Taking Natural Too Far

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It’s a beautiful image — a wild horse standing on a hill top, head up, luxuriant mane blowing in the wind. Unfortunately, this romanticized, cinematic portrayal of the beauty, vigor, health and soundness of horses in their natural environment isn’t necessarily always the case. They can and do get sick and go lame. They have problems with worms, illness and malnutrition just like any animal.

These glorified images of wild horses have caused domestication to be blamed for many, if not all, problems related to lameness and health, with the proposed solution being “natural” care.

While there’s certainly some truth to this on many fronts, the fact is there’s no way to duplicate free-range living conditions even if we wanted to, and some of the suggestions being put forth as better, more-natural approaches to horse care are flat-out incorrect and harmful to the horse.

Some examples of myths and misconceptions include:Horses can be kept outside 24/7 with no blanketing even in severe winter weather. They’ll do fine. Sure, if “do fine” means little more than survive. Very hardy breeds, true to their free-roaming ancestors, who grow a very dense coat and require little along the lines of food may do OK, but most of the modern breeds bear little resemblance to wild horses and require blankets and/or shelter in the winter months or they will lose a considerable amount of weight trying to keep themselves warm, and severely stress their immune systems in the process.

The very old and very young horses often have decreased ability to regulate their body temperature. Horses with a history of chronic laminitis can have sufficiently compromised circulation to their feet. Exposure to cold causes too much shunting of blood and extreme foot pain that can progress to even more damage.

• Horses should not be dewormed because parasites are a natural part of the horse’s environment and may even be beneficial. Death and disease are “natural,” too. That doesn’t mean they’re good. While it’s true that unnecessary deworming should be avoided, there most definitely are times when horses need to be dewormed.

• Horses in the wild seek out and medicate themselves with herbs. If animals, like people in primitive cultures, could learn that certain plants have certain effects or uses, there’s no proof anywhere to support the idea.

An integral part of the human heritage of medicinal herb use is the ability to pass down the information from generation to generation. Experimentation led to certain observations/opinions that would be passed on, and later users would either confirm the effect or discard it. Even the most radical believers haven’t suggested that people can instinctively know what plants or herbs they need to help them. How could a horse'

• Herbs/plants should be used instead of drugs because they are safe and natural. Any herb/plant that is actually effective in treating something is itself, by definition, a drug. Safety is by no means assured because it’s a plant.

• Mineral and vitamin overloads can’t happen because the horse’s body will keep what it needs and get rid of the rest. The horse’s body can only handle so much excess before overload occurs. While some minerals and vitamins have a wider margin of safety than others, anything in excess can be harmful.

• Horses should only be offered minerals free choice so they can decide for themselves how much, and what, they need. With the exception of a natural hunger for salt, there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever that horses can tell what mineral deficiencies they have, let alone select the correct mineral or mixture of minerals to rectify them.

• Barefoot is better. Much good came from this at first, in terms of reminding people that horses did not evolve with iron on their feet, and in shifting emphasis back to the anatomy and function of the horse’s real shoe — the hoof wall, sole, frog — instead of focusing on what is nailed onto it.

However, in the process some odd ideas have emerged that amount to horseshoes being the source of all that is wrong with horses, or that every horse’s foot needs to be trimmed to a set formula that mimics observations this or that person has made. A hefty dose of common sense will tell you that horseshoes don’t make feet numb, that the heart is the center of circulation (not the foot), and that the dimensions and angles observed on 14-hand wild horses ranging free over rocky terrain are exactly that — findings appropriate for 14-hand wild horses ranging free over rocky terrain.

• Most dangerous of all is the talk about detoxing. When basic biology, physiology and medical knowledge are abandoned and replaced with references to “toxins,” or “energy imbalances” that call for a variety of “detoxing” or “cleansing” and rebalancing alternative therapies we’re in trouble. Or, actually, our horses are in trouble. What toxins' What imbalances' These claims are difficult to disprove because they’re vague. We have a lot to learn about how the body functions, but to regress to the days when illness was blamed on evil spirits is a huge step backward. Short of dialysis, there is no way to “clean” the blood.

The so-called detoxing or cleansing herbs for the most part either stimulate urine production, intestinal purging or release of bile. Obviously these are indeed important bodily functions, but these remedies work by themselves being irritants and poisons. Most of the liver remedies, for example, stimulate contraction of the gallbladder — but the horse doesn’t have a gallbladder. We are, or should be, past the point where all disease is blamed on plumbing backups.

It’s true that many things are wrong about what we do with horses — poor breeding choices, feeding the wrong things and not enough exercise — but major advances have been made in nutrition and preventing disease. Discarding this with a back-to-nature approach is not the way to go.