Thursday, May 6, 2010

It Isn't Natural

Maisie's vet visit yesterday went very well - she's completely sound and had no heat or sensitivity to hoof testers. The vet and I agree that her problem was probably a combination of increased sensitivity due to the lush grass combined with her somewhat vulnerable hoof structure - very thin soles and her way of going - and our poor, hard arena footing and very hard trails. She's cleared for turnout, and we're tailing down her bute. She'll be going into the small dry lot paddock in the afternoons with hay (Charisma will need to come inside, as the paddock is very small and she also can't have that much hay, which is unfortunate). The footing in there is very hard and rough - our clay soil turns into this awful corrugated rock-hard footing - so I hope to minimize her running around by keeping Dawn nearby and hay in the feeder. I had walked her last night and again this morning on the grass, and she was very good - clearly happy to be out but also controllable. If she stays sound once weaned from the bute, we're good to go for our move to the new barn and resumed work.

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The conversation on the last post leads me to the conclusion that there's no clearcut answer to the horse/herd/human combination - it probably comes down to the personality of each horse, and the specifics of the the horse/herd situation and horse/human interactions. Very interesting stuff, nonetheless - read the comments if you haven't as there are many good thoughts and observations there.

A comment Funder made on the last post got me thinking more about some related things, and ties into some of the struggles I've been having in my mind and feelings about moving some of my horses to a barn where they will spend many hours inside, with only limited turnout on dry lot and not in herds. I feel somewhat bad about this, since some valuable things will be lost as well as some valuable things gained.

Domestic horses (including mustangs that are adopted) exist in relation to people, and the purposes people have for them, even if they also have their relationships with other horses or participation in a herd. Ultimately, almost nothing we do with horses is natural - in terms of their confinement (even if only to a pasture, not to mention a barn), their feeding, their healthcare, their forced association with humans, and everything we do with them across all horse disciplines. Domestic horses have been bred for different body types, temperaments and skills for the purposes of humans (sometime, unfortunately, without regard to their health and welfare). Even the mustangs are derived over however many generations from domestic horse stock.

And whatever training methods we use, and whatever they're called, there's nothing "natural" about them. Asking a horse to interact with or even bond with a human is highly unnatural. There are training methods that are more or less coercive, but ultimately we're always asking our horses to do things that aren't things they would probably choose to do, or even consider doing, without our request/demand. Some "natural" training methods purport to draw on and use horse herd dynamics in the horse/human interaction - I don't buy into a lot of this stuff - see my post "Are We Herd Members?" - but even if it were true that doesn't make it natural for a horse to interact with a human in these ways. However rough or gentle we are with the horse - and some "natural" methods, especially those that involve aggressive driving of horses around round pens, can be pretty darn coercive - nothing we do is natural.

So where does that leave us? To my mind, it leaves us with a lot of choices. However artificial it is, we can still interact with the horse to achieve all sorts of interesting and fun goals, but to my mind the interaction needs to consider the needs and thoughts of both parties - the horse should be a participant in a dialog with us, with asks and responses on both sides, and the horse should be listened to and respected as a feeling, thinking, being. Ultimately the human needs to direct and provide leadership, but the horse, in order to be an engaged and willing participant, has to have a voice in the relationship. None of it's natural, but in the end maybe that really doesn't matter - that comes with the territory.


  1. You say it's not natural like that's a bad thing. Actually, though, I think it all depends on the definition of "natural" you are operating on. Some might say that domestication is not natural, but then how do you explain cats, which domesticated themselves? (There is plenty of evidence that cats started coming into people's homes of their own accord, because there was prey and companionship to be had there.) Then too you've got ants, which domesticate aphids, and I'm sure no one would consider ants unnatural -- even if they are biting the wings off of aphids to keep them from straying (much as we build fences and brand livestock).

    Also, natural doesn't necessarily mean good. Wild horses have a damn hard life -- they usually only live about half as long as domesticated horses live, and they die hard deaths of starvation, perfectly curable (by modern human terms) physical ailments, and being hunted by frightening, lethal predators. Nature is unforgiving, and when it comes down to it I'm not sure our domesticated horses would choose a "natural" life over companionship with humans.

    Finally, as much as we like to refer to ourselves as though we are a species apart, humans ARE part of nature. I don't think most people would consider a primitive hunter-gatherer a million years ago to be unnatural. Well, our society today is a natural progression of our primitive roots, so while we can agree that domestication would not have occurred without our influence, I'm not so sure that makes it unnatural.

    This turned into a longer rant than I'd planned, and a bit of a tangent -- sorry about that. I just think people put way too much weight on the concepts of "natural" and "unnatural." In the wild Maisie probably wouldn't be alive, if she'd ever even existed at all, so I think it's more about doing the best we can for our animals -- not what's "natural."

  2. Katharine - Thanks - I think that's sort of what I was trying to say - there's nothing "natural" about keeping or working with horses, but that's OK as long as we make an effort to respect the horse while we're at it. Horses are very adaptable and can live happily in a variety of circumstances.

  3. I agree, but I think horses genuinly like people and something to do. It always amazes me the things we small people can get a 1000lb animal to do. The are incredibly adabtable and all we can do is make sure we give them a good life.
    I have joked to my friends that its a good thing Im not a horse or theyd put me down for lameness and she says shed have died foaling, so wild/natural is not always better.

  4. Well, to me horses deserve to have a life that is as natural as possible within the realm of being domesticated. No athlete would workout for 2 hours and spend the next 22 in a bathroom sized space. I just had a 17 hand (1325 pound) Hanovarian Gelding move to our farm about a month ago, and that was his life...he is 23 yo, was on a college equestrian team and was jumped until his hock could not take it anymore. He spent the last four months in a stall 22 hours a day. No reward for all he has done (owners were considering sending him to a vet school for research, when a person who worked there actually paid money for him and is giving him the retirement he deserves...and I am quite sure she will be able to ride him). What he needed most, was to move. To me, it is natural for horses to be in a herd and allowed to graze, even if it is just nibbles. What we think is best for them does not necessarily give them quality of life. I don't show or train fancy horses, but I can tell you that my crew is happy. They are allowed to live like horses...they do have a voice and I listen.

  5. You do have very interesting posts! I agree that there is nothing natural about how we keep horses, we cannot give them what they would love most but we can try to ensure that their needs are met as best we can: their need for a herd and their need to move. And you are so right when you say that the horse should be a participant in a dialog as well as listened to as a feeling, thinking, being. They are not quad bikes or sports cars or whatever and I think they know and feel far more than we realise.

  6. Interesting thoughts; I totally agree about it not being natural, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
    As an update on my herd situation (my TB thinks he's a stallion with his new group of mares in his herd): much better! When I brought him out of the pasture, his lady friends went crazy again & I changed my tactics. Instead of trying to basically force him to obey me, I praised him for doing the "right" thing whenever he was calm & relaxed. It worked great! Sometimes I forget that I need to make the right thing easy & praise him for trying, even if it's not exactly what I wanted. I don't understand how it correlates with his natural instincts as a horse, but he does seem to thrive on being praised.

  7. You really hit the nail on the head of a lot that has been going through my mind. Natural horsemenship is not any more natural that other forms. I have seen some pretty abusive things done to a horse in the name of nh.

    The the whole herd dynamic is very interesting but I, again, agree with you. I really don't think that my horses see me as another horse. They aren't blind or that stupid. I am not a horse. They put up with what we do. We try to communicate together, but it is a two way street. Horses do a large share of trying to figure out what their human is trying to tell him too. I don't think we give horses , or most other animals for that matter, enough credit for figuring out what we are asking them to do.

  8. Nothing we do with our horses is natural really. I don't care if your horses live out 24/7, if you ride bitless, treeless, bareback, if your horses are barefoot, etc. In the end they live an an unnatural life with us. I do think we are wise to try and give them as much of a more natural life if we can such as turnout with friends, but horses are very adaptable creatures. Most horses (not all but most) are able to be content in a wide variety of living arrangements and daily routines.

  9. I'm so glad Maisie is feeling better. Your posts make one think and I'm in no position to add to your conversation and I'm learning that my Grandfathers way was not the best even if achieved HIS desired effect.

  10. I'm all for making things as natural as possible, such as allowing them a herd, grazing, space to move, etc. I do my best to provide what I consider to be the best life I can. (Which isn't the best life possible, just the best I can do, and they're doing fine.) But I don't like it when people look down their noses at others because they don't provide the same circumstances. In a nutshell, most all of us (especially those of us who blog about horses all the time) love our horses and are doing what we think is right. Most horses will adapt. If they can't adapt, we make changes. If we make mistakes, we learn from them. What we won't listen to from someone preaching to us, we might learn from our horse. Or we might learn something else entirely. When we do learn something new it may be at the horse's expense, which is unfortunate, but they're so very forgiving. (We could definitely learn something from them about forgiveness) I do feel very bad for the horses whose owners don't have their best interests at heart though. Sorry for the long rambling unorganized thought. I guess what I'm trying to say is it would be nice if we could all be a little more flexible, understanding, and forgiving, with others and with ourselves.

  11. Great news about Maisie. I agree everything we do isn't natural but then everything humans interact with make things unatural - look at the way we keep all pets, cats, dogs, birds, rabbits etc. I guess all we can do is make their life as bearable as possible.
    In your last post you spoke about turn out time and how that made your horses easier or harder to work with - with Sam I find him an easier ride if he has had turn out time with others. He gets to walk around grazing using that energy, he gets to have a gallop and play with others. I find after a few hours turnout time he is willing to concentrate a lot quicker. Mind you sometimes he can be a little bugger to catch if he thinks he needs a little more time.

    I watch him interact with others in turn out he seems to have so much fun. It makes me feel guilty that I can not keep him like that 24/7. I think it is good for their minds and helps fight all those stable vices.

  12. I'm so glad that Maisie is feeling better. Check out Soft Ride Comfort Boots ( Arlene at Grey Horse Matters and her daughter introduced them to me when Siete was having sore feet from Lyme Disease. They are like sneakers for horses - easy to put on, very comfy and not too expensive. I use Siete's whenever she gets a stone bruise or an abscess and she doesn't mind them at all. They could help Maisie, I think.

  13. Victoria - thanks very much for the suggestion!


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