Horses Want Fewer Gifts, Better Care

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Editor’s Note:

Dr. Sheryl King is professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University, a Fellow of the Equine Science Society, a Best Horse Practices Summit board member, and lifelong horsewoman. In this guest column, she writes about the range of benefits from working and owning horses.

By Dr. Sheryl King

How thoroughly amazing it is that two species so different– evolutionarily and by character – can often become, with a little effort, planning, and sensitivity, so connected to one another. How ironic that this attraction of opposites can often morph into a destructive relationship for the horse despite our best intentions.

When we misinterpret our relationship with our horse, when we move beyond the role of caring steward to treating the horse like an extension of ourselves and our family, we err to the detriment of the horse. We end up loving it badly.

Horses are horses. People are people. Try as we might, the two will never be the same, and as the saying goes, “Vive La Difference!

What am I getting at?

Some examples:

1. We all understand that the horse is strictly an herbivore. Humans, by nature, are not. As omnivores, we eat a variety of foods; variety keeps us healthy. As grazers, horses eat the same thing, day in, day out – grass or hay. They like it that way; indeed, they need it that way to stay healthy. When we love our horses to the point where we project our humanness on them, we tend to try to change their nature toward ours.

We give them variety.

We give them grain because we love to hear that nicker of appreciation.

We give them treats to show them how much we care for them.

We give them all kinds of supplements because companies convince us that we are better owners for doing so.

All of the above often compromises our horses’ digestive, metabolic, even skeletal health.

2. Horses evolved to live outdoors, in the open. They seek shelter only in the most extreme of weather. They have developed a most marvelous skin and hair coat to protect them from all that nature can dole out. Humans were not so blessed. We seek shelter most of the time and we need to artificially cover our bodies to deal with the elements and we project this habit to our horses.

We put our horses indoors; we sometimes even heat that indoor space.

We cover them with all manner of blankets, sheets, coolers or slinkies

These horses often suffer in myriad ways – behavioral problems, respiratory disease, digestive problems, skeletal, and hoof problems. The list goes on.

3. Horses evolved with a need to roam. Even in a pasture, most horses will cover 10 or more miles a day. It is their nature to wander and seek nourishment throughout most of their day. What modern humans consider strenuous exercise is just day-in-the-life movement to a horse.

They need to walk, run, roll, rear, kick. But we humans live in communities; most of us have limited land on which to keep our horses, and many of us want to control where a horse goes, when, and how. Idleness is bad for a horse’s mind and bad for its body. To a horse, W-O-R-K is not a four-letter word; the domesticated horse needs a job and they need to report to work daily.

4. Perhaps our worst disservice is to impose our own emotions and moral values on horses. Their code of ethics is not a human code of ethics. When we think of our horses as our four-footed “equine children,” we fall prey to the notion that horses deserve human rights. Conferring human rights on animals means that by owning them, we exploit them. Moreover, sliding into this way of thinking about gives power to groups who believe:

Horses are pets, not livestock, and are therefore subject to all the controls that we impose on pets

Horse jobs are forms of cruelty

Horses should not be owned by humans at all (i.e. owning pets is a form of slavery and should be banned).

When we allow horses to become pets or otherwise support an animal rights’ agenda, we risk ceding control of how we manage horses to the animal rights groups’ version of “humane.” These groups may advocate:

  • Taking away your horse’s job,
  • Keeping them only in an unnatural, controlled environment
  • Labeling as animal cruelty the keeping of a horse simply, as horses should be kept.

The Take-Home messages:

Recognize that horses are not humans.

Put the needs of the animal above those of the human.

The next time you catch yourself doing “something special” for your horse, stop. Think. Are you really doing this for your horse, or are you doing it for you? If it is really for you, is it also good for the horse?

Beware false prophets of equine welfare – what they preach may actually be bad for horse’s health.

Horses Nurture Body and Soul

Editor’s Note:

Dr. Sheryl King is professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University, a Fellow of the Equine Science Society, a Best Horse Practices Summit board member, and lifelong horsewoman. In this guest column, she writes about the range of benefits from working and owning horses.

By Dr. Sheryl King:

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”  Winston Churchill

It seems Churchill had it right in more ways than he imagined. Horses are indeed good for people. Not only do they labor on our behalf, horses stimulate our body and souls.

