for your thought provoking insights!!
I am so impressed that you continue to adapt and evolve in your work. One reason I never went into training was fear of having to explain myself, or that the conclusions I came to might not be what anyone was looking for. We all started somewhere and most of us got to where we are through some kind of natural horsemanship…but I think you might find that your student base will grow in numbers and/or in dedication as more and more people are getting curious about their own motives. In any case I’m happy to know you’re out there living what you learn and inviting others along. Can we have a link to your website? I’d love to know more about what you do…
Hi Kesia….thank you for your kind words!….my website is ever-changin’ but here it is as of this week!…LOL!…. http://www.bodyandsoulhorsemanship.com
Karen – I LOVE it! Wish I could come by for a lesson and see what you do 🙂
Awwwww…thank you Keisa…I wish you could too….I actually have very few students come to me…I travel to most of them, because they either don’t have trailers or have trailer loading issues ….and most of them are out of state…I travel regularly from Georgia to Florida, Alabama and Tennessee….:-)
The paradox of happy and sad comes up when reading this article. A great article and yet not great that we need to be reminded of the natural laws of the universe.
Haha yes – because ignorance is bliss? And eternal vigilance is the cost of freedom?
Absolutely enlightening. Love all of it. Especially relateing to the hooves on this particular day. I have recently come to the conclusion/point you express about the so called image of perfect hooves. A perfect hoof is the hoof each individual horse tries to grow on each individual leg. Not our idea of what’s perfect. I (my husband with my instruction) also have been butchering for 4 years with the best of intentions a very lame paint horse ( who was in metal shoes all his life) in the search for his perfect hoof. Just to finally realize (why it’s taken so long Im disgusted about) all we have been doing…is not working, the hugest clue being that every time he grows his hooves out a bit he starts moving so much better, but the flares and chips always prompt me to want to trim him…& much to his resistance…& then to his detriment and complete lameness again. I recently bought a 12 year old 1/2 Arabian gelding with OK looking hooves from the top but awful looking from sole view but rock crushing… This was definitely a light bulb moment and after my last maming of my paint I have made the decision to just let them grow and try and stay out of his way to recovery..hopefully my so called good intentions can stay out of his way toooooooo!!!!!
I’ve been reading articles, particularly Maureen Tierney, and Rockley Farms (I think that’s what they’re called? Hoof rehab farm in England), but even some Pete Ramey, that lead away from the numbers and measurements and “shoulds” and come back to staying out of the way. I still find myself looking at untouched hoove going “ew, I want to chop those feet off!” but it’s a visceral, sort of addictive drive to perfect something visually more than anything (confession: I’m also a scab-picker)… More and more I am learning to look at imperfections with curiosity instead of the impulse to erase them. The less I do the better feet I get. I must say Tierney’s Hoof Guided method combined with listening to each horse’s preferences is working pretty nicely. Good luck with your herd, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised…and go easier on yourself, eh? 😉 we all make mistakes but it takes a certain strength to acknowledge and learn from them.
I actually do follow Rockley and have for a a couple of years now, but (I to a scab picker..shame on us) tried to quit trimming for a few months when I originally found the site and he was doing ok but that internal chatter kept over taking me that somehow I’m neglecting them by letting there hooves get ugly ,flared, long walls and not look like what I’ve come to belive they should look like. But time & time & time again, in the horses I have seen, & my own….the more so called neglected & super ugly and opposite to what most of the extensive research I have done on so called natural barefoot hoof care hooves are suppose to look like…….the more rugged terrain they can traverse (these horses were all on some kind of acreage with other horses…lots of movement) My newest horse is no exception..we have only, what felt like, very conservatively trimmed him two times , it also felt like we were following what the hoof seem to need, the last time…..I live in California & after no rain & drought conditions we have been getting a lot of rain to start the fall & all my horses hooves lost a ton of sole and had lots of shedding frog. I know it might have to do a bit with extremely dry hooves to wet but I feel like even after the first trim when everything was still dry that he was not as rock crushing as when I first got him 2 1/2 months ago, when he had super ugly hooves, somewhat tattered frogs barely touching the ground and high heels and long walls & yes I know I feed to many treats, but it was only after trims that you could see the difference in rock sensitivity & he came from 2 acres to my 12 so I know he’s moving more now, he’s 1/2 Arabian & loves to move. Anyway I could go on & on about not listening to my horses & instead listening to what is supposedly right….I guess I just want to say thanks to you & people like you , who are like minded and put it out there for all of us to reflect and resonate with & even correspond with. It is truly joyous when you feel others & they seem to feel you toooooo?✌?️
Gosh Michelle, the feeling is highly, highly mutual! I just throw this stuff out there and am gobsmacked when you amazing people come back at me. I actually wasn’t going to post this until Jini encouraged me to… These ramblings can feel so inconsequential or just like my own little nerdy ideas until you all remind me that we’re all in it together, at least a few of us on the edge over here.
