Why ticks are good…

Horse herd on green grassy hill

Ask and it shall be given

It often happens in my life. A question is asked, by me or to me, and things start to unfold. Like a carpet unrolling before me, leading my mind. The path does not always lead to the answer. In fact it tends to lead to more questions. But the act of questioning always brings more clarity.

Why do ticks exist?

Anyway, the other day, as we did our daily tick check of the horses, Prasado said a bit grumpily, “Why do ticks exist anyway? Is there any point to them?”

Clunk clink and my cogs start turning. As we live in an interconnected and harmonious universe, then everything (yes, even ticks!) must be beneficial. Everything has a role to play and if I don’t see what that is, I should look more closely.

Ticks are yucky

Ticks are the bane of our life here in the Alentejo. As soon as the heat of summer subsides and the grass starts to grow, out they come. They invade the horses’ manes leaving sticky yellow goo, and sometimes suppurating wounds. We must always be watchful for the diseases they carry. And squashing blood filled ticks is just yucky! Every day we do a thorough check and remove any ticks we find on the animals.

Re-viewing the tick

That morning, as I searched through Doodle’s mane, doing the job of an egret, my neurons started firing. Out of random dots a picture emerged:

Ticks are blood suckers
Blood letting is a cure for excess iron (read more about this in one of my favourite books, Survival of the Sickest)
Horses do not excrete iron
One of the major problems for domesticated horses (in Northern Europe at least) is the so-called Metabolic syndrome
One of the precursors to the development of this syndrome is iron overload
Worms also cause bleeding
Is it possible blood letting is important to horse health? That over-control of parasites is causing illness?

And what about worms?

As is the way of things, a separate chain of events revealed another angle of the puzzle.

As a lifelong horse guardian I was deeply indoctrinated with the idea that worms are evil and must be killed. Regular worming has been a standard part of horse management for generations. As a child I remember the vet coming to tube worm the horses in the autumn, not so pleasant. As a teenager I remember the excitement of ivermectin paste, so handy, so efficient. Now you could control worms without the vet.

A couple of decades later and worms are resistant to ivermectin. So vets recommend fecal egg counts and worming only if necessary. It is no longer thought necessary to wipe out every last worm. The theory is that a healthy horse can tolerate a certain level of worm infestation (hear the language). This is a step forward, but still rooted in the adversarial system of healthcare we have been raised upon.

Personally, I now see worms as an important part of the horse’s system, and an overload of worms as a symptom of lowered immunity. So I mostly leave my horses to balance their own wormload. They have enough anthelmintic herbs to eat if they feel they need help. I keep their stresses low and their immune system optimised. I also do regular fecal egg counts, to check for worm burden, just so I know what’s going on.

The worm/ tick axis

“But what have worms got to do with ticks?” you ask. This. Recently we worm checked. The results were interesting. So interesting I thought maybe they were a mistake and got a second opinion.

The horse I considered most likely to have a high worm burden had an egg count of zero. She is also the only horse who had body ticks, tiny little blood suckers all over her body. She is the horse who reacts badly to insects and gets itchy just looking at a fly.

And then there is the horse I NEVER worry about. The three year old filly, with the perfect weight and shining vitality. The one who hardly ever had a tick on her and zero reactivity. She had a fecal egg count of 4,700. Four thousand seven hundred!!! I’ve never had a count that high. New lab, maybe it was a mistake? Called the vet, who said don’t worry, young horses often have high counts, just worm her.

What does this all mean?

Do we need worms?

Of course I should have rushed out and bought the chemicals. But I didn’t. I held my natural horse carer ground. She’s young, she needs to build immunity and maybe nature knows more than I do? Maybe she needs those worms? If I wipe them all out now, how will that affect her immunity building? Maybe we’re back to iron levels now, and how they help protect against infectious disease?

In the other side of my brain, all the vets, trainers and other expert voices from my past life are screaming, “Worm her, worm her, worm her!” So I compromised. I added diatamaceous earth and neem powder to her food. After a month I retested with my trusted friend Pauhla Whitaker, worm enthusiast extraodinaire. FEC down to 945.