How does owning a horse make us healthier? Many of us are overweight and don’t get enough exercise. National guidelines call for thirty minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, five days a week. Riding a horse carries the equivalent calorie expenditure as a moderately brisk walk; trotting and galloping can increase that exercise level to the equivalent of jogging or swimming. Add to those pleasant activities, the effort of catching your horse at pasture, grooming, tacking, and hotwalking and you have yourself a workout.

Activity guidelines also include muscle-strengthening exercise on two or more days a week that works all major muscle groups. Horse barns are the equivalent of weight-training gyms! If you care for your horse yourself, you are likely indulging in weight training as well as aerobic exercise. Horses produce about fifty pounds of manure a day, add sodden bedding to the equation and you have a regular mini weightlifting session in the form of stall cleaning.

Lifting, hauling, dumping, raking, and rebedding are good for the horse and good for the heart. A typical five-gallon water bucket weighs about forty pounds – many horse owners schlep a few of those around each day. Add hauling hay bales, grain sacks, hammering, digging, and fixing up after your horse’s mischief, and you have likely met your weekly exercise quota without even counting the muscular rigors of riding.

I once had an argument with my daughter’s grade-school gym teacher: Weekly exercise outside of school time was required as part of the class grade. This teacher refused to consider riding a form of exercise. “The horse does all the work,” she said. “Spoken like someone who has never ridden a horse,” was my reply.

Anyone who has ridden a horse for the first time, or after a long hiatus from the activity can testify to the unique muscles that are (ouch) stimulated by this activity.

Indeed, horseback riding is a well-documented and widely accepted mode of delivering physical therapy. Former US press secretary, James Brady, famously complained about his hippotherapy rehabilitation (he called his physical therapy “physical terrorism”). Horses helped him regain some of his function following the head wound he sustained during the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) is a global organization that has revolutionized the delivery of physical therapy for children and adults with physical, mental and emotional challenges. Horses are officially rehabbing our military veterans.

Freedom Stables/Harmony Horsemanship in Deerfield, WI . Michael Sears, Journal Sentinel

Horsemen know the profound effect these animals can have on our psyche. We can testify to horses’ stress-reducing effect on us. But horses have also proven their value in reaching humans as no other therapy can. Horse-assisted psychotherapy has succeeded in helping people with profound mental problems, such as autism, eating disorders, PTSD, and anger management. Horses connect with us at a most primal level, and although psychic healing is more difficult to document than physical rehabilitation assisted through horses, it is nonetheless increasingly recognized.

EAGALA – Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association – is an international program devoted to the notion of horses assisting with social, emotional and mental healing. At the equine science program I directed, we hosted a similar program where I had the privilege of witnessing the transformative power of the horse on children with autism, ADHD, victims of unspeakable abuse and those faced with other mental, behavioral and social challenges.

So, the next time you are breaking a sweat at the barn or enjoying a companionable moment with your mount, thank your horse for keeping you healthy – body and soul.

What?? Yes, Riders are Athletes

Editor’s Note: Ah, to be young and carefree. After a few years of ignoring what might be obvious for some, guest columnist Amy Skinner realized her diet and exercise were instrumental to a successful horsemanship career.

Read more on Rider Fitness here.

Read rider Julie Kenney’s Journey of Fitness here.

She writes:

Horse people are well known for having bad eating habits and long work hours. I’ve been no exception. For years, I skipped breakfast and started riding horses, cleaning stalls, slinging hay, fixing fences, and teaching lessons on a stomach full of nothing but black coffee.

By lunchtime, I’d be starving. But with plenty of horses left to ride and no desire to feel a bunch of food bouncing around in my stomach, I’d eat something small, like a granola bar or half of a sandwich. At day’s end, I’d be famished and sit down to a huge dinner and then go to bed.

I was always tired. And, oddly, no matter how many hundreds of bales of hay I threw or mounds of manure I shoveled, I never got any stronger.  In addition, my back hurt from riding colts and working them through their acrobatics. At night, I’d have to work at stretching out my back.

One day, I realized my job was athletic. That made me an athlete. 

Athletes eat and train for their jobs, otherwise their bodies wouldn’t be able to perform. I decided to treat myself like a athlete:

— I started waking up earlier and making breakfast, eating a midmorning snack, a good lunch, and a lighter dinner.

— I cut out sugar, upped my protein, and lowered my carbs. I added lots of fruits and vegetables.

— During my lunch breaks, I started working out by adding yoga, strength training, or running to my days.

The first two weeks were hard. I was always sore. It was really tempting to quit. The workouts seemed to make riding harder. My legs felt like heavy tree trunks.

