by Laura Crum
The other day as I was feeding my horses and admiring what good shape they were all in, I had a startling thought. A lot of people would think the way I care for my horses is wrong—all wrong. And I decided this might be the basis of a reasonably interesting post. So here goes.
I was raised in the horse biz by cowboys who fed straight alfalfa hay and shod their using horses as a matter of course. Large pastures were almost inevitably fenced with barbed wire, though most folks I knew were smart enough not to put horses in smaller barbed wire enclosures. The more enlightened also wormed their horses every six months or so and gave them tetanus shots once a year. The people I grew up with knew how to break a horse in the traditional way and they could teach an ill broke backyard horse to be a rope horse (sometimes). It usually wasn’t pretty, but a lot of the time it was effective. I was taught to warm a horse up thoroughly before I asked him to exert himself, to leg a horse up properly before I expected it to do regular hard work, and to monitor a horse’s breathing (by stopping him and watching the flanks) while using him, in order to be sure I wasn’t overusing him. We knew how to tell a lame horse from a sound horse and we didn’t ride lame horses. (Though we did bute them to make them sound and keep using them—sometimes.) I knew how to tie a quick release knot when I tied a horse up solid, and I knew how to make sure my cinch was tight before I mounted, and I was taught not to pull relentlessly on a horse’s face when riding. By the time I was a teenager I could ride a pretty snorty horse and get along with him. This about covers what I knew.
In my twenties I worked on commercial cattle ranches, at mountain pack stations, and as an assistant to some well known cowhorse and cutting horse trainers. I rode a LOT of horses. I broke quite a few horses myself and helped train many others. I learned a few tricks and my riding skills improved. But for the most part, the things I listed in the above paragraph remained the basic bottom line of what I knew.
In my thirties I trained team roping horses for myself and a few friends and competed at team roping. I learned a few more tricks and was actually, at this point, a fairly effective horse trainer. I wormed my horses every six weeks or so rather than every six months, and I knew all about vaccinations and how to deal with the more common versions of lameness. I no longer fed straight alfalfa hay as a diet. But still, the basic bottom line for me as a horseman was much as I described it above.
In my forties I took a break from riding to have a kid and raise him. By the time I was fifty I was riding regularly again, this time with my kid—mostly trail riding. Around this time I started blogging and began interacting with other horse bloggers. And it slowly began to dawn on me that a great many people would think my basic bottom line of horsemanship was WAY off base.
The fugly blog attacked people who kept their horse in barbed wire fenced pastures, even if they were large pastures (I began looking nervously over my shoulder when I fed my retired pasture pets). Many bloggers condemned alfalfa hay as being actively BAD for horses—and all my horses were fed at least some alfalfa every day. Tons of horse people seemed to consider shoes evil, and all my horses have been shod at one time or another for various reasons (and some are wearing shoes right now). The sort of traditional training methods I understood and used were demeaned as cruel by all sorts of folks who used “natural horsemanship” and “clicker training” and the like. People were also apparently feeding their horses boat loads of expensive supplements to address conditions I didn’t understand, had never heard of, and probably wouldn’t recognize if they presented in front of me. If I had paid serious attention to all this I probably could have convinced myself I was doing just about everything wrong.
However, a lifetime spent with horses with mostly good results will (usually) give you a bit of confidence. I didn’t assume my methods were wrong just because a lot of other people seemed to disagree with them. Instead I started paying attention to what kind of results these “new age” horse folks were getting with their methods. And I wasn’t exactly impressed.
I read blog post after blog post in which the blogger’s “kindly” trained horse disobeyed and resisted the blogger/rider in ways that were at worst truly dangerous and at best deeply frustrating for both horse and rider. My own traditionally trained horses continued to be excellent, reliable riding horses and seemed to like me just as well as the “kindly” trained horses liked their owner/riders. My horses were/are reprimanded firmly when they didn’t obey and they actually seemed to like this, too. So far, I wasn’t finding much reason to change my ways.
