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08-meet-their-needsTo be successful with straightness training we have to meet the instinctual needs of our horse first.

Given their characteristics, horses have a number of needs. These are the need for:

  • Certainty and safety, because the horse is a prey animal with a flight instinct
  • Routine, because the horse is a creature of habit, so they appreciate a regular routine of eating, resting, grooming etc
  • Grass and roughage, because horses are herbivores
  • To eat small amounts throughout the day, because with a full belly it’s not easy to flee
  • Variety, because it’s boring and frustrating to be 23 hours in a stable
  • Constant movement, because horses are steppe animals
  • Connection with other horses, because they are social animals
  • The nead for leadership, because they are herd animals and like to follow a confident leader

Limitation of horse needs

Understanding how horses behave in nature can help us to better fulfill their needs. In the domesticated world, most horses are limited in their ability to fulfill their natural horse needs because of the way they are kept.

This overview displays the differences between how horses live in the wild and domesticated horses:

Collecting food Horses spend 60% of their time on feeding (14 to 15 hours per day). This leads to 55,000 chewing movements. Sometimes horses spend 2 x 5 minutes eating pellets and 3x 1 hour eating hay. This leads to 7,000 to 10,000 chewing movements.
Amount of food Little bits throughout the day 3 times a day a lot at one time
Movement 5 to 10 km spread over the whole day Sometimes only 1 hour a day
Rest 30% of their time (7 hours per day). The horse can lay five minutes per day completely flat out Sometimes 23 hours in the stall. Laying down completely is sometimes not possible at all
Social contact A lot of contact with other horses. Sometimes the only contact is with humans. Many horses (especially stallions) are kept alone in the pasture and alone in the stable.
Foals Foals spend half of their time playing with other foals.Weaning: Separation at 9 months. Sometimes the foal’s only companion in the pasture is the mother. Weaning: Separation at 4 months.
Young horses Living together with other horses. Developing friendships. Education provided by counterparts. Behavioral rules, learning horse language. Developing social skills. Sometimes alone or with only one other horse. Often in a socially inadequate living environment. Education provided by human.
Young adults Stallion: bachelor band. Mare: first foal when she is 5 years old. Stallion: often castrated. Mare: frustrated oestrous cycle
Protection Coat, strong legs, good natural immunity. Less immunity, often ill because of the stable climate; too humid, too dark, too dusty, blankets and bandages.
Grooming Mutual care. Rolling. Humans brush the horse. Rolling sometimes not possible.
Hooves Hooves wear out naturally. Farrier takes care of trimming the hooves. Because the horse is not able to move sufficiently in a stable which is too dry or too wet, hoof and leg problems can develop.

.Herd Horse sleeping

Problems by not fulfilling the natural horse needs

By not fulfilling the natural needs of the domesticated horse, physical and psychological problems can arise:

  • Stereotypical behaviors, such as weaving, cribbing, wind sucking, scraping against bars, kicking doors and self-mutilation (biting themselves) are the result of boredom, frustration and stress.

This is not a part of natural behavior, but rather is aberrant behavior.

The horse does not see this is not a problem behavior, but a way of dealing with the stress.

Each time the horse performs one of these stereotypical behaviors, it will receive a hit of endorphin, which causes the horse to feel better. Endorphin is a natural hormone which the body produces; it works as a tranquilizer and sedative and is addictive.

By removing the horse’s ability to perform these stereotypical behaviors (cribbing collars etc) you will only create more stress for the horse, because not only has the original cause not been resolved, you’ve also removed the horse’s coping mechanism.

  • Horse behaviourExaggerated behaviours such as box walking, scraping, pawing, head weaving, making funny faces, lower lip movements, excessive drinking are also behaviors resulting from boredom, frustration and stress.

These behaviours are natural behaviors, but when performed excessively and in the wrong context can show a problem.

  • The immunity of the horse reduces when the stall climate is too hot, too wet, too dark or too dusty. This causes the horse to become more susceptible to illness.
  • Stomach ulcers occur when the horse’s intake of forage is limited. He does not chew enough and therefore does not produce enough saliva. Saliva neutralizes the acid that is constantly produced in the stomach. 25% of foals have stomach ulcers. Crib biting is common in horses with stomach ulcers because this provides stimulation for the salivary flow.
  • Eating soil due to lack of minerals (copper and iron). This is more common in the spring time.
  • Horse leg protectors Horse leg protectors injuriesHoof and leg problems can arise when the movement mechanism in the body is not sufficiently activated, or the stall is too wet or too dry, or leg protectors are misused.
  • Dominance problems can occur by inconsistencies on the part of the human and by lack of guidance, so the horse becomes the boss of the rider.
  • Trainings problems can be caused by stabling 23 hours a day. After spending 23 hours with no external stimulus, the horse gets suddenly exposed to a totally different environment.

Therefore he can become spooky and easily frightened.

All the energy he has accumulated over these 23 hours of confinement can come out. You should not be surprised if he occasionally gallops around on the longe.