The Chemical Challenge

Why, at this stage, did I decide to do the chemical thing? I’m not quite sure looking back. Maybe because she’s not mine? Maybe because those knowledgeable voices wore me down? Maybe I thought the risk of not worming her greater than any potential challenge to the body of a healthy young horse? Maybe because I needed the next piece in the puzzle? Whatever. I wormed her with moxidectrin.

2 days later she has a tick bite that swells up like a plum. Then another. Luckily that phase only lasted a couple of days, thanks to intervention with essential oils. But since then she has more ticks on a regular basis.

In every other way she looks as healthy as ever. When I offer her herbs she takes a little of this or that, but her eating is not urgent, as it is when a horse really needs the herb offered. So she feels fine. Is her new sensitivity a coincidence? I think not. Somehow, having her worms wiped out made her more attractive to ticks.

Ticks win

So this is where I am at with the original question. Ticks and worms are part of the equine eco-system. They may help horses control iron by blood letting. High iron leads to increased risk of infectious disease, poor mineral uptake, and metabolic distress. So ticks help horses.

But what about the disease they carry? Piroplasmosis usually attacks stressed horses, weakening an animal who is already challenged, hastening its death. This is also beneficial to a wild horse. No long, drawn out suffering. So a good thing.

In addition, there may be some sort of balance between worm load and resistance to insects (and skin sensitivity). It is possible that human’s over aggressive control of parasites contributes to some common health problems.

Too much of a good thing?

I’m not saying you should start letting ticks take over your horses, or that wormers will become obsolete. As long as your horses are confined (no matter how large the area) you are responsible for making sure they get what they need.

In the wild, horses would balance their worm load by seeking out and eating anthelmintic plants, clay or charcoal. They protect themselves from insect infestation by rolling in dirt, or aromatic plants, or submerging themselves in water. Birds would also help keep them free of insects by picking them off their backs.

In a domestic environment, horses are usually deprived of any chance for self-medication, itself a stress. But you can provide your horses the herbs they crave, by putting some herbs in bowls and letting your horse choose which ones he would like to eat. For worm control I offer, wormwood, neem leaf powder, milk thistle seed, and green clay.

I protect my horses (and dogs) from ticks using a blend of diatamaceous earth, clay and neem leaf powder, imitating a good roll in the dirt by rubbing it through their mane and coat. And I play the role of a bird by manually removing the bugs.

The more you can mimic nature and provide a horse’s natural needs, the less need you will have -if any- for chemicals.  Anything toxic enough to kill ticks for 30 days, challenges a horse’s bio-system rather than supporting it, reducing their natural bug resistance in the long run. Plus the ‘total destruction’ approach damages the balance of nature in other ways we have not yet discovered.

Well, that’s my opinion anyway! What do you think?

 

Here we are!

Men plan, God Laughs!

If I recall, the last thing I wrote on this blog  was, “From now on I’ll be blogging regularly”. Do I hear the gods laugh?

I’m afraid I grossly underestimated the time and energy required to build a home from scratch. And I mean scratch: no water, no electricity, no habitable dwelling for man or beast.

It’s been a time of intensity. Body, mind, emotions stretched waaaay out of their comfort zone. Luckily, that’s what I call fun!

From vision to reality

It’s been a year of creativity and growth. We went from the barest necessities – water, shelter, basic amenities – to beautiful, functional buildings, which form the first permanent camp (human headquarters).

Our herd has grown from 4 horses to 10, and watching the herd building has been a fascinating process. Slowly we have expanded the horse territory. Now they have the whole 30 hectares to roam. I spend a lot of time watching where they go, what they eat, how they use the land, as I study how best to care for them and the land.

Peaks and troughs

I love this land, and the adventure we are on. The insecurity and the not-knowing make me alive. My senses are finely tuned, my mind open. But, at times, I have felt overwhelmed with what we have set under way here. Waking in the middle of the night, fears and anxieties spin around the mind.

