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.

 

Simple Pleasure

Lawn mowing duties
Spring greens

There are not many days in a year with weather as perfect as this. It’s Spring (always a good thing in my book), birds sing. The sun is warm enough for me to sit in the shade on a mossy rock (curiously dry moss here in Portugal), the breeze is coolish. Behind me the water tumbles down its gully with a perfect harmony of tonalities that soothe and uplift, lively but not rambunctious. In front of me the horses are lost in an orgy of greens, as they ‘mow’ around the tents. Bliss.

When it was raining and cold I had to coax the horses out of the shelter some days to go walk with me and stretch their legs, “Horses are supposed to move,” I said, “it’s good for you.” “So?” they replied, looking at this foolish human who doesn’t understand about conservation of energy and seasonal cycles. I, observing one herd, in one season, started to reformulate some of my long held beliefs and build new theories, thought maybe horses were perfectly happy to stand around all day and munch on hay. In which case why did we go through so much pain and expense to provide them this lovely natural environment? But formulating a theory on such limited data is never a good idea.

Early morning delegation of horses at my window
Early morning delegation at my window

Spring came and the rhythm of our days has changed. The horses are restless to leave the home compound where we have been keeping them at night. Ellie’s face peers through my window demanding I open the gates at dawn. So I do. They go round their “trackless track” twice in a day instead of going out and back on the same route, following their noses up and down the hills, up and down the hills. They volunteer to come play with me in the picadero or go for a ride. And they insist I open the gate to the green stuff, the delicious cold-weather grasses and herbs on our side of the fence. So here we are.

In all my long years and varied lives, I have never lived in such close intimacy with a herd of horses on a daily basis, although I have cared for small and large herds on three continents. I have been a slave to the feeding routine, dragging myself out of bed at the crack of dawn (or before) so they wouldn’t have to wonder for a second if food was coming. I have slept in the tack room waiting for mares to give birth, waking at every shifting foot and heavy breath – and still managing to miss the moment. I have spent nights in tents in the wilderness, listening to the horses munching; or wolves howling under a full moon, turning all of us electric with awareness. I have clumped out on dark nights, through raging gales on Exmoor, to beg my horses to come into the barn and get shelter. And many an evening I have sat watching the sun set over English hills and shared a beer with my horse. It’s not like I have been a distant stranger to them.

But it’s never been like this before.

At your service
At your service

Here, our lives overlap and intertwine minute to minute and I live in surrender to their rhythms. Our days are not organised for the convenience of humans. We have no schedules, no goals to achieve, no training to be done, no owners expectations to satisfy; just a herd of horses, boundless love, and an openness to learning. Every day, as we try to provide the best living space possible for the horses, our communications become more subtle, clear and direct and we figure out our common language. We humans learn to trust the intuitive, non-verbal nature of the conversation; the horses know that we are listening, so express more clearly what they need, or would like.

But I don’t want this to sound like some New Age, spiritual thing. It’s not. It is very down to earth, grounded in the simplicity of being. Horse-ness. Which can be Human-ness if we pay attention. When we sit at the stable block at the end of the day, all chores done, and the horses choose to hang out with us, even though their hay is waiting for them, it is a simple pleasure. And that’s what it’s all about.

Horse heaven
Horse heaven