Don’t Complicate Your Horses’ Lifestyle

by Nikki Alvin-Smith

Through many decades of horse breeding, advanced level horse performance competition and training and worldwide clinician giving, I’ve learned that despite all our best efforts it seems that horses do best with an uncomplicated lifestyle. What do I mean by ‘do best’? Horses seem to stay healthier longer and do better both mentally and physically when they are not over-managed. The proverb: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” could even be applied in some instances I’ve seen during my travels where an over-zealous approach to horse care clearly results in a poor outcome for the animal. 

Most horse aficionados realize that Equus enjoy living in proximity to other members of their genus, and that good gut health and mental well-being can be achieved by allowing the wee critters access to good grazing and granting them freedom of movement. The need for dry forage options as well as grass, hoof and dental management and deworming/vaccination protocols do enter into the equation. Perhaps because I grew up in England, my viewpoint toward the more ‘down-to-earth’ approach in horse care (both figuratively and literally) was heavily influenced by how my horse career began. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by all manner of equestrian activity – from my toddler years sitting on a wall watching the ‘smithy’ that lived and worked at his forge outside his home three doors down at any opportunity, to teenage years living in the rich and verdant Buckinghamshire countryside that was awash with horses and a myriad of riding disciplines. 

Rural life offered a varied experience; horse shows and gymkhanas with my first riding partner, a donkey called Sage who lived until age 38 and riding borrowed neighbor’s ponies; riding prestige Grand Prix showjumpers under the watchful eye of a noted professional (who also trained the New Zealand team in their off-time from The Horse of the Year Show who arrived by helicopter every afternoon); and fitness training high energy foxhunting horses riding them for miles and miles on winding country lanes.

Horses were rarely bathed, grooming was the ‘de rigueur’ method for cleaning a horse and keeping it’s musculature and skin healthy. Hay harvests only happened once a year, when the seed heads were small and fine on the timothy stalks given the weather obliged. All hay bales were small and man-handled. Mother Nature was the only curator of the hay quality, aside from some Spring manure that was spread on the land, the packed mish-mash of bedding leftover from the cattle being kept inside barns during winter months. Amazingly despite the sincere high value of the horses, all were kept outside in a herd set up. If you wanted to ride you set off with your wellies on and navigated the usually muddy gateways to secure your beast that was required for riding and training activities. Admittedly the weather variances in England were not as extreme as I’ve come to know them in the U.S.A., but persistent rain and dampness levelled the playing field a bit regarding tendon/ligament injuries to horses that occurred during workouts or turnout shenanigans due to mud and poor footing, and arthritis was kept at bay mostly by the incessant movement of the horse in the large fields.

As I clambered up the equestrian ladder here in the U.S., and my husband and I (also a Grand Prix rider in dressage) began horse breeding and importation of breeding and performance stock, our attitudes and actions in horse care shifted to a more ‘hot house’ affair. Horses in training were turned out briefly each day and ridden twice or even three times a day for exercise; aside from breeding mares horses were kept in individual paddocks when turned out or hand-grazed in some cases as an alternative. Horse care became an intensive business. 

Various potions were secured to bathe the horses and keep them clean and replace the oils lost in their coats by the frequent washing; all manner of feed supplements found themselves into the feed room carefully lined up on a shelf and sealed, sheltered from heat and individually measured and fed to each equine; the vet was on constant call, proffering services for every field side technology and alternative therapists employed on a regular basis to provide massage and acupuncture treatments and other modalities. But it didn’t stop there. Holistic feeds and supplements were explored as adjunct treatments for perceived horse health and rider issues. Forage quality problems were discovered and attempts made to rectify with more feeding ideas. Sprays for insect control were implemented. Varietal clinics and intensive training retreats both home and abroad were taken throughout the year accessing the renowned masters of equestrian sport. It was a quest indeed.

