Law 10 – A horse is a horse.
Horses are living, breathing beings with thoughts, needs, wants and desires. They have a unique digestive system. They live in herds with a unique method of social rules. Unfortunately, humans have captured them, forcing upon them our social needs and interests, feeding systems and our demands for work and war. Their history with humans is about 4000 years old; when the oldest historical connection with them exists in central Asia, now called Kazakhstan (9th largest country in the world). Female warriors of this area, called Amazon women, were notoriously skilled on horseback and considered the calvary’s origins. They remained virgins until they had killed at least three enemy warriors.
Since then, we have used horses for war, exploration and trade. They became an integral part of human civilization. Unfortunately, approximately 10,000 horses died in 1815 in Napoleon’s last battle of Waterloo. For those not good with math, that was 205 years ago, almost to the day I wrote this. One hundred years later, World War One occurred in the same area where about 8 million horses plus asses and mules died from combat, gas, starvation and disease.
In the last 100 years, the industrial world has transitioned to where machines have replaced horses, asses and mules. Horses are now considered recreational, but in non-industrial countries, equids are still beasts of burden. The United States horse population is now about 6.5 million, but there remains about 100 million horses, asses and mules worldwide, with Ethiopia having the largest population of working equids.
Looking at America and the other countries where machines have replaced horses, it is important to look at this transition. Within 100 years – from 1920 to 2020 – civilization has moved from major dependency on horses to not needing them at all. Lost in this transition is the mentorship where new horse owners learn from those with experience. Many of these mentors were lost to war or were so scared from what they saw in the plight of war horses that they eagerly transitioned to cars. From 1920 to 1960, industry and farming became mechanized, an instant in historical time. In 1960 few people had tractors, and the interstate system of roads was only an idea. Hay was still cut by horses pulling mowers, and then it was stacked by hand and stored loose in the barn loft. By 1970 hay bales were available everywhere as tractors and baling machines became more affordable, and trucks with good roads became abundant. Farm feed stores sprouted up in the mid-1970s, and sweet feed became popular to promote the store’s existence. Until then, farmers shipped grain in 96-pound sacks (1 bushel of good quality oats was 32 pounds and 3 bushels fit in a burlap sack – 3×32=96). Women replaced men as they evaporated from the horse world, and the grain companies soon changed their bags to 50 pounds for acceptance to their new demographic.
I want to remind you that I started working with horses professionally in 1973. I lived in Florida in 1972, and Interstate 95 only got you as far as Jacksonville and then started again in south FL. Then, it took more than 4 hours to drive two-lane roads between these 2 points. Now it takes 2 1/2 hours non-stop. In 1973 I was driving a small dump truck to the railroad yard in New York to unload 96-pound sacks of oats from a box car. I lived through this transition and remembered how horses were cared for and fed then. When I graduated from vet school, half of my class were women, and few of us, male and female, were interested in horses. Today, in 2022, less than two vet students graduating from a class of 100 go into horses (1.4%). In this change vacuum, the influx of people trying to compete in mentoring horse owners has exponentially filled by agenda-driven companies, only bringing confusion or what I call “complexication.”
I have created another course on decomplexicating equine nutrition, but I want to touch on some things here as it applies to horsemanship. Our horses today live with mild to moderate pain in their digestive tracts, joints, and mind through gut inflammation. Connecting with a horse or a person in chronic unease is much more difficult than if all systems work perfectly. To start to communicate with all horses, it is imperative that we, as the caretaker of these horses, get the systems working perfectly. This care includes feeding them like a horse, removing the oral pain from sharp teeth, finding tack that fits well and becoming the best rider. These laws are not about becoming a good rider; I will leave that to someone else. These laws are about keeping you safe and enjoying the connection. It is also about preserving your investment both in money and in the training time.
Horses are an investment with the cost of purchase usually the least cost. However, every day costs money in feed and labor. Every hour spent in training is an hour lost to something else. Every horse show or event missed due to injury, lameness or illness is lost money and time. Let me be very clear here. If you feed and maintain your horses as they evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, you will get the most out of them in emotional connection, money spent and time invested.
But we don’t.
From 1920 to today, we have overthought how to care for horses, and in many areas, we have given no thought. First, and probably most important, is to start feeding horses as they evolved to eat. Unfortunately, most horse owners no longer have the grazing land to support the number of horses in their care. As a substitute, we now have grown grass, cut it, preserved it in bales and fed it at a time when pasture is unavailable. I have written several blogs on this, which I encourage you to read. The problem is that we continually feed last summer’s grass (hay) throughout the year, hurting the horses. The primary reason is that horses need to go through a period where food is limited; it promotes health at a cellular level and thus in the whole horse system. But there is more we are doing that is causing our horses not to feel well.
Grain was introduced to horse diets when people moved from the country to the city, and they needed feeding. The demand for more intense farming to provide these people placed more work on the horses used to pull the machines. Grain added to the diets replaced the glycogen used in their muscles and kept the fat on their backs. What was unknown at the time was that feeding horses grain raised their intake of the element called Phosphorus (P); it prevented the horse from absorbing Calcium (Ca) needed to keep the horse from slipping into a coma and dying. Instead, horses absorbed the stored Ca in their bones to stay alive, and their bones became soft and bendable. Back then, it was known as “Miller’s Disease” as the horses used in milling suffered. Today we call this Rickets.
