I think it is interesting how different (and completely contradictory in some areas) human management of horses is compared to a wild horse’s life. In an effort to make our horses comfortable and look after them well, we control every single thing in their life – when and what they eat, when they are allowed to graze, when they get to exercise and move. In practicality, I can’t allow my horses the freedom of grazing and living like wild horses, but I have been on a mission recently to modify my management system in their favour.
We don’t have stables and I have now crossed that off the mental wish list. We have three interconnected paddocks, which I can choose to keep open as one large space, or restrict access to in order rest areas. But the most dramatic change has been the building of a yard. The yard has a shelter and a water trough and can be closed to keep the horses contained if needed. We positioned it in a degraded area near a gate, with line of sight to the house so that they can watch for humans with dinner coming down to the paddocks. I feed them only in the yard and keep a large bale of grassy hay in there for low quality pick if they get hungry.
I keep the yard open to the paddocks most of the time and let them choose where they want to spend their time. I find that they ‘loaf’ (i.e hang around) almost exclusively in the yard (presumably waiting for a meal to arrive). The areas of the paddocks that they were spending time loafing were degraded (bare soil and erosion) and these areas were mostly close to the house or at a gate. And now they hardly go into the paddocks, which is keeping the grass and ground more intact. I think they are worried that they might miss a random feed if they venture too far away from the yard!
The theory around the change is that horses should have access to something to put into their stomachs 24/7. This is because they produce stomach acid (bile) continuously (over 7 L per day). Wild horses will buffer that acid by continuously eating. Stabled horses don’t have that choice and stomach ulcers are common for that reason.
Another added bonus of my new system is that the paddocks stay cleaner and the manure is much easier to collect from the yard daily. I can also lock them up for a few days after de-worming so that I can make sure the contaminated manure doesn’t go near the chickens or dung beetles.
And the horses are much easier to catch and rug/unrug, as they are usually standing near the gate.
Some improvements I may make over time are to fill the yard with 6 inch deep round pebbles as I heard a trimmer talk about how wild horses will choose to support their hooves in deep loose material as it takes the pressure off the weight bearing structures and leads to more healthy hoof development. And I will set up a pulley system to hang a hay net up very high in the shelter. This will encourage a giraffe stretch whenever they feel up to it. (See article on the Giraffe Stretch)