It’s interesting that I spent over 15 years being around horses, mainly used for riding, but didn’t know a fraction of what I learned in just 1 year having my own horse.
Looking back I have to laugh but also feel ashamed. How naïve I was, how little I knew about horses and how trustworthy I felt towards people that I thought new everything about horses, because they were trainers or simply because they owned horses. All the knowledge I have now, I self-studied in just 1 year and every day I learn something new. Everything has changed when Ari entered my life.
One of the most important topics for me, is the feeding of horses. I think by now every horse person should, and probably does know, how important good quality and the availability of hay for our horses are. If a horse has nothing to eat for more than 4 hours this can cause metabolic disorders. There are thousands of very good articles to be found in books or for free in the internet, so I don’t want to go into the specifics. But want to talk about the availability of hay.
So, most of you will know that the ideal feed is a constant availability of high qualitative hay, especially, if the pasture size and grass is limited. Preferably, ad libitum, which means that the horse has constant access to hay and can eat as much as he desires.
A lot of people will say that this is impossible, my horse would get fat and would not stop eating and instead becoming sick.
Of course you have to take the bigger picture into account. For me there is no question that horses should be kept in open space paddocks and have access to pasture 24/7. For me, boxes and even paddock boxes are not acceptable. It is not the nature of horses at all. Horses are social herd animals. They are walking animals and their health and welfare depends on the ability to move together in a harmonious herd, while mainly eating.
Our situation when I came to the stable I am right now with Ari was simple: 3 times hay a day, at 6.00 in the morning, at 12.00 at noon and at 17.00 in the afternoon! Our horses were probably eating for max 1.5 hours per portion. Which means that at 6.30pm there was nothing left. Which also means that our horses had nothing to eat for 10 hours, besides the short grass and the straw from their stall. In summer this was maybe not so severe, because they had grass but winter was a different story, there was not much grass left in pasture. And since the horses need more energy in winter in order to keep their thermoregulation running properly, they need more hay.
With my internal change towards riding and training in general and my new gained knowledge about horses I wanted to provide Ari the most natural life possible. The herd life was in place and so was the 24/7 pasture, and for our region the space is quite big. But the forage pretty soon became unacceptable for me. Also, by the time I got to the stable in the evenings Ari was in the middle of her meal, and I always felt bad to disturb her. But I also had to give her some exercise. She was frustrated, I was frustrated. I knew I had to change something.
I started to talk to the other horse owners who had their horses there already. And pretty soon we came to the conclusion that we should talk to the stable owner.
We set up a meeting and explained to him that we want some changes. 1st that the quality of hay needs to improve and 2nd the availability of hay has to increase. He listened to us, although he did not agree, but very soon the quality had improved and our horses had all day long hay.
I was very aware that Ari might gain weight, I actually knew that she will. All I know about Ari’s previous life is: when she was two years old, her previous owner took her to Switzerland from France. And apparently she was in a bad physical state and very skinny. From the age 2-4 she also got rationed hay and was living in a paddock with limited pasture time. But, physically she wasn’t in bad state. In general I can tell that Ari does not seem to have major trauma related to humans, besides the incorrect feeding.
So you always have to keep in mind that when your horse grew up with rationed food, this will be in their minds. So it might take some time until your horse “gets it” that the food will always be available. This might happen after a month, after 6 months or after years. Give your horse the time to adjust, and don’t give up too fast. Also be persistent with the stable owner. In our case he fed the horses 3 times a day for all his life. He also needed time to accept the new situation. And some of them will not understand, but try to explain. Even nowadays he does not do it for all the horses, because he didn’t really understand, or some of the other owners didn’t want too much hay. However, our group was persistent. And he also knew that some people might leave because of this situation, I was one of them. You have a right too, you are paying and you should get an appropriate service back, especially when it concerns the health of your horse. Even now, after 6 months, I still have to remind him about the hay, he also falls back into old habits. And sometimes I feel like I am a pain in the ass. But it doesn’t matter. As long as we can talk to each other in a respectful and honest way it’s ok.Change needs time!