Preventing Miller’s disease came from a simple and inexpensive solution. To grain, they added dicalcium phosphate. While this raised the P even higher, it also increased the Ca, causing the end of Miller’s disease. They did not realize that when the diet is high in P and Ca, the absorption of another element called Magnesium (Mg) is blocked. Horses on grain with added dicalcium phosphate became deficient in Mg. The primary sign of horses deficient in Mg is hyperexcitability. Today it is popular to add Mg to horse diets to keep them calm, but removing the cause works better.
When discussing horsemanship and connecting with horses, I often meet hyperexcitable horses. These horses become difficult to communicate with, and sometimes medications are needed, especially if other factors are present such as stress from an injury. However, where owners are willing to remove the cause (all grains with dicalcium phosphate), these horses quickly become more cooperative.
Grain, however, does more than add minerals that affect horses’ chemical makeup. Grains are not a natural feed for horses. In the wild, it is only found for about a week and only where it is grown. The grains are the seeds of plants that do at least three things to the horse’s gut. 1) They bring a high load of starch (glucose), which triggers body fat production, creates metabolic syndrome including insulin resistance, and causes the chronic deficiency of protein in the body. 2) They carry proteins that can penetrate the gut lining, called leaky gut syndrome, which allows the entrance of foreign materials into the body that cause inflammation. 3) They disrupt the normal structure of the trillions of bacteria living within the digestive tract, which leads to the formation of uncomfortable and even painful ulcers as well as malabsorption.
Here is a story explaining the importance of getting the gut system correct in developing a connection with your horses. A horse owner asked about an uncooperative and dangerous horse at her farm. The chief complaint was that the horse was resistant to load on a trailer, and when they started to drive, the horse went crazy, hurting himself. In addition, he was difficult to train, often running away with the owner and not performing the dressage moves to do well in the field of 3-day eventing. He did not like to be brushed or have the girth tightened, and it was impossible to clip his haircoat. He was even lunging over the stall door as she walked by. She was ready to get rid of the horse, but how do you get rid of a nearly unrideable, difficult and almost dangerous horse?
She listened to our advice and stopped feeding her horse everything except pasture, hay, mined salt and water. The response was remarkable. All the ill behavior went away. The once unloadable horse became willing to load by just walking on and would travel anywhere without a fuss. Her dressage scores went up, and when I saw her six months later, the owner (now six months pregnant) had just finished body clipping her horse as it just stood there without objection.
Stories like this are abundant in my blog comments, social feeds and emails from around the world. Even non-sweating horses (anhidrosis) start to sweat again in 3 to 4 days after the cause of gut inflammation is removed. If your horses have any behavioral issues or are having connection issues, the first thing I recommend is removing everything a horse should not be eating; this includes all grains and seeds, grain byproducts (middlings, hulls, pulps), oils, balancers, supplements, treats (fruit, root vegetables, candies, cookies) and mineral salt licks (corn syrup and molasses). Next, feed only pasture, hay (grass or legume), mined salt (Himalayan, Redmond) and water. If you need to treat (you should not but only say “Thank you!”), then feed a peanut in the shell (a legume) or a hay cube. Finally, start a dated journal of your observations and see what happens. Like other horses fed no grain, you may get the connection you seek.
Please feel free to read all the other blogs on nutrition or enroll in the nutrition course to understand why this is so important.
Getting the nutrition correct and eliminating gut inflammation will allow your horse to see that you are listening to them. But there are some other things to do. I will not go into how to ride a horse here, but there are some things you need to be aware of that will improve your connections when riding.
If you are riding with a bit, this part is essential reading. Even if you don’t use a bit, there is a degree of pain in every horse created by the opposition of sharp enamel points against the soft tissues of the oral cavity; this pain for most horses alters the jaw and tongue movement. In addition, evidence can be seen in all horses as they age, with bite angles changing and early loss of cheek teeth due to avoidance. I explain this in the teeth section. From my experience working on horse teeth since 1983 and over 70,000 mouths, there is no room for debate on this. Please understand that all pain, no matter how mild, will affect the horse as it does humans.
Adding a bit moves the tongue into a different position pushing it back into sharp edges that makes the horse uncomfortable. Keeping the mouth closed with a nose band makes less space for the tongue to escape these sharp points. To gain a better connection, all of these sharp edges need to be filed smooth without compromising the purpose of the teeth grinding the food. Removing the excess sharp enamel allows the tongue to be repositioned by the bit comfortably as well as preserves the health of the teeth and oral cavity (see the article on the tongue). Good horsemanship requires us to pay attention to the little things, and making a safe environment for the tongue when using a bit is one of them.
We can add other issues we apply to the horse that is confused with a horse’s unwillingness to be used for the intended purpose. However, this would add even more length to this already long article. Poor-fitting saddles, overweight riders, improper conditioning, overuse of the hands with the bit, long toes / low heels of the hooves, improper hoof trimming, poor stabling and more! The point here is that a horse is a horse with thoughts, feelings, wants, needs and desires. As horse owners we all need to listen and be aware of this and remove all obstacles in their existence before we start cussing and calling the horse names.
I am very sure now, after this section, that you would remove all obstacles perceived by the horse as interfering with connection and then you would all stand in front of the mirror first before you start calling the horse derogatory names, right?