As for feet…I have some rescues in my roster who still won’t pick up their feet – because they are not being forced into anything and are being given a choice in their own care and management. Instead, I spend my allotted trimming time working on gaining their trust and making picking up their feet a fun and interesting thing. Tricky grounds when you just want to get their feet trimmed so you don’t feel you’re neglecting them…funny thing is, they look and move fine after months of “neglect”, and when I do get a chance to look at the bottoms of their feet, I’m shocked at how good they look! It’s been so hard on the part of me that derives worth from “doing”, but boy am I happy I am not forcing myself on them physically (if I even could!) as well as doing unnecessary work on their hooves… It’s a really good way to learn the same lesson (what I call CTFO – chill the eff out)!
Hi Kesia…just wanted to update you on my new quest to let the horses hooves do there thing. The first thing I did was buy a Radius Rasp so I could quit depending on my husband to do the trimming. I have small weak hands and with regular rasps I could just never get the hang of it. The new Radius rasp has been great so far for the soft wet winter hooves. My new approach has been to only rasp when I see a chip/flap up, on the hoof. I figure this is the way the hoof is trying to show you where the excess is. I also round/bevel the toes a bit to keep them from getting that sharp edge(although in this extremely wet weather we are finally having in Northern California ..I think the sharp edge helps with slipping , so I just do a little) That’s it , that’s all I have done to all 3 of them since I wrote the initial response to your article…I know that it’s only been a couple of months, but guess what they are all doing so great and are so much sounder on rocks…even with there soggy non perfect looking hooves. I know our hot dry summer will bring a different situation , but I am determined to stay the course and not give in to the temptation to have so called perfect looking hooves. I am now very happy to have whatever looking hooves as long as they continue to be sound, functional and rock crushing.. Here’s to letting Mother Nature do her thing as only she can & me interfering as little as I can..Lol ??✌?️❤️
Michelle this is so interesting! Are they growing out a lot or keeping fairly short? Just taking off what looks like it wants to come off…you’re a radical! I love it! I’m going to try this with my horses, who actually have barely needed any trimming over the past 3 months… I just took a look at some clients’ horses and had to turn down the job – one hasn’t had her feet done for 8-10 weeks, and the other one actually hasn’t been trimmed in…18 months!! Their feet looked picture freakin perfect. It’s winter and wet where they are, even some unusual snow and freezing. It’s really hard for me to not just get in there anyway (what IS that??), but I just couldn’t justify it. Right on, thanks for the update and let us know more about what happens! Pictures would be great!!
Speaking of which, if anyone’s interested, I looked up Michelle’s Radius Rasp and it looks like a little cheese grater you can run around the outside of the hoof – is this it, Michelle?
Thanks for this, Kesia. Beautifully written and very clear. One of the balances I’m finding with care taking a herd is factoring in my own needs. I have spent a good part of my life trying to prove my worthiness and goodness by throwing myself overboard for the needs of others and thinking that if I just try hard enough or find the right way to do it, I can have the outcome I want. I’ve stopped doing that for some years now, discovering that slaving over mud scratches or buying yet another gob of goop, don’t necessarily make them clear any faster.