It’s not an ideal situation to allow a horse to spend 23 hours a day confined in a stall. And it is not a good basis from which to create a healthy equine athlete.

7 Tips to avoid problems

By taking care to fulfill the natural needs of the horse as much as possible, we give the horse the best chance of staying psychological fit, happy and cheerful. By responding to the needs of the horse we can prevent frustration, boredom and stress! Here are some tips to avoid problems:

  • Horse grazingTip #1. Provide grass & roughage. Sufficient grass and roughage ensures a good digestion, and can protect against colic. Due to the large amount of saliva that the horse produces, the digestion works much better and the chances of colic and stomach ulcers are decreased. It is also recommended that you provide the horse with forage an hour prior to giving concentrated food. This allows for better digestion and increased ability to absorb minerals and vitamins.
  • Tip #2. Provide good housing. Ideally a horse should be able to live outside in a herd environment 24/7. Various types of housing are increasingly playing a role in catering to the natural needs of the horse, such as ‘Active Stables’ and the ‘Paddock Paradise’ setup.
  • Tip #3. Make it comfortable for your horse. If your horse has to spend time in a stable make it comfortable. Provide a situation where he can make physical contact with other horses is ideal. The stall should not be too small and the horse has be able to lie completely stretched out. Make sure that there is adequate ventilation. An open stable is more suitable, because the horse can move more. Make sure that your horse can stretch his legs several hours a day and that he can roll in a paddock or pasture every day. If your horse is turned out every day, you do not have to worry that your horse will run wild or play wild and injure himself. Horses that only come out once a week or have not been out for some time will be far more likely to harm themselves through over exuberance. Most horses will behave calmly in the pasture when they come out daily.
  • Horses playingTip #4. Provide social contact. Social contact with counterparts in the pasture or paddock is very important. Even if you have a stallion or a valuable sport horse, he can find companionship in a Shetland pony. A Shetland can not do much harm. Make sure you create an area where the Shetland can squeeze underneath the fence and the stallion can’t, this way the Shetland pony has always a safe area. If you fulfill the needs of the ‘animal’ and ‘horse’ first, you can avoid problem behaviors related to stallions.
  • Tip #5. Do not start weaning too early. Let your young horse spend as much time as possible in a herd situation and let him just be a horse for as long as possible.
  • Tip #6. Have a consistent routine. If you usually bring your horse in from the pasture at 6pm, and one day don’t arrive until 10pm, this can cause stress. Feed regularly and at set times.
  • Tip #7. Be a leader. Be a clear, calm, confident and consistent coach in dealing and communicating with your horse and fulfill his needs.

Never work against ‘Mother Nature’, only with!

The more you will fulfill the natural needs of your horse, the better you will be able to connect with your horse, and the more smoothly the Straightness Training proces will go!

You only succeed with Straightness Training when you work with ‘Mother Nature’.

Do you have an experience you’d like to share? We’d love to hear your story. Just add it in the comment area below.

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12 thoughts on “Needs

Comment author said

By Nina Ekholm Fry on 17 July 2013 at 00:53

I very much appreciate what you are bringing up in this article. Understanding the horse as the species it is and exercising our responsibility as keepers of horses to do what we can to make them comfortable in the settings we present to them as ‘home’, is of utmost importance. Creating an environment where the horse can predict happenings in its environment, and have a chance to control outcomes of demands are central tenets of animal(equine) welfare considerations.

I lead a program where graduate students and professionals in the field of psychotherapy become trained to provide therapy services together with a horse, and what they are required to learn (which mirrors your article) is the following:

Strategies for Improving Equine Welfare

Increasing opportunities for:
*species-specific behaviors
*frequent eating behavior
*social interaction
*synchronization of behaviors with other equines
*clear and positive (predictable, consistent) human interactions

*relevant environmental enrichment
*comfortable resting areas
*housing that allows for increased frequency of species-specific behaviors
*health care plan (and following it!)

*competition over resources
*ill-fitting tack (causing discomfort or pain)
*locomotory frustration
*unskilled daily handlers
*horse and programming mismatch

Thank you again for addressing this crucially important topic.

Nina Ekholm Fry


Comment author said

By Alison on 17 July 2013 at 13:10

Fantastic Nina.
Some additional thoughts – Hi. This article is great and I endeavour to include most of it in my herd who live out together 24/7 and together are bringing up our foal who was born in the herd. Each horse has his/her role in Segura’s education and allow her different interactions as she earns her place and grows up.
I have one thing though that I am concerned about and that is your comment about routine. I think horses actually thrive on variety, after all that is how it is in the wild – they eat when the right food is available not because of the time. Also I feel that having horses must not become a stress and chore, as then our interactions with them can become of poorer quality. Thus mine always (day and night) have access to hay in the yard and around the hard track, are out on the field /grass track at night (when sugar levels in grass are lower) but with access back to the yard and have their mineral feeds when it fits in for me. This way I find that stress levels are low as expectations have not been created.
Just some thoughts. Alison (of ‘Mirrored by Horses’).