But then another transition came – one also earnestly sought. The Hudson Valley location was surpassed by the place we now live in the tranquil Catskill Mountains of New York. And with it came a sincere change of heart. For all the efforts to keep our horses calm and collected, fit and well and on the top of their game or reaching their full potential, it seemed for every problem we thought we solved we created another one. We began to acknowledge that a simpler life wasn’t better just for us, but also for our horses. Perhaps it was the rise in popularity and sincere talent showcased by our British colleagues at the Olympic level and the way they kept their horses – or perhaps it was a final understanding of what had been hinted at countless times before during visits with iconic eventers such as Bruce Davidson or Ginny Holgate, or some of the German team members branching out to start keeping their performance horses at pasture. 

Whatever it was it had us pulling shoes off horses and learning how to barefoot hoof trim our equines, joining what was then just one other F.E.I. competitor that we knew of at the time to compete in that level on horses not wearing metal footwear. Our equines were put back together in appropriate herd situations and spent most of their time living outdoors. Footing in horse competition arenas became a hot topic internationally. Soon our field gateways and indoor and outdoor arenas were topped with special products to mitigate any mud issues or roll of material underfoot (though we still stuck with natural based products), and we began to home-produce hay following a Farmer’s Pledge employing organic growing and harvesting methods. And yes, the barrage of media promoting every ‘fix’ piece of horse tack was ignored. Bridlewear and simple bits (which actually we had always embraced), saddles and rider’s kits only contained items that made proper sense for horse and rider comfort. The feed room became less crowded with supplements, and a simple formula for supplementation was adopted based on real science. 

Thankfully the equine feed supplement industry underwent some much-needed changes too with monitoring of quality control and provenance of ingredients becoming possible thanks to the NASC, and supplements became better understood and formulated as a result. This allowed us to approach supplement feeding in a much more targeted manner. This meant we could save money as we came to realize that more was not better and advertising claims became less common. In fact we learned it was not beneficial to our horse program to simply follow the herd, buying highly-publicized brands as ‘leaders’ or go with attestations from people inspired by their high level of exposure to paid pharmaceutical sources, that limited our viewpoint. We could now better rely on our own research and understanding.

Hay and pasture and soils were tested for their bio-diversity and nutritional value. Feed rations for grain were cut down substantially, and a carefully formulated feed supplement was administered as a mineral/vitamin and prebiotic/postbiotic boost for the equines’ microbiome health when necessary. Vaccines were used with a judicial eye, and full-on grooming time and protocols were back instead of bath time except in extremely hot weather. The pure horse breeds we had been registering and developing for over 25 years were shelved for a mixed genetic approach, going from purebred Hanoverians to Dutch/TB/Percheron crosses, and finally Dutch/Andalusian/Lusitano designs. We had gone full circle. Riding/training and producing horses based on their abilities and virtues of the breeds, without prejudice to their brand or flavor. It was how we had begun our riding careers – it was all about the individual horse and the chemistry we could develop.

The take home message from these endeavors for us is clear. Our home-produced (proudly many from birth to Haute Ecole) horses have enjoyed great health and lived long and useful riding careers with minimal interruption of work due to injuries or medical concerns. They have been well-rounded animals that engaged happily with each other and with their human partners, whether on the ground or in the saddle. Willing and compliant, exuberant and happy critters that enjoy living life the way they probably should, as simply as possible. Perhaps that’s a good life lesson for us too.

Sometimes it’s good to step back and take a hard look at what we are doing and why – give it a shot. You may be surprised at what you discover.


About the Author

Nikki Alvin-Smith is a seasoned freelance writer who loves to share her lifelong experience with everything horse, rural lifestyle, and travel. Her works have been printed in more than two hundred fifty equestrian magazines worldwide and her published articles number in the thousands.

A Brit who has called New York home for more than 40 years, Nikki brings a unique perspective to her writing. Her experience as an international level Grand Prix dressage competitor, coach, and worldwide clinician, with a youth spent showjumping and foxhunting, provides lots of educational truths and fun moments to share with the reader. Additionally, she has been a horse breeder and importer of Hanoverian, Dutch and Iberian horses for more than 25 years. Together with her husband Paul Alvin-Smith, who is also a Grand Prix rider, operates Willowview Hill Farm, an organic hay farm and private dressage yard in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York.

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