There is so much to learn. So many things that need to be done. Every time we come to a peak, where we could maybe rest for a moment, along comes another wave. All I can do in these moments is breathe, open my arms wide and surrender myself again. Feel my feet firmly on the ground, right here, right now, and take one more step over the edge.

New Home, Same Obsessions…

So here we are, on this rain-blessed day in February.  A new home, a new herd, a new-look blog, and a new name. But the same obsessions. The same never-ending interest in the whys and hows of horses, horse care and the nature of horses, humans, life. The continuing exploration of how we can give horses what they need within the constraints of domestication.

I have learnt so much in the last 10 months. Or perhaps better to say unlearned! I don’t know where to start sharing. So I decided a short pictorial review would be fun before we get down to “serious” business.  Because this time I mean it, I will be blogging regularly now, sharing all the herd teaches me. Because this is my way to kneel and kiss the ground.

“…… let the beauty of what you love be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground, there are a thousand ways to go home again.” – Rumi

The Illustrated History of Over The Edge Farm.

The deed signed
April 20th, we signed a piece of paper and guardianship of this land passed to us, from this family, who have loved it well.
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So now what?
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The Book of Ideas and Sketches!
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First, water. Digging the pipe was our first mark upon the land. The first cut is the deepest for sure!
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Then a fence
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20th May, the horses can move in
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Then find a shady spot
Caravan
And we have a house for humans
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A toilet…
Hanging the solar shower
..and a shower. We are all set
horses and car
Just as we get settled….
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Horse number 5 arrives from France
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With Zena, who must have a kitchen.
planter bed
And plant things
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By June, it’s heating up and drying up as the first building gets going
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What’s it going to be?
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Tack room and feed shed of course!

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Complete with herb bar for horses
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Meanwhile things grow
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And we eat some
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It was a bit traumatic flattening earth for an arena, moving earth always feels aggressive! But everyone’s enjoying it now it’s done.
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And then Aug 2nd, when it’s impossibly dry and dusty, here come 5 more horses
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Shanti’s crew
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Not a very warm welcome from the home gang…
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Then just as that was settling down….
Bulldozer and horses
We brought in a bulldozer to create more dust and….
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…a great big hole in the ground! It will one day be a lake.
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Then just to add to the fun, we invited Nick Hill, barefoot expert, to check our feet.
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We decided we shouldn’t keep him to ourselves, so we made it a workshop and a great bunch of people came to learn about barefoot stuff from Nick and essential oils from myself
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While he was here, Nick encouraged us to think about who we are and how to present ourselves. We came up with the name Over the Edge Farm, because we’re always taking one more step in our quest for the answer to the important questions, like, “What do horses really need?” So, we live over the edge of the known world most of the time!
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He also convinced me to let the horses go over the edge and play in the big hole, which was starting to fill with water. “Thanks Nick” say the herd.

 

 

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And then September arrived and we decided it was time to get serious, before the rains started….
building frame
The bathroom goes up
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And a kitchen/living space (Bodhi is very helpful)
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Lots of friends helped and we busted a***
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The cantina nearly has a roof
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Caravan gets a mud room
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And wow!
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Just beat the rain
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So exciting to see all that water after the months of dryness

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But it didn’t take long for the sun to return and shine down on the almost lake.
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Grasses start to grow
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the green returns
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And look! We got ourselves a village

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with a fabulous cantina

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The horses are happy as we fence in the whole 30 hectares

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This is the view today. Horses living as they were meant to, roaming together as a herd. They enjoy the benefits of human management without the hassle. So that’s where we’re at. 

 

 

Moving on

Exploring horse is on the move! After two years as the guests of the Woodleys, in Central Portugal, we have found a home of our own in the fabulous Alentejo region (warmer, drier). It has been six intensive months of searching, but we have finally agreed a price and are now in the contract signing phase.

Monte Nossa Senhora, our new home (love that name, full of the power of the sacred feminine) is 30 hectares (75 acres) of typical Alentejo wildness. The place is a natural horse keeper’s paradise.

View across the valley
Monte Nossa Senhora

The hills are covered with cork oak forests; the valleys have some lush, fertile areas, olive and fruit trees. The south facing slopes are dry and stony with many aromatic herbs, lavender, thyme, cistus and hot weather grasses. The horses will get lots of movement to keep their feet strong, and a varied diet of native grasses and shrubs. Hopefully they will love it as much as I do, although I have a slight suspicion that if you ask them they will say the lovely green field they are living in now will suit them nicely thank you!

For the humans there is nothing. No electricity, no habitable dwellings, no running water! Pioneer time. We are going to spend the first months in caravans and yurts, playing at being nomads. I want to live right beside the horses as we get them settled and re-build the herd (I only have three of the previous herd with me). It also gives us time to suss out the best location for houses, shelters and picadeiros before we commit ourselves to building.

For now we are staying with friends, and the horses are in a “proper” field eating grass, acclimatising themselves to the smaller group. That won’t last long (the small group) as I already have my eye on a 3 year old filly, who is looking for a home via ARC Horse Welfare in the Algarve. I have also spotted a lusitano mare who does all the fancy dressage stuff, yet lives outside in a herd. She’s rather classy (and expensive!), but every herd needs a wise grey mare don’t they? And then there is sweet Amal, Zena’s arab gelding, who will join us sooner or later. I have to decide whether to grow the herd before we move, or if it will be easier for everyone if we wait.

We will ride the horses to the new place, about 50 kilometres away. I hate trailering, and have been looking for an excuse to go for a good long ride. Plus I think it will help the horses to locate themselves in their new home, reducing the stress in the first few days. I’m not sure how they will take to being returned to the “wild” after their cushy few months here, but it will be interesting to watch.

Lying in the grass with horses around me
Enjoying the grass!

I will be blogging again now, keeping you informed of the changing dynamics of the herd, how I introduce new horses, and how essential oils and herbs help to ease us through the transition. We are not sure if the herd will be ready to run any workshops this summer (but watch this space!); on the other hand, if you don’t mind sleeping in a tent and know how to wield a hammer (or shovel, or…) you could be welcome to stop by for a visit.

Variety is the spice of life!

One of my small obsessions is watching my horses eat. I love the way they pick and choose so carefully and precisely, how their nose and whiskers work together to sort through a dense mat of green stuff. Negev is an absolute master, a gourmand, who takes a little of this, a little of that till he has 4 or 5 different tastes in his mouth at the same time. And just as you think he’s done, he goes back for a little bit more of one plant before he chews it all up, eyes half closed. When I think of horses who are confined to single species grazing, or fed only and forever on hay, I shudder.

Personally, I think the two most important factors in horse health are movement and variety of diet. Enough movement is essential for the musculo-skeletal system, including the feet, varied diet keeps the motor running at optimum to fuel the movement. With enough variety in the diet a horse can balance his nutritional needs, which vary from day to day, or week to week, and many of those niggly little problems of itching, or nervousness, or runny eyes will clear up. Not to mention the not-so-niggly problems, such as laminitis and metabolic syndrome.

I am lucky -or determined, I didn’t get here overnight!- as I am now living in an environment where it is easy to provide my horses with a wide variety of forage, on a selection of different terrains (different terrain means different mineral content and trace elements). And when I say ‘provide’ I don’t mean they get room service, they have to move a lot to find their food.

This property starts in moist, cool river bottoms with Atlantic vegetation, then strolls up the rocky hillside through oaks, pines, and mediterranean scrub with rough grasses: ideal. However, when I lived in less perfect conditions I used to provide variety by taking horses out to graze on the hedgerows of England or equivalent (depending on the country!. Or I offered herbs and essential oils to provide the secondary metabolites necessary for  self-medication, and clays and minerals to provide their non-vegetable needs. If your horse is confined you can add herbs and barks to a feeding ball to keep them entertained and healthy.

I have hours of video of horses eating (did I mention obsessed?), I’ll spare you that. Here is a small clip I put together for my aromatics students, just to illustrate the point.

 

Horse Herding

We’ve been doing a lot of horse-herding recently. The grass is almost finished on our slopes and the new hay isn’t in yet, the result of a colder/wetter year than is usual in these parts – our weather is dictated by the Atlantic, which is suffering from melting polar caps, as I’m sure you all know –  so, in time honoured tradition, we take the herd to look for greener pastures.

