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Wild horse country vs Domestic horse life

Is there anything more idicllic than gazing out onto those luscious green pastures watching horses munching on that beautiful green grass? I have to agree it is wonderfully eye catching. This image has been around for decades but the reality is most of our horses are overweight, laminitic and/or suffering from other metabolic diseases due to the type of environments we provide for our domesticated horses.

So let us have a look at some of the defining factors and reasons into why our horses are suffering because if we take the time to look back on the history of the horse, where they came from and how they have thrived without problems, we can begin to understand their needs and hopefully begin to eliminate these complications by providing more adequate boarding.

According to Jaime Jackson 2017, scientists have studied the evolutionary biology of the horse and determined that today’s modern horse, Equus ferns caballus, is genetically indistinguishable from their wild, pre-domesticated ancestor, Equus ferns ferns. Therefore highly significant that the species we know today arrived through evolutionary descent over one million years ago; and that the wild horse of the U.S Great Basin, provides us with a clear vision of what that adaptation means as a model for natural horse care.

So with that in mind let’s take a closer look at the U.S Great Basin. According to The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica online (1999), The U.S Great Basin is a distinctive natural feature of western North America that is equally divided into rugged north–south-trending mountain blocks and broad intervening valleys. It covers an arid expanse of about 190,000 square miles (492,000 square km) and is bordered by the Sierra Nevada range on the west, the Wasatch Mountains on the east, the Columbia Plateau on the north, and the Mojave Desert on the south. With the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave deserts, the Great Basin forms one of four divisions of the North American Desert. Most of the U.S. state of Nevada, the western half of Utah, and portions of other nearby states lie within its boundaries. The Great Basin is the largest subdivision—consisting of the northern half—of the Basin and Range Province, a physiographic feature extending southward to include southern Arizona, southeastern and central New Mexico, the western tip of Texas, and northwestern Mexico.

The vast arid space is an area of high desert type terrain with sparse vegetation and forage. Moisture levels in the great basin are low and the ground is extremely dry. Understanding this explains the horses need to travel great distances in order to obtain the amount of food and water he needs to survive. Jaime Jackson spent four years studying the wild horse bands between the years 1982 - 1986, during this time he observed how far the horses would travel, the routes they travelled and how the family bands would group together..

According to Jaime Jackson 2015, the wild horses seldom ate at a dead standstill it was always a pick and go affair. They are prey animals after all and are always on high alert for predators, especially if they have young foals with them. He also observed that the weather would determine how far they would travel per day to forage for food. Colder months would see them travelling farther away from the waterholes and summer months would see them resting in more shady areas and spending more time closer to the watering holes. Jackson also observed that the horses main diet seemed to be the dry bunch grasses and plants but depending on the environmental factors such as the region and weather could mean a shift in eating behaviours based on the availability of specific forage, showing that horses are adaptable and their diet is much more complex then we think but research has not been carried out on the wild horse diet so it is hard to replicate this with our domesticated horses.

Now let us look at how our domesticated horses live in the UK compared to the wild horses in the U.S Great Basin. Most of our horses spend part of their day in a stable and the other part of their day grazing in paddocks. If our horses are in a stable they spend that time eating at a standstill although this is on the understanding that the owner is providing the horse with enough food during his time in confinement. Once out to grazing the domesticated horse has no reason to move more than a few feet to find forage, he has no reason to be on guard for predators and therefore eliminating the ‘pick and go’ action. In colder months we provide our horses with unlimited access to hay or haylage so he has no reason to ever feel the need to seek forage and we wrap him up in rugs for warmth. Summer months most of us here in the UK will stop providing hay as grass is plentiful so limiting his forage options and exposing him to our unsuitable types of grasses.

So if there are are no differences between their bodies, their skeletal framework, their natural hooves and their mental capabilities then it is clear that the only thing that separates wild and domesticated horses is the presence of human influence. How we as owners allow our horses to use their mental and physical capabilities will determine how our horses flourish as nature intended.

Wild horse country is often rugged with inaccessible terrain, unlike our manicured paddocks. There, they endure harsh winters, predation, lack of food and lack of human intervention. It may seem tough, but it’s the natural environment for these horses to survive and by encouraging our horses to roam freely, hunt out their food, fight, socialise and groom each other, we can allow them to access these natural survival instincts even whilst they remain domesticated.

By stabling our horses and or keeping them in small paddocks, they are unable to fulfil their natural urge to move and become bored and restless, with limited stimulation. They don’t need acres and acres, just adequate space to walk around as nature intended rather than being locked up. Keeping your horse in a stable and or a small paddock all day is not protecting them, they are built to survive outdoors. It’s merely preventing them from fulfilling their natural instincts.

It’s important to become aware of the actions that we as owners impose on our horses that serve to distance them from their natural state. By allowing our horses a freedom of movement, by trimming their hooves according to their natural trim, by simplifying their diet and by always accounting for their natural gait when riding or working our horses, we can allow domesticated horses to thrive as nature intended them to thrive. The only difference between a domesticated and a wild horse is our influence, their bodies, needs and urges remain the same. So next time you make a decision regarding your horse, perhaps ask yourself: ‘Is this what my horse would need in the wild?’. If no, why do it? Let’s allow our horses to be horses.

Jackson, J. (2017). Training Manual: ISNHCP Natural Trim Training Program. Lompoc: J.Jackson Publishing.

The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1999). Great Basin: Region, United States. [Online] Available at: [Acssesed: 06.05.2020]

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