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Two Lessons about Horse Health from Wild Horses

Updated: Mar 10

After I had been trimming hooves and rehabilitating lame horses for about 7 years, I was lucky enough to do a couple of trips into Central Australia and Central Queensland working with feral horses, and then later a trip to Wyoming in the US working with cowboys moving cattle. Those trips were very humbling and made me reassess a lot of what I had been prioritising in terms of horse health and soundness.

There was a fashion for citing the wild horse model in the early 2000s, much of which created controversy. I had read all the articles, and watched the debate unfold on various online natural horse groups. Assessing the accuracy of those claims was a big driver to go see for myself.

A feral horse in Central Australia emerging from a waterhole after a swim.

Ten years on, I will summarise two points about horse health that have stayed with me from those trips.

1. Movement is more important than hoof shape. Much more important.

In Central Australia we rode brumbies that had only just been captured and started. The horse I rode had been only backed twice before I arrived. We rode for 5 to 6 hours a day, for days and days in a row, on hooves that look like this.

It became abundantly clearly to me that movement and fitness are far more important than the shape of their hooves. In particular, movement over a wide range of surfaces, including some very abrasive surfaces.

Further, that applies whether the horse is shod or not. This was cemented for me when I watched a Wyoming cowboy tack a cold shoe on a horse with very limited tools - a less than perfect job, but that horse then scampered up and down mountains, from dawn til dusk, chasing cattle without putting a foot wrong.

What implications does that have for domestic horse owners?

Irrespective of human hoofcare, what these horses had in common was movement. Lots of domestic horses do miles on the same surface - in an arena for example, or every day in the same paddock deep in lush grass. This does not promote soundness in the long-term, no matter how skilled or experienced your hoofcare provider is. If you want your horse to be sound long-term, then you need to do miles. There is no shortcut.

2. Feral horses around the world are within certain size parameters.

Wild horses around the globe are generally ponies. In nature, horses rarely reach 15hh anywhere in the world. We have bred height into our domestic horses, and this too has implications for long-term soundness. Is it biodynamics that prevent wild horses getting any bigger? Is it complications foaling? Does it have to do with the volume of calories required to sustain a larger horse in an environment with limited resources? Is it a combination of those things? I don't know the answer, but either way, horses over 15hh, do not naturally prosper long-term.

The feral horses in Central Australia that we saw were all around 13-14hh. These horses pictured were on uninhabited Aboriginal Land, and this was likely their first encounter with humans.

The implication here is that larger horses are more likely to become unsound over time. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try to intervene, but it's important to understand that height, as well as a range of other characteristics that we have bred for, don't occur in nature, make long-term soundness more challenging. This is more about expectations.

There are no tall, heavy-horse crosses galloping distances over large, fixed obstacles, voluntarily, in the wild.

Yes, many domestic horses love to do that, but when they inevitably break down, that is not the fault of your vet or farrier, or dentist, masseur, or other equine service provider. Horses - even little ones, are simply not designed to do that forever.

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