The property on which we live is under repair. The pine and eucalyptus trees were cut before we got here, but the place is still littered with stumps and branches. We cleared one slope just barely in time to seed some oats as green feed (for the soil not the horses!) and the horses are kept out of there. Most of the time they roam around the steep hills, foraging between the timber debris for native grasses, heather, gorse, and whatever else is edible (have you ever watched a horse eat gorse tips, or thistles? Know how they do it? Carefully!).

We have varied this diet with occasional access to the grassier areas around the human living areas when we want to control growth (we use them to strim in other words). We also have a few flat areas alongside waterways which were cleared of bramble and bracken, then seeded with a grass mix of 10 traditional grasses. They are not really established yet so the horses are only allowed on to do a little trimming to help strengthen and thicken the growth. Anyway, horses used to a wide variety of plants become quickly bored on plain old grass it seems. Now all those areas are used up and we can’t count on further growth till September sometime (as far as we understand from the locals, it’s all new to us, we don’t really know the growing cycles yet, or the times of fat and lean ).

So to keep the horses healthy and happy, physically and mentally, we turn to horse-herding.  One behind the other we set off in search of fodder. The horses know the routine now and quickly fall in to their allotted places (allotted by them not us) and follow us keenly. And likewise we listen to them, moving at their pace, heeding their suggestions.

One day we find bunch grasses under the Eucalyptus plantations, which is a favourite, or we cross the river to an overgrown patch of land full of herbs and grasses, or today, we find ourselves under a stand of pines that is due to have it’s under-storey cleared on Monday, but now is rich with long-stalked grasses, cow parsley and other delicious tidbits. Jessie is topping all the thistles.

I sit and watch over them, sharing the pleasure of the breeze in the pines, the fresh, green smells, and the peacock-blue dragonfly resting on the ferns. When they’ve munched their way through this lot they’ll let me know and we’ll move on, walking calmly in a line, connected by the invisible string of energy that holds us together. Time and place dissolve in this walking, I feel the nomadic spirit, ancient and immediate, and nature’s rhythm pulsing in us all.

I invite you to share for a moment in my horse watching meditation in this short video clip: Nothing ever happens what is just is! 

Moving to Portugal, five month review

mare and foal unloading from horse transporter
Unloading in Portugal, the truck could go no further down our drive so we walked home.

It’s five months today since the horses and I arrived here in Portugal, exhausted, dislocated – and relieved. At least I was relieved. The horses simply shook themselves off, snorted, and checked out the local grass as they came off the truck. Then we set out on the one kilometre walk that would complete our journey (the truck could go no further down the dirt road).

The journey begins

Three days earlier six horses and myself had set out from Israel on an epic journey. Six unsophisticated, backwoods horses who had never been on a horse lorry before, let alone a plane, and me, their over-protective, natural horse-keeping, essential oil wielding chaperone.  I chose to travel with the horses to ease their journey in any way I could, to protect them from being treated like just another pallet of cargo; and to share this experience with them, a sort of penance for what we were putting them through. 

Flying horses

The transport business doesn’t see living beings, just objects in transit – as anyone who has flown on a low-cost airline will agree. To me each horse is a special individual whose needs and comforts must be considered. Explain that to the man on the forklift as he screeches and crashes and jerks along with my frightened horses in a container… I think he got the point in the end, or maybe he was just terrified by the mad-eyed woman yelling at him!

We flew from Tel Aviv to Brussels on a Monday evening. In Brussels we were met the horse transporter – and my horse from England. Three days previously the transport guys had whisked him out of the grassy, Cotswold field, where he had lived a quiet life of semi-retirement for the last five years, loaded on a horse transporter for the 3rd time in his life, and ‘poof’, his old life was gone. The only uplifting moment for me on the whole journey was when I called his name from outside the lorry (I wasn’t allowed on) and saw his ears rotating keenly, trying to find my voice. I hadn’t seen him for over a year. 

