Updated: Aug 13, 2021
*We all want the best for our horses and for some that means feeding naturally. But what does that mean when our horses spend most of their time in stalls isolated from herd groups? I do believe there are ways to bring "nature" into our horses' lives no matter where they live or how they are kept.
A surprisingly common request from clients is to "feed more naturally". As one of several Nutrition Goals generated during OCEN's private consultations, I find this appeal honest and honorable, but I always follow up with a question..."What does natural mean to you?" I have found throughout my career that this phrase is loaded like a tack truck headed to a week long horse show. The answers can be wildly different between individuals and lie along a spectrum. I can not assume that what natural means to you is what natural means to me. However, I have boiled down, three ways in which I believe "naturalness" can be incorporated into all horse diets regardless of management style, regional locations, budget or political leanings. [Jump down to the list by clicking here.]
Good Versus Evil
I really wanted to understand the meaning behind what clients say when they request more natural horse diets, because I recognized the love behind it. I was also afraid to address it directly due to the heaviness of the word. I felt that by expressing my opinion in the matter of "natural"or "unnatural" I was going to be placed in a camp of good or evil depending on where the reader lies on political and idealogical spectrums. So, I went looking for answers beyond my own experiences.
What I found was Alan Levinovitz- a religious scholar at James Madison University and author of Natural: How faith in Nature's Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. What Mr. Levinovitz argues in the 215 pages of his book is that humans' passionate adherence to natural consumption mimics historic and modern religions. What he helped me to understand is that feeding horses can take on a ritual-like quality that feeds both the emotional mind and the physical body (owner and horse). "Eating what's "natural"- or what bears that label- is a genuinely good faith effort to do the right thing," says Levinovitz. "Natural is an earnest metaphor for goodness." Adding "natural" products to horse diets is a statement of our goodness as an owner. A scoop of herbal mix is like dropping nature into our horse's bucket and delivering a sunbeam to their stall. It's a sprinkle of prayer for their health. This helps explain why so many horse owners are drawn to the marketing claims behind "natural" products. It's not about nutrients. Mixing powders and potions into our horses' diets is an acknowledgement of our management limitations and a "good faith effort" to communicate our apologies with food. There is a better way to feed horses "naturally" though that does NOT include scoops and powders. I think the way to feed better is to go deeper than topical feeds or supplements.
"Nature is another term for God; "natural," a synonym for holy. It describes Eden before agriculture, our instincts before we sinned." -Natural by Alan Levinovitz
First, I want to express what is NOT in this list of "how to feed horses naturally". What is NOT here are any ingredients or brands labeled as natural. I refuse to boost up the flimsy marketing campaigns that companies proliferate to sell more product. And sell more product it does! Any artwork or wording that suggests a lack of processing, friendliness to the environment, and likeness to a romanticized past will greatly influence our purchases. I'm sure each of you can conjure up the beige packaging (reminiscent of an old paper bag used in simpler times) with the iconic farm barn in the background and story of local dreams and hard work. Just look around your house- it's everywhere! It's difficult NOT to buy products labeled as natural. Healthy diet dog food, free trade shampoos, and even natural clothing from Cabela's (???...WHAT....???) are under my roof. The ubiquity of "natural" inside our homes and feed rooms is due to knowledge gleaned from thousands of consumer surveys and billions of purchases. Product companies are more aware than we are just how successful suggestions of "natural" are to consumers no matter the reality of their claims.
I also want readers to understand that I do NOT endorse marketing images like the one below which are scientifically false. This sort of misleading generalization is dangerous to horse health. A horse that eats nothing but grass can suffer from very real deficiencies such as selenium and copper. Modern horse diets are a reality of urbanization and forage constraints, and should not be used as a weapon to guilt trip horse owners into buying product.
Feeding More Naturally
Ok, let's get to the real reason that you are reading this article. How can YOU, horse owner, strive to feed your horse more naturally?
1. Forage First Decisions:
This is by far the most powerful path towards natural health in horse care. I'm going to offer some tough love here and suggest that MOST of you do not do this. I'm sorry...I appreciate you all...but most horse owners that I talk to do NOT know the origin, cutting or species of their horse's primary forage and 99 out of 100 horse owners have never reviewed a forage analysis. Therefore, when problems arise with a horse's health, most horse owners will jump to "what supplement can I buy?" rather than "how does forage play a role?". The problem is that supplement companies can't package and sell this kind of forage-first naturalness (at least they can not sell it at the margins that make is sustainable). So, the education is not there, and we forget to consider it in our path towards better health.
Horses are evolutionarily designed to eat plants, but there are many species and varieties of legumes and grasses all of which have strengths and weaknesses that we can harness! So, shouldn't we put most of our "natural" efforts into learning more about the primary forage first? If changing the type of forage or how you feed that forage makes your horse's digestive system better, isn't that the ultimate NATURAL method? I call this forage-first decisions. When I consult with horse owners, we spend a LOT of time discussing the horse's primary forage, because it's often 90-99% of the diet. We can start addressing every type of nutrition goal and every type of disease or special need by first asking "how does forage play a role?" Once this question is answered, you can begin to make meaningful "natural" improvements.
The word simple is nearly synonymous with natural isn't it? We connect simplicity with purity, authenticity, and goodness. However, the definition as I see it in horse diets is probably not the way you might guess. Creating a simple diet plan is NOT about short ingredients lists or removing words hard to pronounce. That is false advertising. Simplicity is about removing the guesswork from formulating our horse's meals. It's about decreasing the number of supplements that we add for vague or mysterious reasons. The only way to do this is to know precisely what your hay/pasture is or is not offering your horse. Therefore, return to Step #1.
3. Horse management that minimizes stressors:
Stress can come in a myriad of forms such as forage availability, length and intensity of work, isolation, traveling, training, and veterinary care. It's absolutely impossible to remove ALL the stressors in our horses' daily lives, but we can consider how it manifests in each unique situation and work to mitigate it wherever possible. Since most of us can not return our horse's to their ancestral grasslands of Mongolia or North America, we consider ways in which we can optimize 1) mastication, 2) socialization, and 3) movement wherever you are at whether that be a boarding facility with stalls and minimal turnout or a small herd at home. Striving to improve our everyday horse management prevents diseases like colic, myopathy, metabolic disorders, and gastric ulcers. Here are some suggestions for naturalizing your horse's daily management.
How can your horse spend more time chewing each day? (i.e. better matched forages, slow feed hay nets, stall/paddock enrichment, number of meals per day, grazing muzzles, ect)
How can he/she get more equine socialization without getting hurt? (i.e. small herd group turnouts, ponies/minis, other livestock such as goats, better fencing?)
How can you increase your horse's movement each day? (i.e. long, slow conditioning, turnout time and location, grazing muzzles, hand-grazing, walkers, ect)
It can be really tough to admit that we, the loving and doting horse owners, cause stress in our horses' lives, but acceptance is the first step. The next step is to be open and honest about just how much movement, socialization, and continuous forage grazing is possible within your own limitations of land, time, and money. It's brain busting work, but I believe that considering horse management techniques that minimize these stressors is one of the most profound ways to increase "naturalness" in our horse's lives.
I concluded that my two realities can exist together- I can scold feed and supplement companies for false claims of natural nostalgia in pursuit of profit while also finding ways to improve horse health through "natural" means. In my own equine experience, that means 1) making forage first decisions before supplements, 2) keeping diets simple through forage knowledge, and 3) decreasing equine stressors by maximizing movement, chewing time, and socialization within the limitations of our own situations. This is what "Natural" nutrition means to me.