There are more ways of "proper" horsekeeping than there are horses, it seems. Each one can assure you that THIS is the best way to manage your horse. Mixed herds! Create a Track! Set up a dry lot! Free choice hay! Let them graze! Tall grass, short grass, no grass!
Consider the whole system:
Rather than chasing the one perfect solution, once we recognize that we are managing a whole system made up of interconnected parts: the soil, water, plants, and animals, we can make better informed decisions day to day. Considering the whole system allows us to create a system that is working in harmony, and make better decisions in each moment.
Soil health is animal health:
The relationship between the soil and the health of our horses (and people for that matter) cannot be overstated. We need to shift our mindset to realize that in order to care for our horses, we need to care about the soil that feeds and houses them. Using the soil health as a guiding line, we can then make individual choices that supports the whole system.
There are five basic soil health principles:
Cover the Soil
Minimize Soil Disturbance
Maintain Continuous Living Plants/Roots
Cultivate appreciation for life:
We are often brought up to believe insects , small animals, reptiles and "weeds" are the enemy. What if we shift our mindset, and realize that these are signs of life that contribute to healthy systems.
For every "pest" insect, there are an estimated 1,700 others that are either beneficial or neutral. Insects play roles in the carbon and water cycles, and many of them are still unknown in terms of their contributions to the land. Mice, large insects, and small reptiles are the primary food for owls, hawks, and eagles. Many of the "weeds" in our pasture can be beneficial and medicinal to ourselves and our horses.
How many people are spraying herbicides to kill the very weeds they end up paying to add as supplements?
Horses are browsers, not grazers, and increased pasture diversity can aid in healthy gut microbiota, which is showing to be a key component in whole animal health. [https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32303307/]
You cannot have perfection and abundance in the same system- "Roots and Refuge"
Once we shift our mindset from eliminating problems to stewarding solutions, we begin to understand that most "pests" are key players in this complex system. Eliminating any part of the system causes ripple effects that cause bigger problems down the road.
While there isn't one solution to "get it right", there are a lot of components that lead to healthy horses. High fiber and low sugar feeds, movement, socialization, freedom, shelter from heat and cold, and enriching experiences just set a baseline.
The herd will have different requirements at different times of the year, and each horse will have different preferences and experiences. Set up your facility to allow you to have the greatest flexibility possible in rotating pastures, removing horses from grass, separating them if needed, and ensuring they can take any required supplements in private. The greater the flexibility in your property, the easier it will be to respond to what is happening in the moment.
Experiment and learn from experience:
No two farms or horses are the same. We need to be able to reconigze that there isn't one cookie-cutter system that will work for every owner, manager, eco-region and herd. It's tempting to look for "The Solution" but learning your land and your horses, being responsive to their needs and knowing what tools are at your disposal will serve you better than sticking to any one horse management system.
Kristen and the Ardani herd.