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The therapy horses of Gentle Carousel work in environments that most horses never experience. Because they travel and we ask so much of them, we feel it is our responsibility to let them have as natural a life as possible when they are home.
To us, natural means creating an environment for our little horses that mimics that of a wild horse’s habitat, much the way zoos have created more natural habitats and enrichment for wild animals in captivity. Our horses may be cute and small, but they are genetically the same as wild horses and have the same physical and emotional needs.
All horses by nature, are designed to move continuously. Wild horses walk as much as 20 miles a day in open spaces where they can see predators coming from a distance. They move and eat small amounts of grass forage all day long (up to 20 hours a day) and live with multiple horses for safety and security. Horses are one of the most social of creatures and that socialization is critical to their well-being and happiness.
Our therapy horses live in two main longtime herds in habitats that are at least five acres. Each little equine society has a clear leader. We have Wakanda’s herd and Misty’s herd.
Horses are prey animals and naturally live in groups in the wild so they feel more secure. A horse that doesn’t feel secure in it’s environment will be stressed… and stressed horses are much more prone to health issues. For example, horses can sleep standing up but must lie down to reach important REM sleep. Horses rest better when they are in herds because it allows some horses to sleep while others stand guard. A horse kept alone may not sleep well because it’s instincts are to keep a constant eye out for danger.
To encourage important healthy movement throughout the day, we place low sugar forage/hay, granular salt and minerals, water etc. in different locations around their habitats. The physical movement of the horses actually helps the movement of the food through the digestive tract. We do not restrict their natural continuous movement or keep them confined in small areas especially when they are eating.
Wild horses in a natural setting, though they raise their heads often to look around for danger, eat most of their food in a heads down position. Our therapy horses always eat at ground level as well. As a result, they take smaller mouthfuls of food and chew it more thoroughly, it better mixes with saliva and it decreases the risk of choking and impaction colic. A lowered head also promotes airway drainage, which helps flush out any inhaled dust or hay particles. Feeding at ground level is the most natural position for a horse to eat. If we fed at shoulder level or higher, the horses would be forced to chew with molars not properly aligned and their airways would be assaulted significantly more than when they eat from the ground. A horse’s lower jaw slides forward into proper grinding position only when the head is down.
All horses produce stomach acid 24/7 and not just in response to a meal like people do, so when small amounts of grass forage is not coming in on a regular basis the acid has nothing to work on but the inside of the horse. It is the reason we do not give our horses just two or three large meals a day. Our therapy horses eat a low sugar grass forage diet, free choice, all day long. They do not eat high sugar foods like carrots or highly processed grain or pellet type horse feed.
Speaking of choice, when they are in their habitats, our horses are free to make many choices all day long. They decide, often as a herd, where they will eat, where they will walk or run, if they want to be in a shelter or under a favorite tree, if they want to roll in the sand or take a nap in the sun. This freedom is important to their happiness and we think it makes them much better therapy horses when they are working.
We also have made a choice. Would our pastures be “prettier” if they were lush, chemically fertilized fields made up of a single type of high sugar/cool season grass? Yes they would. Would spraying for pests and weeds make life easier? Absolutely. Are there more convenient ways to feed horses? Many. But we choose to give the horses as healthy, happy and “natural” place to live as possible with their equine companions. It is a work in process and we are always learning from our equine friends.