But within a month, I felt fantastic. I was stronger and more energetic. My day doesn’t exhaust me anymore and I don’t feel stiff at the end of the day.  My metabolism is much higher and I actually feel like the food I am eating is giving me what I need for my day, not just filling my stomach and making me tired.

In another month, I noticed huge changes in my riding. I have much better awareness of my body. Little issues – unevenness in my body, collapsing a rib cage or shoulder, and slouching shoulders – started going away.  My posture is better because my core is stronger.

I can go with a horse much better when it spooks, spins around, or bucks, because I have much better core stability. That stability and strength mean I rely less on my hands or reins for balance.

The change has made me a more confident rider because I’m less intimidated by sudden movements and goofy antics from young or troubled horses.  I am much less reactive and more able to ride out a buck or squirt or bolt and take my time to deliberate what action should be taken.  My back does not hurt at the end of the day.

Another side effect of my fitness progression is that I have a better understanding of bringing a horse along in its own fitness.  In my own body, areas of stiffness and weakness have only benefited from more attention.  I work harder on weak points instead of favoring what was easy and already strong.  I also made stretching, lengthening, and symmetry a huge priority so that my strength was functional and benefited my lifestyle instead of just looking better.

The same goes for the horse:

— it takes time to build muscle

— it’s important to strengthen weak areas and work on symmetry

When training the horse, we can’t expect immediate change. It should happen slowly over time if we are to build healthy muscle and lasting improvement.

I also got a sense for when to push a little when a horse was resistant, as I would become fatigued in my own workouts but knew progress could be made if I reached a little deeper. I also gained insight on when to back off and give the horse a rest.

Sticking with the change in diet and exercise has been tough, but worthwhile. It’s so easy to get caught up in tasks and dismiss healthy eating. But once I got in the habit of eating better and more often, my tastes changed and I stopped craving what wasn’t good for me.  Yes, my grocery bill is through the roof, but I have all the energy I need to do my job. Getting stronger and more fit has made all the difference.

Riding, after all, is an athletic endeavor.

Sign up for Amy Skinner lessons in Maine, April 29-30.

“Fit” is More than Skin-Deep: Confessions of a Sugar-holic

Last year, in the pages of NickerNews and BestHorsePractices, we focused on rider fitness and weight. That’s because there is mounting evidence showing we do our horses and our horsemanship a sizeable favor by being fit and on weight.

As it happens, I know a lot of fit, athletic riders. These men and women run the gamut:

  • They are ranchers with no college education
  • They are white collar, weekend riders
  • They are professional clinicians.
  • They are high level dressage riders

As they step effortlessly into the saddle and nurture a healthy, relaxed connection with their horses, they share one invisible flaw: a Western diet. It’s high in fat and sugar and even in folks who are fit and athletic, it can have a negative impact.

How do I know?

I’m one of them. For years, I justified a bad diet with the smugness of being fit and active. For scrutiny’s sake, my fitness is defined here:

— 5’7,”135 pounds

— Daily aerobic exercise (hiking, horse work, etc)

–Daily strength exercise (ranch work supplemented with gym time)

I’ve also justified an American grab-and-go meal attitude, telling myself I was too busy and apathetic to make a healthier sit-down meal, like a hearty salad or something with vegetables. Common culprits in my diet (followed by rationale):

— PayDay bars (hey, they have peanuts)

— Donut for breakfast (hey, I’ll burn them off by lunch)

— Cereal and yogurt instead of a real meal (hey, the cereal has vitamins and I’m a woman so I need the calcium)

— Dessert after every meal

Dr. Steve Peters

But as Dr. Steve Peters would like to remind me, even crummy diets camouflaged by fit bodies can impact our health. This study reported that even lean individuals drinking as little as one soda per day increase their risk of getting diabetes by 18 percent. Fruit juice is not an innocent substitute since it is still high in sugar.

These studies reports the impact a Western diet can have on your aging, on your brain health, and emotional health.

At Intermountain Health in Utah, Dr. Peters has given scores of presentations that connect healthy eating with healthy aging and brain activity. He advocates a vegan diet. So does the huge health conglomerate Kaiser Permanente. Read their directive to doctors and patients here.

But frankly I cannot stomach veganism or stay fortified all day without something more than plants. I talked with my doctor who was, thankfully, not so hard core. He urged a modified Mediterranean diet that includes some dairy and meat. Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and beans, should rule my days, the doctor said.

