In the early days of my radio show, I interviewed a well-known farrier who advocated natural living environs for our horses. Big pastures, varied terrain, lots of other horses around, emulating the aspects of life in the wild that he felt were important. Working with the nature of the horse instead of against it is fundamental to enlightened training and horse keeping, so I was eager to find out how this gentleman translated his ideal to the real world. I asked a simple question: “What about those of us who don’t have big pastures?” His answer has stuck with me for more than a decade: “You need to get one.”
I’ve encountered this sort of dogma about horses elsewhere and it always irritates me because it casts horse ownership as some kind of exclusive club for people with a lot of money, and land, and time. Trust me, you can have horses in your life with modest amounts of those commodities, and you can do it responsibly. But let’s start with what the farrier got right. It’s good for horses to be outside where they have room to move around, even run around if they want. It’s good for horses to have forage-based diets and to spend at least part of their time grazing. It’s good for horses to be with others of their own kind and interact freely with them. All of that is absolutely true. But the most defining characteristic of the horse as a species is its adaptability. The fact is, horses do quite well with a scaled-down version of the ideal as long as certain principles are respected.
For 14 years, I’ve practiced what I consider to be natural horse keeping on an acre and a half in a big city. It’s a great setup for two horses but we can easily accommodate another three equines when friends are passing through. Why does this work? Because the essential principles of horse keeping are respected: freedom to move, natural diet, and socialization.
As if on cue, our two horses are at this very moment nibbling at each other’s withers, standing in the shade near the water trough in our sandy arena. Their grass hay sits half-eaten on rubber mats, in their covered, open-air stalls probably fifty yards away. They’ll get back to the hay when they feel like it. Later in the day, I’ll open a gate and turn them out in a grassy paddock where they can nosh for the entire afternoon. Our quarter horse mare has a very thin hair coat and our Icelandic has a very thick one but they both do just fine in triple-digit and single-digit temperatures. We don’t blanket them and we rarely bathe them. In fact, we make a point of leaving them alone as much as we can.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying this is how you should be keeping your horses. This is how I adapted the principles of good horse keeping to my particular situation. If you show your horse, or have horses that are genuinely incompatible (more than the little tiffs that are normal when horses are together) then you might need a different arrangement. The important thing is that you make your choices with a solid understanding of the ideal. There’s an old saying: You have to know the rules before you break them. That’s how I feel about horse keeping. Fortunately, your horse is a willing accomplice when it comes to making intelligent compromises. If you listen, he will tell you how to fine-tune his living arrangements. And I doubt that he’ll demand a big pasture.