Comment author said

By Dawn S. on 17 July 2013 at 18:56

Very good article! It is very important to have your horses basic needs met to keep them physically, spiritually, and mentally healthy. I do agree Allison, that a horses routine have a little more variety, especially at feeding time. If the horse can graze and move about freely in a pasture full of friends and get fed necessary feed, hay and or supplments different times a day, I feel that’s best. I have seen horses on a strict feeding routine actually colic if they were fed late and I have seen many become very stressed if their food is late. But in a case that the horse is stalled or can’t have grass, a stricter routine would be best. Because then they are depending strictly on you to provide them their nourishment. I loved the article and the discussions afterward!


Comment author said

By HENRICHS Frédérique on 17 July 2013 at 19:25

Totalement d’accord avec cet article !
J’ai la chance de travailler un étalon reproducteur, pur-sang arabe, et il est totalement équilibré car ses besoins naturels de base sont satisfaits : il vit au pré avec ses juments et ses poulains. Un pur plaisir de le voir vivre “presque” comme dans la nature !!!


Comment author said

By Nic on 23 September 2015 at 14:53

I’d like to know more about “Active Stables” and “Paradise Paddocks” please.


Comment author said

By Alisha on 1 December 2015 at 00:46

Nic just google paddock paradise there’s heaps of info about it.
You don’t need to spend a lot to start with just create a track around the outside of your existing field, this will get them moving as a heard then add the other bits (eg gravel tracks) as you can afford. Make sure they have a few open areas to relax in too.
Then you can get hay off the centre of your field. 🙂
My guys move heaps more now they do laps.
Hope that helps.


Comment author said

By Nichola on 5 March 2016 at 15:52

I love this article as I am a huge believer that horses should be out 24/7. Mine have stables and field shelters so can be in or out as they please. We already have 2 geldings but last week got another horse- a mare. I have put her in her own paddock, sectioned off from the geldings by electric fence. What are your thoughts on having all 3 horses in the same field eventually? 1 of the geldings is quite dominant.


Comment author said

By Crystal on 12 April 2017 at 08:52

Interesting how herd interactions change when you have mixed herds (mares and geldings) as opposed to separating them. All the places I have grazed my mare over the past ten years we have had mixed herds, except one, and I noticed than when separate the mares hormonal cycles were much more up and down and there was a lot more ‘mareish’ behavior, and the geldings had a lot more squabbles within their herd as well. When you mix them together, everything seems to settle down and find a more natural balance.


Comment author said

By Rowena Hall on 11 March 2016 at 18:11

Really great article and totally agree with aspiring to create as natural an environment and life for horses as far as possibly we can. My mare is out daily, even in the worst weather, though has a good Field Shelter and rugs so can get out of it. Stabled, nights only, roughly 4 months in the winter. I do keep her in a routine, which she seems content with. She is fed a lot of roughage, with grass daily all year round, but mainly hay or haylage nights, to stretch the grass out.
The one ‘need’ I am concerned that I do not provide for her though, is another equine for company. I have had her for 2.5 years and she can be spooky and frightened sometimes, so I understand she can feel vulnerable on her own sometimes. However I tend to her at least 3 times daily and spend a lot of time grooming, riding and caring for her.
I only have an acre and a half and manage this carefully with strip grazing all year around. If I acquired a Shetland or similar, I worry I could not provide sufficient grazing and the pony would ‘go under’ all my fencing laid out!
I wonder if I did look for a pony, whether if I gave it a couple of small ‘fenced’ off areas right beside my horse’s grazing, so separated by a small fence, but able to be close, would this be sufficient, or maybe cause a problem for both horse and pony by the fence separation?
I would also need to add a second small stable for the winter night stabling time.
If this is a better way to ensure my horse (and pony of course) is happy for the social contact, then I would appreciate your advice.
My mare is 14.2 Irish Cob lightweight and now just turned 8 years, and is very quiet and relaxed when stabled by the way.
Kind regards,


Comment author said

By Danny on 3 May 2016 at 06:02

It would be so nice to be able to have grass and appropriate shelter. I had a horse 4 months and I spend a lot of time with it. Training Liberty since the beginning. But alas…I have already switched 4 facilities looking for a place that would understand the needs of the horse but none has adequate facility. Grass is either overgrazed or non existent and other owners do not want to share paddocks or allow horses to be together. I live in Ireland which is wet and cold and being able to find a place that allows proper horse care is really difficult. I do not have the financial resources for a facility of my own and there are no more places available close to me where I can keep my horse……I am not riding her yet (6 year old mare) but I am at an impass because of facilities…I take her grazing by the side of the road for hours when I can, at 4 am before work and at night after work but it is taking a toll on me…


Comment author said

By Skylar Williams on 5 November 2019 at 18:39

I appreciate your tip to provide good housing for your horse such as active stables or in a herd environment. My wife and I just bought a farm and we need to erect a shelter for our horses. I’ll remember that it needs to cater to the needs of the horse.


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