But change is hard.

One of the most impactful books I’ve read lately is the Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. It’s helped me understand the importance of doing things right the first time and the challenge of undoing the wrong thing.

The concept, of course, is applicable to a lot of horsemanship:


Colt Starting

Equine Rescue

Life-Long Learning

It’s also relevant to reshaping food intake after decades of unhealthy practices. I know, for instance, that my craving for something sweet is physiological, psychological, and neurological. The cravings and indulgences aren’t just weaknesses. They are neural pathways which end in that satisfying release of dopamine. In other words, it feels good to have a cookie. Healthier habits are actually about carving new neural pathways. Grabbing a cookie is my mind’s fast track; not grabbing a cookie is bushwhacking through the wilderness in neurological terms.

Maddy Butcher

Self-reform has been a blend of tricks and mindfulness. Some strategies:

  • Taking the dogs for a walk right after a meal
  • Buying better coffee that doesn’t need sweetener
  • Eating graham crackers instead of fat- and sugar-laden cookies (most graham crackers have only a few grams of sugar and almost zero fat)
  • If I can resist buying it in the first place, then temptations are simply out of reach. This is simple if, like me, you live miles and miles from the nearest store.

I’m a work in progress. But as Julie Kenney has so articulately written, we all are. I no longer eat entire rolls of Life Savers in one sitting or sneak whole cans of frosting out of the cupboard, like I did as a kid. I’m a grown-up and am finally trying to take nutrition seriously.

Snow is NOT Water when it comes to equine hydration

Snow is not water.

Sure, it is the frozen equivalent. But when it comes to proper hydration for your equines, snow does not come close to fulfilling their needs.

“Absolutely true,” said Dr. Janelle Tirrell, of Third Coast Equine, when I mentioned that eating snow did not provide enough hydration for horses. She attributes inadequate water availability to the uptick in colic cases during the winter months. During especially cold snaps, she says colic calls to Maine farms can nearly triple.

Dr. Jeff Warren of Southwest Veterinary Service in Durango, Colorado, agrees: “Trusting in snow to provide adequate hydration is just not right. It’s our job as caretakers of livestock that we not do it that way,” he said. “I treat lots of colic because the clients’ horses are not adequately hydrated.”

Of course, horses tend to drink less during winter. But that doesn’t mean we can neglect water duty. It’s still essential. Providing salt is, too, and doing so often encourages them to drink.

Some additional Do’s and Don’t’s:

  • Do use a water heater or provide some way for horses to have 24-hour access to unfrozen water.
  • Do provide free-choice salt.
  • Don’t force salt or electrolytes on a horse who’s already dehydrated. It may exasperate the problem.
  • Do offer warm water, especially to older or more vulnerable horses. (Years ago, I offered a regular bucket of warm water to my aging mare. While she didn’t drink from the standard, barely unfrozen bucket, she would drink warm water every night as if it were a cup of hot cocoa. Helping or enabling – you be the judge.)
  • Do offer occasional bran mashes (bran mixed with lots of warm water). Or, if you are feeding grain, consider soaking it in warm water instead of giving it dry.

Dr. Warren likes to offer warm water mixed with mineral oil to horses at risk of colic. He uses a 1:1 ratio (for example, a half gallon of each). “When they’re feeling crummy, it makes them feel more comfortable.”

In the interest of keeping colic at bay, I like to encourage horse owners to decrease grain intake and increase hay intake, especially during winter months. Read more about colic here.

Working Dogs Beware, Part II

Read Working Dogs Beware, Part I

Here in Mancos, a small, rural community in southwestern Colorado, dogs of mixed and mysterious breeds rule.

7781_sq_1There are scores of rescued dogs, dogs from the Ute Mountain Ute or Southern Ute reservations, and ranch dogs whose owners may or may not know their dog’s lineage.

Our new addition, Monty, came from a May ranch litter. The puppies all looked like their mother, a border collie. My friend thought the father had some Catahoula Cur breeding, but wasn’t sure.

At a routine puppy visit, the vet mentioned that herding dogs may not tolerate several common drugs img_3723because of a genetic mutation. Indeed, they can suffer seizures and die because of it. The MDR1 (multi-drug resistance test) offered as part of the DNA screening by Wisdom Panel would answer the question of Monty’s vulnerability when exposed to drugs like Acepromazine and Ivermectin.