Onward!

I had chosen this transport company, despite them being the most expensive, because they had promised we could decide on arrival in Brussels if my Israeli horses were fit to travel further, or if it would be better to rest close to the airport and continue the next day. Sucker! It immediately became clear that the well-being of the animals was less important than the well-being of the owner’s bank balance. After a useless, tearful tantrum outside the customs terminal we loaded up my tired and accepting horses, so brave and trusting, and set off into the night. Me and my friend Zena, who had also met us in Brussels, in a rental car.  

We drove till mid afternoon, overnighting somewhere in rural France, set off before dawn, drove through the day, overnighted in rural Spain, started out again at 4 a.m., and arrived at the quinta by mid-morning. As I said, exhausted and dislocated, despite the cheerful reception from the rest of the crew (my partner Prasado, and Bill, Gali and Yulie, who own the quinta and four of the horses), who had arrived the day before.

Arrival

Still, we had arrived. The hardest thing I had ever done was already starting to fade away into memory, like childbirth, as I walked beside my beloved horse and led the herd down the dusty track towards their new life.

At the top of the hill, just as we passed the boundary to the quinta, we paused and surveyed the view, my first view of our new home: the Serra da Estrela mountains to our left; tree dotted hills sinking and rising around us; the track before us heading on down the hill between aromatic pine, eucalyptus, lavender, cistus and rosemary – an aromatherapists shopping cart. A deep breath, an inner smile, we are home.

But that was just the beginning…..
Natural horses share companionship with woman

Where are we today?

Five months later, I sit here on the hilltop as the herd munches happily all around me and it is good. The horses are relaxed, healthy, well-fed, the herd dynamic is ‘right’, no-one lives in fear. But gosh, it’s been a journey to get here. For me it has been fascinating, stressful, joyous and educational as I watch this group of horses, each one with his/her own history (and baggage), form a coherent herd living an ‘as natural’ lifestyle – with a little help from the human herd.

The horses have adapted to their new environment, we humans have figured out how to provide them with enough food and shelter, nursed them through maggot attacks and lameness, slowly allowed them to roam more freely over the sort of landscape that most people would consider unsuitable for horses. And we are thriving. So many stories, so many lessons, I will share them with you in other blogs, alongside our continuing adventure. But in honour of the 5 monthiversary here are:

Five heartfelt memories!

1. Going down to the belly of the cargo plane, where the horses stood 3 to a crate, stacks of boxes piled all around, whickering at me as I step in to check how they are. Such a contrast, their quiet kindness against the harsh metal and hellish noise.

2. The horses have shown such trust throughout this whole process, from the days of preparing for the journey, through those 4 long days on the road, and the times of uncertainty, as we tried to provide the feed and shelter they needed in a land we knew nothing of. The trust has never wavered, only grown as we continue to Explore Horse and expand our horizons.


3. The way O-sensei, the English horse, picked up with Prasado and I as if we had never been apart, even after 5 years of not living together. We were his herd in those first hard days when the other horses chased him and refused all his polite and gentle overtures, he would have moved into our tent if the deck would have held him!


4. Those first days of freedom, when we cautiously opened the fences and I escorted the horses around the property to see how they handled the steep hillsides, strewn with deadfall and forestry litter, such pleasure to explore their new world together.


5. Today, not quite a memory yet, but a significant moment, they all stand in the shelter munching hay, having chosen to rush home from the oak valley when the rain started to pour, and I know I have listened to them as faithfully as I can and am providing the best of both worlds, domestic comforts and natural needs and the freedom to choose what they prefer.


So, here at Quinta Regadas do Seco life is good and I would love to share our beautiful space with you. I invite anyone who would like to learn about horses in a natural environment to come to one of our workshops. You will learn about natural horse care, how you can be your horse’s most trusted friend and refine your horsemanship skills on many levels. For more details on workshops and what you will learn go to the Exploring Horse Camp page here, or for dates and to reserve your place go to the Essential Animals website, or leave a comment here and I will answer any questions you have

.Natural horses eat all the time

The herd today, calm and connected, eating together at the top of the hill