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"Killing horses with kindness"

From: Beth

Dear Jessica, I'm sure that you must be familiar with the expression "killing a horse with kindness". I've heard it all my life but I don't believe I have ever thought about what this really could mean. I have two horses that live more or less in my "back yard". A friend of mine who is much richer than I will ever be lives in a beautiful equestrian subdivision a few miles from my tiny farm. Whenever I have visited her and her horses, I have come home feeling bad about all the things that she can give her horses and I can't give to mine.

The only thing that has kept me balanced for the last four years of this is you and HORSE-SENSE. Thank you so much for your voice of kind reason and sanity. You tell people over and over that they need to do what is right for their horses and that they should try to meet the needs of their horses not their own needs. You have always made me feel so much better about my situation, where my horses have a field and a run-in shed and are out all the time. They don't wear shoes, the shoer comes out every six weeks and trims them and they do just fine. They get all their shots and I give them de-worming paste when my vet says I should, but that's it. There is nothing fancy about my place. I ride my horses in their same field that they live in, and on the trails. To me, they always looked sort of scruffy and a little bit thin next to my friend's horses, but my vet said that I should not feed them grain to try to make them gain weight because they were at a good healthy weight. I feel bad sometimes giving them just pasture and grass hay, but they seem to do okay. They always have water and a salt block, of course.

Two months ago my friend found out that one of her horses has ulcers and some kind of intestinal(?) tumors, and there is something else wrong, I forgot what, but something else bad. He has had surgery for the tumors and is on all kinds of medication now and it has changed all her plans for him. Then last week her other horse got colic and needed surgery, but he didn't make it through the surgery because a big section of his intestine was already dead.

Kathy is a good person who loves her horses the way I love my horses. She just happens to be rich so she can do a lot more for her horses. These horses had EVERYTHING! Their stalls are beautiful. They get turned out almost every day, and they have special turnout blankets for every season, fly sheets and fly boots for summer, all kinds of tack and special shoes. They got lots of vitamins and sweet feed and alfalfa hay and a bunch of different supplements. I was always a little jealous even though my horses get the best I can afford for them and they always seem very happy and healthy. The vet says my horses are extremely healthy! He knows Kathy and I asked him about her problems with her horses and told him it was so unfair because she puts so much money into those horses and takes such good care of them, and he shook his head and said "You can kill a horse with kindness." I think I know what he meant, but I'm not exactly sure. He doesn't talk about stuff much. You are so good at interpreting between horse owners and vets (and horses too), could you tell me what you think "killing a horse with kindness" means so that I will know if I'm on the right track in my thinking? I always try to be kind to my horses, but I can't give them all the things that Kathy can give hers. I am afraid that one of mine will get colic or ulcers or tumors or something bad, because I know that I won't be able to afford the surgery (I saw Kathy's bill, and it was huge!). I'm hoping that what my vet meant was that my horses are naturally more tough than others because they have to be, because of living outdoors? So they might be less likely to have colic. I hope that's true, I am so terrified of them getting colic someday. But I'm just not sure.

Thank you, this is bothering me a lot, Beth

Hi Beth! Thanks for the kind words; I'm glad that HORSE-SENSE has been useful to you.

I'm so sorry to hear about what happened to your friend's horses.

I think I do know what your vet meant, but I hope you'll take this letter and show it to him and ask him about it. You really ought to discuss this with him.

The short answer to your question is this: A lot of the things that we do "for" our horses actually interfere with their health and happiness. Sometimes what seems like the "best" care is actually bad for the horses' quality of life - and can put their lives in danger.

When riders are asked whether they do things that stress their horses, they generally think in terms of long rides, fast rides, hard rides, rides over difficult terrain, or competitions. It's true that these demands create stress, but the biggest challenges that our horses face are usually not those associated with sport or performance! We're usually very AWARE of the fact that we stress our horses in those ways. We plan ahead, get our horses competition-fit, try to minimize the risk of sports-related injuries, etc. But what we too often forget is that the way we MANAGE our horses - the environment we provide for them, and the routine care we give them - can cause stress ALL the time, and affect them for the worse in every way.

