As a general rule of thumb, we use the term species appropriate to describe the diet of our horses instead of the term natural. The reason being is ‘natural’ can become somewhat of an individual term, with each owners idea of what ‘natural’ means varying from person to person. When we use ‘species appropriate’, it is because it is factual, specific and applies to the entire species, not an individual horse.
For example, ‘natural’ to one person can mean turning their horses onto lush green grass because ‘horses eat grass’ without taking into consideration the type of forage that is appropriate to their species. We see a lot of myths created by traditional practices playing into this idea that grass = ‘natural’.
Most owners have experienced the likes of Laminitis and EMS, which we know are often triggered by grass and an inappropriate diet. If we look at the natural habitat of the horse, we know that they are foragers that browse consistently throughout the day on rough grass (and other things) that largely lack in sugars, minerals and nutrients. Our horses are designed to eat regularly throughout the day, with their stomach being the smallest unit of their digestive tract holding roughly 8-15 litres, pulling every last nutrient it can from what has been digested. The grasses available here in the UK are incredibly rich in sugar and potassium unlike the grasses we see in their natural habitat, which is a major factor into why so many horses suffer from the likes of Laminitis.
When we say our horses are on a species appropriate diet, we mean they are on a diet that closely follows or resembles the various factors found in the diet of horses living in the wild and does not overload the system or go on to cause the more common health conditions we see in our domesticated horses. Despite our horses being domesticated, there is no biological difference separating the domesticated horse from the wild horse.
At PB, we keep our horses on a non-grass Paddock Paradise track system which not only encourages our horses to achieve more daily movement but also allows us to manage their diet in a way that is species appropriate. No, we cannot completely replicate what wild horses have at their disposal but we can incorporate the important factors of their lifestyle into our management. Any grass is replaced by adlib (netted) meadow hay which is then strategically placed around our track to encourage movement in order to fulfil their needs. Again, if we look at the patterns of wild horses, we know they often travel 20+ miles per day.
When feeding a horse that requires additional hard feed, its important to look past any labels printed on the front of the bag and to actual read the ingredients and nutritional information on the back. At PB we feed the likes of Thunderbrooks Meadow Nuts, Thunderbrooks Hay Cobs, Coolstance Copra and Micronized Linseed which of course we alter the amounts of depending on the horse and their particular needs. Some of you may be thinking, ‘how is that species appropriate’? The aim is to fulfil our domesticated horses needs with a species appropriate diet, which typically means high fibre, low sugar and low potassium. For those interested in understanding these important factors of our horses diet more in depth, Calm Healthy Horses have some great pieces on what’s important and what should be avoided. No, wild horses can’t pop down to the local horse shop and buy themselves a bag of Thunderbrooks but we can still ensure that what we feed is as nutritionally correct as possible for the species.
The term species appropriate should describe not only what they eat but how they eat. As mentioned previously, horses are designed to eat consistently throughout the day and their stomach empties within 4-6 hours. If for example an owner gives their horse 1 haynet for the night in their stable, said horse is most likely going to consume their hay at a reasonably quick rate and will be left without a source of forage for the remainder of the night. Feeding in such short bursts and leaving the stomach empty leads to a greater risk of ulcers, food guarding behaviours, colic and aggression/anxiety. This is one of the many important reasons we provide adlib (netted) hay to our own horses and the residents of PB.
The term species appropriate does not solely apply to our horses diet but their general care, management and lifestyle too. It’s important to recognise whether our horses are having their needs met in a manner that is appropriate to them.
© Madeline Sharpe