I received the Wisdom Panel kit, entered his kit information online, swabbed the inside of his cheek, and popped it back in the mail. A few days later, I got an email letting me know the kit was received and lab work had begun. It was soon followed by email linking Monty’s results.


Monty's Wisdom Panel results

Monty’s Wisdom Panel results

Monty had no Catahoula lineage, but he did have several other breeds in his makeup: mostly Border Collie, an eighth Australian Cattle Dog, and an eighth Shetland Sheepdog. They are all possible carriers of MDR1 mutation. So what about his vulnerability?

Hooray! The young boy tested negative.

My mom, one of the biggest dog lovers on the planet, got intrigued and mailed away to discover the lineage of her rescued dog, Barney. She and Barney do agility training and therapy work in and around Brunswick, Maine. Barney came from a shelter in Massachusetts. He is an awesome and healthy dog with a big personality.

Barney, a bit of quite a lot

Barney, a bit of quite a lot

Awesome and healthy dogs, in my view, are often as far from pure bred as you can imagine. Sure enough, little Barney was part ChowChow, Miniature Pinscher, Yorkshire Terrier, and Shih Tzu.

Congratulations to Katherine in California. She won our Wisdom Panel giveaway.

Read Working Dogs Beware, Part I

Working Dogs Beware, Part I

When I brought skinny Peeko home from a Utah shelter, I knew only a few bits about her past:

— she was about a year old

7781_sq_1— as a stray, she had broken her right elbow and it had healed badly.

Two years later, I know more:

— her bum leg is not an issue

— she’s a heckuva cow dog and a great ride-along dog

— she’s got the pedigree to prove it.

Wisdom Panel, a DNA testing division of Mars Veterinary, helped me determine just what genetic background lay behind this perky, athletic dog and her sad start in life.

Here’s what happens when you order a Wisdom Panel kit:

wisdom-panel— you receive a small package via US mail containing two swabs sticks and a paid return shipping package.

— you activate your online account (takes about 60 seconds).

— you swab the inside of your dog’s cheek with the sticks, let them dry, send them back to Wisdom Panel (takes about five minutes)

— in a short while (five days to two weeks), you get results!

In Peeko’s case, Wisdom Panel helped me confirm just why she was so instinctively good around cows and why she had that hard-to-define, mixed breed look.

pPeeko is a blend of Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, and Australian Cattle Dog and has lesser genetic input from several other herding and companion breeds. The fun and revealing DNA discovery: her 13 percent American Staffordshire Terrier. It explains her facial structure (short and smiley) and her sometimes aggressive, sometimes territorial temperament.

Peeko plays with Monty

Peeko plays with Monty

While perusing her Wisdom Panel results, I learned about another important feature: the Multi Drug Resistance 1 test.

Many dogs with herding lineage (border collies, Aussies) have a genetic mutation that limits their ability to process certain common veterinary drugs (like the tranquilizer Acepromazin and the wormer Ivermectin). Dogs testing positive for MDR1 may seizure, lapse into a coma, and die when exposed to these drugs. Even eating manure of horses just wormed with Ivermectin has been shown to seriously harm these dogs, according to this site.

Thankfully, Wisdom Panel results told me, Peeko does not have the MDR1 mutation.

But what about the new puppy, Monty? He of border collie x unknown, and free-to-a-good-home lineage?

Cheeks swabbed and package sent. Stay tuned.

Do you have a dog with possible MRD1 sensitivity? Curious about your rescue mutt’s breeding? Enter to win a free Wisdom Panel screening by clicking here.


Forage Fine Points

We asked Dr. Joyce Harman to contribute this guest blog post on forage.

In 1990, the Virginia veterinarian opened Harmany Equine, bringing holistic healing to a wide range horses, from backyard retirees to Olympic competitors.

Me-at-work-1retIn 2001, Harman wrote the first peer-reviewed paper on equine insulin resistance. In 2004, she published the first comprehensive book on English saddle fitting since the 1800’s. The Western version followed in 2006.

Tune in July 9 at 8 p.m. EST for a forage webinar with Dr. Joyce Harman. Click here to register.

You can win a free Harmany Equine muzzle by messaging us on Facebook. Check out our BestHorsePractices and NickerNews facebook pages for details!

Harman writes:

The average horse should eat one to two percent of his body weight each day in forage. But not all forage is created equally. Though horses are designed to graze 20 hours per day, they have not evolved to gorge themselves on the sugar-rich grasses we have today. Even some hay is too high in sugar and/or protein to feed free-choice. Add in concentrated grain, and we’re just begging for health problems with our horses, although forage feed can be an option.