As you know if you've been reading HORSE-SENSE for several years, I am a strong believer in managing horses as naturally as possible, for the sake of their health and happiness. We've learned how to breed horses that are long-strided or high-stepping, tall or tiny, in all sorts of colours and patterns, but we haven't yet managed to come up with a cure for colic. And colic is STILL, as it has been for so long, the #1 killer of horses.

"Killing horses with kindness" is something that DOES happen. Horse-owners want to give their beloved horses the very best of everything, and so we create environments that will let us give our horses what we think they should want... but we think in human terms, and sometimes we try to treat our horses like humans, and that just doesn't work. Expensive doesn't necessarily translate to "better", and in fact it can translate to "worse". A horse that has "the best of everything" - and a very caring, loving owner - may still become injured or unhealthy because much of the "everything" is unnecessary, and some of it may actually be harmful.

Let's evaluate horse management from the standpoint of its effect on horse health, and compare the effects of two very different forms of horse management. Horses that are out all day and night, moving freely as they were designed to move (did you know that horses that live in fields will typically walk 20 miles a day?), with constant access to water and salt, eating pasture supplemented with hay, and digesting small amounts of high-fiber forage around the clock as horses were designed to do, will tend to be much stronger, saner, and healthier than horses that are confined to stalls during most of the day and night, even if they are given regular turnout for several hours a day. If they receive regular attention from a farrier so that their hooves are kept trimmed and balanced, and stay barefoot except in specific situations when shoes are actually needed, they will have healthier feet and hooves, because their diet and constant movement will promote good circulation and a healthy digestive system.

If, instead, horses are confined to stalls and allowed only brief periods of turnout - perhaps not even daily turnout - and if they are fed two or three large "meals" each day instead of being allowed to graze and nibble forage 24/7, the limited exercise and unsuitable diet will NOT promote healthy feet and hooves, good circulation, or a healthy digestive system.

In terms of overall health, the first group of horses will be much better off, even if the second group is kept in the most beautiful barn in the world, and fed the very best sweet feeds. The second group of horses will have problems, because their digestive systems are being constantly challenged by their diet, and the confinement is challenging all of their other systems as well. Horses kept in circumstances like these will often show that they're not coping very well. The problem is that humans often aren't paying attention, or don't understand what they're seeing. Horses can be extremely shiny and sleek, and yet not be enjoying optimum health. Confined horses - even sleek and shiny ones - may develop "stall vices" (i.e., cribbing, pawing, kicking, and weaving) as a reaction to being kept in such unnatural conditions. And that's not all.

You mentioned that one of your friend's horses - kept in a situation similar to the one described above - had ulcers. Ulcers are rare in horses that live out - they're much more common in horses that are fed grain. And ulcers can lead to cribbing. Horse-owners often blame colic on the air their horses swallow whilst they are cribbing, but it now appears that the situation may be the other way around! The horse doesn't get a pain in its stomach because it swallows air because it was cribbing, the horse cribs (but doesn't actually swallow a lot of air) because it is experiencing pain from gastric ulcers. Your vet will probably be familiar with the latest studies and reports on this subject - ask him to discuss them with you.

You're quite right about the cost of colic surgery - it's high. That in itself would be an excellent reason for horse-owners to do everything in their power to avoid stressing their horses in ways that are likely to lead to colic. As usual, prevention is not just BETTER than cure, it's also much less expensive!

So what IS prevention, where colic is concerned? Here's a quick rundown of things you can do:

  1. Pasture and/or good-quality, clean grass hay should be your horses' main food, and they should always have access to clean water and salt. If you increase the horses' workload to the point where they need concentrates for energy, THAT will be the time to add grain or pelleted feed to their diets.

  2. Put your horses on the "nibble" diet, not on "three squares" (or, even worse, "two squares") - keep grass or grass hay in front of your horse at all times.

