I write to you on the brink of tremendous change in my life and the lives of my equines. First, some background…
I grew up in the world of competing in hunter/jumper shows. In that world, horses live in 12’X12’ box stalls with small runs (my horse had an 18’X12’ run). If they’re lucky, they get a couple hours of turn out daily. These horses are fed 3 or so times a day, a couple flakes of hay supplemented with pellets/cubes and grain. These horses are shod as a rule. These horses are clipped and blanketed in the winter. They have their manes pulled to remain short and thin. Their ears and whiskers are kept clipped. When it is windy, particularly cold, raining or snowing, they are locked in 12’X12’ box stalls that are like living in solitary confinement. These horses are ridden 5 times a week in the arena, the lucky ones are also ridden on a “trail” (often just a loop around the barn’s property or another simple trail) once a week or so. They are trained with methods that range from simply ignorant to blatantly ill-advised. The humans in that world are taught in a way that, more often than not, shut down and alienate intuition and individuality in favor of blind obedience (for more on the student-trainer relationship, see “Do We Really Do What Is Best For Our Horses?”). I am speaking of the middle road in the competitive world, there is far worse and there is certainly also better than this, but the above was my experience.
Thirteen months ago my husband and I bought a house with a small property that we could have horses on. For the first time in over a decade, I brought my horse home to live where I had full responsibility and freedom of choice over his care. At first, still stuck in my blind obedience, I kept my horse as well as our new horse for my husband and the miniature donkeys that came with our property (and were living feral on the property I might add) darn close to how they’d live at a large training facility. I fed the same, I kept them separated, mostly in smaller spaces.
By winter, I began to break free more. I took the grain out of my horse’s diet in favor of a broader range of forage that would cover their dietary needs, it still included pellets/cubes for space reasons. I expanded each horse’s area so that, although not acres and acres of room to roam, they each had significant space. For the winter, I, against my education, did not lock my equines inside stalls or shelters EVER. I’m so glad I didn’t because I got to see my horse that had been a show horse play in the snow for the first time since he was young I’m sure, if not for the first time ever. My horse, so used to being locked up, would stand outside no matter what the weather. That winter, I trace clipped my horse in order to ride in better weather without the complication of heavy fur and therefore blanketed. My husband’s horse, a rescue, was barefoot and not clipped and only blanketed in sustained below freezing and wet weather to help him maintain his weight.
Now, as another winter is coming up, I am making major changes. First of all, I’ve begun experimenting with different slow feeders (mainly hay nets and hay bags, though I am VERY intrigued by Ruella Yates’ idea for creating slow feeders out of rolling trash cans…) to keep my horses eating longer. They’ve worked marvelously so far. I stocked up on hay for the winter and have decided to switch my equines’ diet of forage to entirely hay, no more pellets/cubes so that, again, they eat for longer! The next changes to come are transitioning my once show horse to barefoot. That adventure begins today.
In a week, perhaps the largest change will occur. I will be rearranging the horse area to a mini Paddock Paradise. Right now, it will have to be quite small as we have permanent fencing dividing the rear half of our property that is not a quick change, but eventually it will be removed and the Paddock Paradise will be expanded. For right now, it will simply be a track around my 60’ square pen with two larger areas for rolling, etc., two feeding stations, two watering stations and their shelters. My horses have only been turned out together under strict supervision since my show horse still had shoes, so that will be another transition.
I’m the only person I know taking a horse from such far extremes as I am with my show horse, but all of the hours researching are all worth it; even the critical friends and acquaintances are helpful as they bring to my attention areas that I may want to research more. Rather than allowing them to dissuade me, I use them to reveal to me where I still have doubts that will be quelled with research and soul searching.
Transitioning my horses to closer to natural living has done incredible things for our relationships, we’ve done things I never would have imagined. The most recent and my favorite is riding bridleless. I’ve ridden both of our horses bridleless. My show horse, who I ride more, I’ve done all flatwork and even jumped bridleless, an exhilarating experience to say the least!
My horses and I have improved our relationship the more and more I have allowed them to live as naturally as possible. I have become a better horsewoman by seeking my independence and relying on my intuition and A LOT of research. I have made many mistakes along the way. My horses seem to forgive my honest mistakes far more quickly than they did blind obedience to tradition. I know I’m not the only one out there feeling alone as I evolve myself and my horses’ lives. If you feel alone and wish to discuss your journey of evolution towards a more harmonious and natural way of caring for and relating to your horses, please feel free to email me or find me on Facebook.