There is a great deal to be learned by studying how horses eat and behave in their feral state, how they wear their hooves, etc.. However, that doesn’t mean it should be considered a blueprint for what is ideal.
When an animal is observed in its natural habitat you learn the conditions compatible with survival. Survival is not the same thing as thriving. There is a tendency to glamorize the existence of the feral horse. We have all seen photos of herds on the plains looking vibrant and in good flesh but inevitably these were taken during times when available vegetation was at its peak. The reality is that many foals do not survive their first winter and horses often come off winter range or into collection areas during drives at any time of year in very poor condition.
———————American Mustang on the range in July—————————-
When the Bureau of Land Management rounds up excess horses, there are few that are in physical condition good enough for adoption. They must be dewormed, treated for injuries and fed to achieve a better body condition.
It is also important to realize horses have evolved in a variety of niches, from the American plains to the Shetland Islands, Iceland and even deserts. In all of these areas, the diet is very different. No single one is necessarily better. You need to take the individual into account as well. There is no way you could feed a Quarterhorse the same way as you would feed a Shetland pony.
Despite the wide expanses feral horses travel, parasites are still a major concern. If you look carefully at photos of wild horses, even when in good flesh there is some abdominal distention typical of parasitism and studies of Australian brumbies confirmed high parasite burdens. By contrast, healthy and well fed domesticated adult horses often have very high immunity to parasites because of their robust immune system responses.
Under natural conditions, the feral horse can be freed of their parasite burden if they undergo a period of starvation. This causes parasites in the interior of the intestine to let go and be passed out. Do you really think though that this is superior to keeping the horse at a healthy body condition score and using deworming pastes?
Our job as horse caretakers is to maintain them in the best way possible for their welfare, health, soundness and longevity. This includes incorporating knowledge of their evolution and survival conditions in the wild, but not necessarily glorification of it. We can do better than just survival.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD