The number of equines suffering from digestive issues, mental neurosis, behavioural problems, and poor physical care is concerning. The way manage our horses can either enhance or negatively impact them, the way we have been brought up to care for them may not actually lead to a healthy horse.

However, making changes may not be that easy especially as many of us have to use boarding facilities or have limited space of our own. While the concepts in this article may not be practical for all, we hope that you can take some inspiration to make positive changes to the environment in which you keep your horse.


What is 'Natural boarding'

Natural boarding is a management practice that understands and incorporate the natural needs of horses, supporting rather than suppressing the horse's natural behaviour.

The natural needs of horses include constant movement and migration, unlimited access to various types of forage, uninhibited interaction with other horses, and the ability to seek shelter, rest, and water. Ideally, a welfare-enhancing environment would consider and incorporate all of these features into management practices. When any of these behaviours are restricted, the results are the development of all-too-common stable vices (stereotypical behaviours) and illnesses.


Natural Movement Patterns

We all know that horses are migratory prey animals who naturally live in herds and as a herd, they will be continuously on the move looking for water, grazing and of course avoiding predators.

Given the opportunity to roam freely they would travel an average of 15 miles a day. The horse's movement patterns in the wild are purposeful, not only are they beneficial to their survival, but they also result in good muscle tone, body, promoting digestive health, hoof, and dental care.


Natural Grazing

Grazing motivates the movement patterns, as they spend the majority of the day in search of nutrients and finding seasonal grasses. In addition to fibrous material, the search and consumption of other plants, fibres, and lipids help the horse to maintain good physical health and weight and has even been theorized as being a preventive diet for infections (you can learn more about Zoopharmacognosy in this article). Additionally, the incising, tugging, grinding, and plucking of these varieties of roughage assist in naturally wearing the horse’s teeth. Pawing and digging for natural minerals and nutrients also aids in natural hoof care and self-trimming.

The study of free-range horses indicates that they spend half of their lives feeding. In a 24-hour time span, they will graze for 16 to 17 hours a day.

As a herbivore with a small, inelastic stomach, the horse’s digestive system is designed to have a constant supply of roughage passing through its intestines. Continuous movement and grazing allow faecal matter to be produced and eliminated regularly and with ease. Because of the combination of constant movement and unlimited access to forage, wild horses – unlike domesticated horses suffer less from digestive issues.

Unfortunately, most horse care systems provide a few super-sized meals each day that leaves the stomach and digestive system empty for long periods of time, making the stomach prone to ulcers, gastric pain or even colic.


Horses are social animals

In the wild, horses are herd animals and are very dependent on one another. Most of their development occurs in group settings, including acceptable behaviours and survival skills. Together, they also engage in play, protection, mating, and mutual grooming.

Several studies have supported the positive impact pasture companionship has on learning. Negative results have been observed when horses are housed separately and their interactions restricted.


Now we understand the natural environment and needs of horses how do we as horse owners mimic that environment?

Alternatives to traditional care of managing horses lie in so-called Paddock Paradise designs and track systems. These designs aim to encourage equine-specific behaviours and the expression of basic needs in the limited domestic setting. They help horse owners maximize the use of their lands and to construct an area that will be advantageous for their equines.


Paddock Paradise or Track System

In the domestic environment, this simulation can be done with minimal land settings and low costs. Just an acre or two of land for a small herd of horses is sufficient to create this space. Materials required include:

A sturdy outlining perimeter fence,

an inner fence to help create the tracks; and shade,

watering station(s),

resting stations;

as well as multiple feeding stations.


Tracks are created within the environment to promote constant and unrestricted movement. Just as within the wild, the tracks or paths will lead the herd to feed, rest, play, and watering stations. Creating muddy, soft, sandy, and rocky areas for your horses assists with strengthening and developing muscle tone, as well as aiding in natural hoof wear.

These natural implementations are also much more beneficial for the environment and they do not require a significant amount of maintenance or production costs.


Group Living

Group living can include groups of horses in a paddock and also using a large barn rather than individual stalls for horses. This approach may be easier for the horse owner but only partially solves the issues of confinement and social interactions.

Owners may also be concerned about groups, worrying about injury for example (often a reason that owners create artificial herds by age or sex).

Owners or yard managers can often be reluctant to add enrichment to a traditional paddock, fearing that it will cause fights and injury. As a result, the paddock is quickly eaten down leaving no enrichment for the horses, particularly in the winter months.

Yet it is the effect of not being fed regularly that also causes horses to become insecure and fearful around their meals. They consume their food very quickly and even become protective of it against other herd members.

Locations that feed on a rigid or timed schedule demonstrate just how distressed equines can become during their mealtimes. The horse is intended to graze on small amounts of roughage all day, feeding large meals causes equines to go for long periods of time without nutrients and, as a result, they experience greater hunger.

Feedings become quite disorderly they kick and paw at stalls or fences, pace in their environments, nicker loudly, begin to trot or gallop, and even become aggressive toward handlers and other herd mates.

The solution for preventing and curing anxious and physical ailments due to unnatural feeding patterns lies in providing a constant gut fill for equines, such as making sure that fibrous feed, low-calorie grass or hay, is available to horses more or less constantly. This can be achieved by using hay nets, providing multiple small feedings per day.

There are many tools to assist handlers in achieving these ideals which can be used for the stabled horse, out in a paddock or on tracks. Hay pillows, hay nets and slow feeders prolong the horse's feeding patterns and easily maintain a consistent supply of grass or hay. They help replicate foraging, plucking, incising, and grinding behaviours that are all necessary for the horse's digestive and dental health when grazing is not available.


Not Just for Natural Horsemanship, all equines can benefit from natural horse boarding

While these methodologies seem perfectly logical and supported by scientific study, for the horse world it means a change and a fresh look at horse management and health. The adoption of natural horse care means the retiring of old traditions, business models, and barn and stable environments.


If you feel inspired to make some changes towards natural horse care you may also like to read this 'Paddock Enrichment' article by Ross Cooper, or learn about Zoopharmacognosy; or learn more about Paddock Paradise.