Here’s what you can do to ensure that forage is the cornerstone of your horse’s diet while limiting excess sugars:

  1. Regulate Sugar Intake from Grass: Most of the grass we have today has been modified and cultivated to feed and fatten up cattle. Though the high sugar content does exactly what the industry requires, it can be dangerous for horses. To keep your horse safe on grass:
  • Graze when sugar is lowest in the morning, on cloudy, rainy days or overnight when fructans (sugars) are lowest.
  • Keep in mind that the sun increases the sugar in grass, so sugar is highest in the late afternoon on a sunny day.
  • Contrary to what we might think, drought or over-grazing increases the amount of sugar in grass.
  • Though sugar content is more dependent on environmental factors than grass species, native grasses are typically lower in sugar.
  1. Be Hay-Smart: Sugar content may be lower in hay than grass, but the amount can still vary greatly depending on the horses-horses-grazing-grass-animals-field-nature-animales-paintography-background-pictures-736x362type of hay, how it was fertilized, and even what time of day it was cut.
  • Get your hay tested. Read more here.
  • Not all hay should be served free-choice. Even some rich grass hays should be fed in several feedings throughout the day.
  • Slow-feeders for round bales or hay flakes are a great way to keep your horse “grazing” without eating too much.
  1. Grab a Muzzle: Muzzles allow a horse to exercise and socialize (essential equine behaviors) without over-grazing.

The Harmany Muzzle is totally customizable, from molding it to a horse’s head shape to determining how much, or how little, grass is available to each horse. It is made of a medical grade plastic with Kevlar fibers, making it lighter and more durable than other muzzles. Click here to learn more.

Muzzle1-JoyceHarman-AConcentrates, or grain, are only needed to make up the difference in calories between forage and what the horse needs to maintain weight. Horse owners should consider the horse’s metabolic rate (thoroughbreds have a higher metabolic rate, and therefore need more calories) and workload before adding grain to a horse’s diet.

Want to learn more? Register for the free “Forage Facts” webinar tonight! In this webinar, participants will learn more about the ins-and-outs of forage, and how to safely fuel their horses year round. Click here to register.

9 Benefits of Slow-Feeding

We invited Monique Warren, the owner of Hay Pillow, to guest blog about slow-feeding savvy. Studying equine nutrition and the equine hoof health are her passions. She writes from her home in southern California.

You can win a free standard-sized Hay Pillow by messaging us on Facebook. Check out our BestHorsePractices and NickerNews facebook pages for details!

IMG_1949 FBHere, Warren highlights the advantages of using a slow-feeder like Hay Pillow.

1. Decreased secretion of cortisol

Horses are not physiologically designed to eat meals. They benefit most from nearly constant grazing. Feeding meals has been shown to increase cortisol, the hormone associated with stress. If cortisol is elevated, insulin rises, which leads to fat storage. This can cause or worsen obesity, which is why some horses seem to be able to “live on air.” Even overweight horses should receive a minimum of 1.5% to 2% of their body weight per day in grass hay that is low in non-structural carbohydrates. If appropriate forage is available at all times, they can typically eat more and maintain or even lose weight.

2. Reduced risk of ulcers

The equine stomach produces acid 24 hours a day in preparation for constant uptake and it can empty in as little as 15-20 minutes. Chewing activates saliva (an alkaline substance) production, which buffers gastric acid. Under natural conditions with free-choice forage, the horse will produce about five gallons of saliva every day and eventually “recycle” much of the water content via re-absorption prior to excretion.

Fiber present in the stomach prevents the “splashing” of acids. The lower part of the stomach, in addition to producing the acid, receives protection by also producing mucus. The upper, or non-glandular section has no protection and thus is more standard-hay-pillow-slow-feeder-bagsusceptible to damage by acids. Having fiber in the stomach is especially important during any physical activity.

If your horse consumes hay too quickly, the chewed particle size will not be reduced sufficiently or have a high enough saliva-to-forage ratio. Large amounts of dry matter lacking sufficient saliva can contribute to impaction colic.

3. Increased digestion

Optimal digestion and fermentation require time and movement. Mobility stimulates gut motility. Providing forage free-choice in multiple locations will encourage both. This will promote consistent fermentation, effectively keeping the hindgut both weighted (to discourage twisting) and motile, thereby preventing conditions that can contribute to colic.