So what probably will happen if you change the forage from rationed to ad libidum, is that the horses will eat constantly in the beginning. They will eat until they learned that the food is always going to be there. And then they will stop and do something else and come back to eat. I am convinced, if the horse lives in appropriate conditions, for our regions in an open paddock stable, preferably with pasture, where they can move and are able to have a sprint if they want to, they will know naturally how much food they need. It is again our human mind who seems to have the best solution for everything. Instead of just looking at and learning from nature and trust it.
Ari did gain weight, and she had a huge belly for maybe two months! Like super big! And a lot of people did come to talk to me and mentioned her weight, some of them even asked whether she was having a foal. And the fact that I am not even riding my horse in order to give her “proper” exercise, to keep her “healthy”, was also a point that some friends did not understand. I could also feel the looks and the smiles from riders, on their sports horses. In the beginning I was very hurt, but pretty soon I didn’t care anymore. I just looked in my horse’s eyes, and felt how thankful she was. She is much more relaxed now, her mind has seemed to slow down, because she does not have to worry anymore about her food. She was one of those horses who would eat constantly in the beginning but after two months only she realised it. Now she will leave her food and come to be with me. And she is as fit as never before. But, if you can’t provide your horse with enough space you have to make sure your horse gets enough movement. Movement is as important as the food. In my case, the fact that I was only working with Ari on a free will basis, made the whole thing a bit more difficult. I am not the one who is running my horse in circles in order to have her moved or does any classical training. People think they can only keep their horses healthy when they ride them. I don’t believe that, and I am convinced we can keep our horses even healthier without riding.
If you look at a Shetland pony who might seem to be a bit bigger, which they sometimes are, no one would say: Oh, you have to ride this poor pony in order to keep it healthy. Or if you have a horse that you can’t ride anymore due to injury or breeding mares, who are used for one purpose only. Why is it a different thing when you consciously decide not to ride a healthy horse? Do healthy horses all have to look the same? Like athletes?
You can do so much with your horse without riding. I try my best to give her some exercise without riding, and without training in general. And only now, after a year of building trust, we are starting to move a bit further besides our walks. We are jogging, we run and play together in pasture, and we work very concentrated for some minutes in the arena, and then we play again. Everything happens in tiny little steps. I am aware that I cannot gallop for hours with her, but we slowly start to gallop for a few steps during our walks. I am trying not to interfere in her movement at all, so why should I not be able to keep her healthy?
I had to learn to deal with the outer world and just keep on doing my thing the way it feels right to me. Ari will never be an athlete or sports horse, therefore she doesn’t have to look like one. And besides who is deciding if a horse is in good shape or not. And I am not talking about the obvious cases, when you clearly can tell that a metabolic disorder is in place.
Who are our examples? Where does our knowledge come from? Who are our teachers? These are questions I am asking myself…
Wild horses in Bosnia & Herzegovina (copyright by Maksida Vogt, http://academialiberti.de/en/)
Most of the horse people I know are looking for the ideal sport horse shape in their horses. And I just wonder, where does this thinking come from? Why do we strive for perfection so much, which is always a perception of the individual anyways. It often reminds me of the human society we live in. The models with their perfectly photo-shopped bodies in magazines, that try to tell us what’s good for us and what’s not. How we should look like and what we should wear! What we should eat, how we should talk and who we should be! We strive for perfection ourselves, instead of accepting and loving our imperfection, and maybe that’s why we look for perfection in our horses as well.
With the awakening of conscious minds we start to free ourselves from our mental slavery, which is the perfect reflection of the outer world. There are bad and horrible things going on in the world, but there are also wonderful things happening. People all over the world are freeing themselves and consequently their horses from the slavery we put ourselves and them in.
Horses are no humans, they don’t care about how they look or how you look. And they don’t ask for much in life. All they care about is that they can live their lives with their own species in a harmonious herd, while being together and especially while eating together, amongst other things hay, hay and hay!