  3. If you're going to make a change of diet, make it gradually, not suddenly.

  4. Give your horse maximum freedom of movement for as many hours as possible out of each 24 - with 24 out of 24 being ideal.

  5. Keep their hooves trimmed and their teeth floated, and don't shoe them unless they actually NEED shoes.

  6. Keep their routine veterinary care AND their deworming program on schedule - and don't hesitate to ask your vet for advice!

  7. Ask your vet's advice before investing in supplements that your horse may not need at all. If there is a lot of sand in your area, or even in your soil, you might want to talk to your vet about a protocol for feeding psyllium (for sand removal) for one week out of each month.

  8. Keep your pasture and other turnout areas clean - pick up the manure every few days - and mowed. This is especially important if the pasture isn't very big - you can't afford to let the horses decide that half of their pasture is a toilet.

In other words, Beth, if you want to try to prevent colic and keep your horses healthy, you should go right on doing what you're doing. Your horses are already living and eating in a way that is natural and healthy and minimizes their stress. You have their hooves trimmed regularly, you are following the health-care and de-worming program that your vet recommends, and you are paying close attention to their health and overall condition.

"Killing horses with kindness" usually means damaging their health through well-meaning but incorrect management practices. It does NOT mean that the horses' owners are bad people, or that they had bad intentions, or that they didn't love their horses. Usually the owners have very GOOD intentions, and they DO love their horses - in fact, the owners are usually trying their best to give the horses every single thing that they could possibly ever want. And that's the problem! The things horses LIKE aren't necessarily the things that they should be fed.

Of COURSE horses enjoy grain and molasses and carrots - all the sweet, dangerous, high-sugar, high-carbohydrate treats that challenge their digestive systems. Of COURSE horses stay much cleaner if they're confined to clean, dry stalls, and not allowed to run around and roll in muddy or wet pastures or drylots. Of COURSE horses' coats will stay slick and avoid sun damage when the owners dress the horses up in a variety of sheets, blankets, hoods, and tail-wraps for year-round wear. The horses aren't as relaxed, as happy or as healthy as they would be if they were allowed to move around freely in a field, wearing nothing but their own hair (and, if necessary, a breakaway turnout halter), rolling and enjoying dust-baths and mud-baths, and enjoying one another's company. The problem with "the best of everything" horse management is that quite often, stress, unhappiness, and ulcers go unnoticed - at least, up to the point where the horse colics!

What it comes down to is that your horses are not being neglected, they are being managed in ways that are conducive to their best health and happiness. Horses receiving "the best of everything" are certainly not being neglected, but they aren't necessarily being managed in ways meet their actual needs.

Sometimes - especially if you don't really know what IS truly "best" for your horses (or your family!) - it works out better if you CAN'T afford "the best", because "the best" may actually not be as good as the things you CAN afford. If horses that don't get enough forage because their owners like the idea of feeding them grain and molasses instead, and can afford to feed them large amounts of concentrates, those horses will be less healthy than horses whose owners keep them in fields and provide them with grass hay when the pasture isn't adequate to their nutritional needs. This applies to humans, too. If you've studied history, you know that there was a time when only the wealthiest people could afford to eat processed white bread, which was considered to be "better" - everyone else had to eat what they could afford, which was whole-grain bread, dark and heavy and comparatively inexpensive. Similarly, only the wealthiest people could afford to eat a lot of sugar. Today, we know that the refined food that was supposed to be "better" was not much good at all - the poorer people were likely to be healthier, because their bread retained all of the nutritional value (including fiber and vitamins) that had been processed right out of that "superior" white bread.

So - don't think that your horses are suffering in any way because you have less money than some other horse owners. From your description, I'd say that your horses are very lucky, because what you CAN and DO provide for them is exactly what they need to stay healthy and happy. If horses could give advice on horse management, they would want to be kept the way you are keeping yours.

I think that this is probably what your vet meant. Ask him - and please let me know.


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