When we take horses out of the wild and keep them in a domestic setting (whether they were born on the range or in captivity for generations) we are taking away their ability to choose many things. One of those things is what they eat.
Horses in the wild graze over a vast area, where they have access to many different varieties of plants, shrubs, herbs and minerals. They forage throughout the day traveling many miles, eating small quantities and generally not going for long periods without food. When we bring them into a domestic setting we are putting the horses on our clock, feeding meals, giving large quantities of high starch or sugary grains a couple times a day, everything they are not designed to do and above all, we are selecting forages for them – but are we selecting the right ones?
I spent my four year undergrad studying human nutrition. From there I went on to do my graduate degree in equine science at the University of Edinburgh, where one of the components was equine nutrition. I also live on a cattle ranch where we grow all our own forages. We test and fertilize the soils to optimize our forage quality and yield and we feed our stock nothing but the very best. Our horses are on an all-natural, balanced diet, but it wasn’t until this year that I realize, maybe I was missing something.
When I got into Kigers I was fascinated by their thriftiness, their strong hooves and of course their beauty. When I brought my first mare home, I would watch her in the pasture. She would leave the other horses at the hay bale in order to do a crazy yoga stretch under the fence or dig through the snow and ice for a nibble of whatever grass was left. I also noticed how she tended to do poorly on store bought feed; she would get flaky itchy skin, runny eyes and a cresty neck. She wasn’t unique, every Kiger that we have is very similar in that way. They are built for the wild, and sometimes they struggle to adapt to our domestic setting. So over the years I developed a diet for my Kigers using whole, natural ingredients and balanced mineral, free from wheat, corn, soy and sugar. They are happy and it shows in their shiny coats, tough feet, long manes, calm behavior and healthy foals.
The horse hay we grow is in high demand around the county. It’s a timothy grass blend grown on riverside intervale land with beautiful leaf and color, and the horses do well on it. Last year we took on some leased hay land on a mountain that hadn’t been re-planted or fertilized in many years. It was full of old wispy native grass and “weeds”. We made the hay anyway for the cows and planned to replant the field next year into oats.
I had a Kiger over the fall that was being picky about the nice timothy hay so I thought I would give him some cattle hay to see if there was any difference. He loved it. And so did all the other horses. How could they prefer this old “cow hay” to my beautiful rich Timothy?? I started mixing the two hay types together to give them the option. They almost always ate the cow hay first (except the Kiger mares out on pasture, they are still digging through the snow for the last shreds of grass while the hay blows around in the field).
So I had to know. I had both hay samples analysed for nutrients and you can see the results below. Now unless you’re used to reading these reports it may look a little foreign to you. Basically what I want to see is Crude Protein, TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients), ADF (Acid Detergent Fiber) and the mineral content. I was surprised that the old cow hay was higher in protein and over half of the minerals they tested for! This old land, mature cut hay with all its “weeds” was not only preferred by the horses, but better for them in a lot of ways! And the horses knew it. What we may call weeds, could provide them with essential nutrients. Just because we don’t grow them on purpose, doesn’t mean they are not good.
I do still think it’s important to feed a balanced daily mineral to make up for some of the deficiencies in our forages (low selenium is a problem in our area), but I am realizing just how important it is to give our horses a variety to choose from. In the book, Alternative and Complimentary Veterinary Medicine by Are Thoresen, it says that a horse should eat at least 30 different botanical species a day to promote immune function. Horses in the wild have been known to eat willow bark for pain relief (which contains a similar active ingredient to aspirin), lick the ground for minerals, and pick at shrubs, “weeds”, barks and herbs for a variety of benefits that we may not even know yet! So why are we feeding them so few varieties? Why do seed companies sell us mixes with 5 or 6 seed varieties for our pastures?
We as owners try to give our horses the best of the best, but we sometimes forget that nature is often best for an animal that is so well suited for the wild. They know more than we think. They have ancient knowledge passed down through generations of ancestors who survived harsh conditions, predators, drought and hard winters, yet still managed to raise a healthy foal each year. Kigers retain much of this knowledge and behavior even through generations of being born in captivity; it seems to be encoded in their genetics somehow. Over generations this knowledge may have gotten diluted in our other domestic breeds, but it is still there. And if we raise them right, allow them to explore when they are young and provide them with an enriched environment to live, we may even learn something from them.
-Kaitlin Winterwind Kigers