I love the way you’re working buddhist philosophy into your understanding. I experience nurturing and holding space for our animal selves and buddies as a spiritual endeavour. We’re all trying to do it right which is admirable and a great place to start, but letting go of thinking I know what’s right is such a vital step. As I deepen my experience and awareness, I believe horses are supporting and seeking connection, healing and harmony which has very little to do with right action and everything to do with right relationship. The relationship through hooves to the ground, behaviour within the herd and with us, feed for the physical health, which is more a journey of integrity, attunement and paying attention in the moment and may vary from horse to horse let alone setting to setting.
Have you read Linda Kohanov’s latest book, “The 5 Roles of the Master Herder” yet? She’s one of my mentors and I really am using it to move closer to that ever evolving right relationship I’m preaching.
So thanks for being a grounded voice of reason in that field beyond right and wrong.
Thank you for your thoughtful and heartful reply… I felt myself taking big, relaxing breaths as I read it! It’s so easy to forget ourselves while trying to single handedly save the world, and of course I write to put my own anxieties in their place, in these and other matters. We can only be what we are – or as my dad likes to say, “you’re perfect just the way you are…but you could use some work.” I don’t know if it’s just timing or a deeper lesson, but the less angst I bother feeling about them, the happier and more whole my herd seem to be. The same probably goes for my own self too.
I love your eloquence on the subject…I’m reading your reply a few times because there’s a lot to this stuff, to what caring earnestly for other beings brings up in us, when we interface with the wild world, the ideal, the mundane, our own limitations… I haven’t read Linda’s latest (I blame her first book for launching me down the rabbit hole in the first place) but I’ll grab it when I get the chance.
Oh wow! I just looked you up and you’re in WL! We were looking for our land in that region but the land had other ideas…so glad to know you’re doing what you’re doing in the neighbourhood (by BC standards)!
Thanks Kesia, this is lovely to receive! My fellow eponaquest sister Helen Russell and I have been following this block for a little while now. Love the collaborativity of it!! So from one scab picker to another, I have to admit thinking of sending you and Jini posts about farms and ranches in my neck of the woods. There is lovely community here!!
Send them our way! I am happily married to a handsome chunk of earth and trees but Jini is on the prowl 😉 plus we’re just always so happy to connect and collaborate with readers…
Great… new at this also and these 4 legged are teaching this 2 legged a lot….
They’re relentless and brilliant teachers, hey Kenneth! Best of luck…
To Kesia and everyone that has shared their feelings, thoughts, experiences, and honor to our animals. I want to thank you for filling my mind, body, spirit and soul with joy, hope for a better future for our animals and most of all, for being at peace with embracing diversity. Peace and love to all embracing this journey of not judging but embracing each other. Paulette
Best article ever! Thank you so much for putting into words what I have just learned from my horse. All the rest is fundamentalisms.
Aw, you’re welcome, thanks for reading, though if you’re getting it straight from your horse’s mouth then you’re in great shape…I agree about the fundamentalism – but god did I identify with that pull towards a set of rules I could follow and know that I was doing the “best” thing without having to pay attention constantly!
What a great article! I’d share it except that I need my current post at the top of my page this week! 🙂 It’s about not making ourselves wrong hey? Which of course helps us to not make others “wrong” either. And THAT opens us up to understanding what the horses truly need in that moment. For example – it’s a full and very rich spring here at the moment in southern Australia and the weather has been foul – high winds and cold rain. I have a herd of horses of whom four are usually rugged, who are not rugged through this, they need the cold to cope with this incredible richness of spring and yet one old guy DID need a rug – so he’s got one in the worst of this weather.
And speaking of rugs – that’s another instance of what you are talking about. It’s great to talk about natural in terms of not having horses rugged – but if there’s not enough shelter in our man made environment and age or whatever means they need one – then they bloody well need one! lol 🙂
Not making ourselves wrong, that’s a great way to put it, Jenny. And as soon as we criticize everyone else, we’ve made our ability to be “right” so tiny and cramped.
Interesting way to balance the rich forage with allowing them to be cold…so logical! And yet – they can’t all take it. What a great example.
I bought rugs/blankets one year because despite the weather being several degrees above freezing, we had non-stop rain and the horses refused to leave their round bale to shelter long enough to get dry. They were shivering and miserable, and raincoats fixed that! I have never used the rugs since but I love having them…just in case.