If my horses had good feet, I often ran them barefoot, but I shod them if they seemed sore-footed, or were going to be ridden in the rocks or used very hard on abrasive sufraces…etc. My horses continued (and continue) to stay sound. Including into their barefoot, retired old age—after wearing shoes all their using lives, in some cases. I read blog post after blog post by “barefoot Nazis”, in which the blogger struggles with endless soundness issues with her barefoot horse. I’m still not finding much here to make me change my ways.
And then there was the evil alfalfa hay. Not to mention the apparently even more evil molasses. Not only did all my horses get some per cent of their feed as alfalfa hay, but the equine senior feed that I had used (and still use) to keep my old horses healthy and happy into their thirties? The first two ingredients were alfalfa meal and molasses (the next being rice bran and beet pulp). Never mind that I had been feeding alfalfa meal and molasses to horses all my life to keep hard keepers and old horses in good flesh—with very good results. It was suddenly REALLY WRONG.
I took a good hard look at my thirty-two year old horse, Gunner, who eats my equine senior delight feed twice a day. He is sound, happy, slick and shiny. Here’s a photo, taken a couple of weeks ago.
This is the second horse I’ve taken into his thirties looking pretty damn good. My old horse Burt lived to be thirty five and was trotting about, sound, bright-eyed, shiny, and lively-- the morning he died of a major stroke. He ate the same diet I’m currently feeding Gunner. What more exactly do you want in the way of good results?
In contrast to this I read blog post after blog post written by apparent nutrition experts whose horses were/are endlessly struggling with obscure diseases, lameness problems and behavioral issues, and rarely seemed to make it to their thirties, let alone stay sound and happy. I realize that luck plays a role, and I have lost horses before they were thirty, too. Nonetheless, I’d say my methods have overall had as much success as most folks—including those who damn alfalfa and molasses. Now this is not to say that all horses will thrive on alfalfa. But every horse I have ever owned has benefited from a certain amount of alfalfa in the diet. I have tried straight grass hay—and grain hay—and it just doesn’t work as well. Of course, if I had a horse that was allergic to alfalfa, I wouldn’t feed that horse alfalfa. But I have never had such a horse.
Below you see my son’s horse, Henry, in a photo taken about a week ago. Henry is 24 years old and a completely sound, healthy riding horse today. He went through colic surgery when he was 20 to remove stones. (I bought Henry as a 19 year old, and previous to being with me, I’m pretty sure he ate nothing but straight alfalfa—which probably contributed to the stones.) Right now he eats a diet that is more than 50% grass hay. But he gets some alfalfa hay and some equine senior delight every day. On straight grass hay, which I tried, he didn’t thrive. I’m pretty happy with how he looks right now. In fact, I’ll match him for overall soundness and health against anybody else’s 24 year old horse.
So far I have to conclude that my track record when it comes to having consistently sound and reliably obedient riding horses is as good or better than most folks, including the ones who brag on their extra-kind methods…etc. My horses look happy, and cooperate with everything I ask, whether its being caught, loading in the trailer, or going for a ride. My track record when it comes to shepherding my riding horses into a sound healthy old age/retirement is, again, as good as those who would castigate me for my old-fashioned choices of feed or the iron shoes I sometimes choose to use. Maybe I’m not doing everything entirely wrong.
This is not meant as a criticism of those who use other practices—far from it. If what you’re doing is working for you, more power to you. But it IS meant as a defense of methods that are sometimes very harshly criticized. If you like to attack shoeing and alfalfa hay and traditional horsemanship loudly and vehemently on your blog, even though you’ve been in the horse biz a few years at best and have NEVER taken a horse into his sound, happy thirties (after a good long career as a successful performance horse who never once dumped his rider), then this post is meant as something for you to consider—not an attack on your own methods.
So how about you guys? Are there others out there who don’t follow the new “wisdom” and find that their horses are consistently doing just as well or better than the horses of these more new age horsemen? Or am I just a lone wolf?
PS—This blog post was written awhile ago—I put it up today because, being busy with 4th of July family fun, I didn’t have time to write something new. I’m not trying to target any other blog in particular with this post—honest. But I have heard this sort of attitude (critical of traditional horsemanship and “old-fashioned” horse keeping methods) expressed many times over the years I have been reading horse blogs.
Happy 4th of July to all—keep your critters safe on this holiday which can be scary for animals and results in SO many lost dogs.