The primary site for fiber digestion is in the hindgut. There, the healthy balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria can easily be disrupted by periods of time without hay or grass intake (fiber). Maintaining a consistent population of beneficial bacteria is essential to ensuring healthy gut function.

4. Minimized or alleviated boredom

Equines allowed to continuously slow feed benefit psychologically. Slow-feeding horses are less likely to develop vices. Horses sleep only 3 to 4 hours in a 24-hour period and usually no longer than 20 minutes at one time; food tends to be their main focus.

5. Natural wear of teeth

Increased chew time wears teeth more naturally when eating at ground level. A natural grazing position allows the mandible HayPillow-4-3-520x245(jaw bone) move up and down, side to side, forward and back without any restriction; facilitating optimum mastication and reduction of particle size.

6. Little to no wasted hay and (again) less stress

As prey animals, horses naturally prefer to eat outside in the open and they can be stressed when stalled. When eating from ground level in an unobstructed area, their peripheral vision is not impaired and they may feel more secure and safe. In these conditions, slow feeders are ideal.

7. Weight management

If your horse is overweight, slow feeding will help to regulate insulin spikes, metabolism, and secretion of cortisol. For underweight equines, it can help increase digestion and assimilation of calories and nutrients.

8. Decreased food aggression

Slow feeding with multiple locations enables your entire herd to eat and live together full-time. Equines are herd animals; they benefit physically and psychologically from direct physical interaction. Dominant members will keep the others moving as they claim various locations. The less dominant individuals will have alternate sources to eat from; this encourages movement and can decrease cortisol levels associated with stress from being physically separated from herd members.

9. Less stress in your life

Equine meals may be stressful to you, too. Horse owners may experience an enormous weight lifted off their shoulders when they are not concerned about feeding times.

Always consider nutrition when dealing with any health or mental issue. Feeding a balanced diet (low in non-structural carbohydrates for overweight individuals) including free-choice forage is healthiest for your herd. Equines were not designed to thrive on a high-calorie, nutrient-deficient diet comprised of meals. By providing free-choice forage, you will have a healthier, more content herd.

Some additional resources:

Colic, Ulcers, and Equine Digestion

Free-choice Forage Feeding by Dr. Juliet Getty

More discussion with Dr. Juliet Getty

Dr. Kerry Ridgway on Ulcers

Do you have a bench? Research and Nina recommend one

Nina Fuller, photographer and equine-facilitated mental health practitioner, once asked me during a visit if I’d walk with her to “the bench.”

It seemed like an innocuous enough invitation, so I joined her. We walked with her dogs past the horse and sheep pastures, past a pond, and through the woods. Sun shone between the trees. Dew dotted our boots as we moved towards the back of her Maine 10455968_789033427796538_3278883839093501984_nproperty, across a tiny brook, to an opening in the woods.

There sat a blue bench. It looked like it was waiting for us.

The Blue Bench has been a funky Fuller project for a few years. The seat itself was a 35-dollar purchase made on a whim. The placement of it was her acknowledgement that the meadow itself and the walk to get to it were special. [Photo at right shows Fuller with Maddy Butcher, Marsha Craig, and Jack Martin. Read more about Craig and Martin’s work with equine therapy here.

“There’s something about it that resonates with everyone who goes there,” said Fuller recently by phone.

The horsewoman routinely invites visitors to stroll out to the bench. She takes her camera and posts images on her Blue Bench Project on facebook.

As the routine has developed, returning visitors often ask, “Can we go to the bench?” she told me. “There is a healing, spiritual thing going on there. It’s calm. People slow down. I think a lot of it has to do with the walk.”

No bench, but these boys have the same idea.

No bench, but these boys have the same idea.

Indeed, even the folks at the National Academy of Sciences are recognizing the mental health benefits of getting into nature. A recent study noted “reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness” when subjects took a 90-minute walk in natural environment. Broadly speaking, people who experience more nature are less depressed. There was no positive effect when the subjects walked in an urban setting. Read more here.

Scientists note similar mental health benefits from human interaction with animals, especially horses. Read this review of research on kids involved with equine-facilitated learning.

Most of you have animals. But do you have a bench to go to?

“This idea isn’t owned by me. Everyone needs one.” And with that in mind, Fuller ended our phone call. Her dog heard her say the word “bench” 20 minutes ago and has been ready to go ever since.

Read related article on time with horses.

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