Great article Kesia!!! I completely agree with the unproper use of the word “natural” under human-built environments and ways of see the rest of the world. People aware of the life quality of a domesticated horse, in unnatural conditions, would look for the best possible benefits under that conditions. After centuries of domestication, it is not just mimicking natural environments and wild horse conditions and characteristics for our domesticated horses (indeed, what we humans with our big egos think is a natural environment or a perfect horse management/trainning/etc). We have a lot to learn when having living being around us and a lot to listen about their needs, but about their feelings, likes and .dislilkes. We need to leave our egos behind and learn how to realy listen other beings (sometimes even other human beings!). We do need first to return to a more natural way to connect with nature. Thanks so much for your challeging words! They have a lot of meaning to me.
And thanks for yours, Rosanna! I must have missed this comment. Beautifully said, and I think you captured it right here – “We need to leave our egos behind and learn how to realy listen other beings (sometimes even other human beings!). We do need first to return to a more natural way to connect with nature.”
Simplifying things, getting quiet enough to hear what we and our loved ones need and want, to be whole and fulfilled in who we are (us and the critters)…and looking at everyone and everything as an opportunity to learn more…
Great article. I have been an avid horseless (until recently) reader of different methods. I used to ride at a horse trekking place that used the word “natural” to avoid doing extra for their working horses ie more food, regular foot care. I tried to point out that there was nothing natural about being ridden for hours a day, with little success. I also attended a barefoot training day where the instructor showed pictures of a hoof of a horse that had adapted “unnaturally” to living in a marsh and which was then trimmed to match the Australian brumby. When I asked why the adapted foot was considered a negative, I was unable to get a direct answer. I think sometimes people do use “natural” to their advantage and people also blindly follow the latest fashion without thinking. Hopefully I won’t be one of them!
Rachael I swear I replied to this ages ago! I must have screwed it up somewhere along the way. Sorry! I love your attitude and I love the questions you’re asking. It takes a lot of energy and courage to keep following your own nose, but you seem to be pretty darn good at it! Keep it up, and let us know what you find out – we’re always keen to learn more!
Kesia! What do you mean by “violent rejection of the status quo”? And second. What do you actually do with the hooves? Does is said in this article that you do nothing at all in any case?
Alex! Thanks for your questions! My first mare reacted, quite literally, violently to the sort of standardly accepted horse training and keeping methods. She would rear, buck, bite, and take off in the ring or in the paddock. Later I found she had pain in her withers, spine and shoulders that may have had a lot to do with this! But her loud and absolute “NO!” made me stop and look very early on in our relationship, to learn might be wrong and to find what couls be right for her.
As for trimming, I do sometimes do nothing, if it seems appropriate. But usually I follow the Hoof Guided Method developed by Maureen Tierney, which is very simple and non-invasive in its principles and follows the sole to determine hoof wall height. I link to it in that part of the article – it’s worth a gander!
Thanks for the info on Maureen Tierney, just went to her web site and great stuff there.
Didn’t see a reply button on your last comment? , so I started a new reply
Yes that’s the rasp. It’s been a game changer for me & really helps do minimal & yet get that roll. It is way tougher then a few other similar rasps I have I purchased. It’s durable and looks like it will stand the test of time, you can even replace the blade & for me so much easier to maneuver and use. I found it on another horse bloggers site, who recommended it. To answer your other questions no the hooves have not been growing much, so there has not been a lot to do. Also good on you for putting horses well being above financial gain. There is not a lot of people who are willing to do that I can assure you. And yeah I know why are we so hard wired to get in there and fix what’s not broken? It’s probably just our get it done personalities. Keep up the good non work, you are my sounding board and we just have to go with …if its not broke don’t fix it. I will try and get some hoof shots when the weather clears. Thanks for your continued inspiration ?✌?️?
Likewise, my dear! You’re an inspiration in your own right, I love how you’re just following your nose and I’m learning from your adventures. Keep up the good non work too! ?
Brilliant article, thanks so much.
You are welcome, Glenda, and thanks for reading!
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