Two Year Anniversary in “Founder Valley”
The latest contribution from our friend Joe Camp.
Horses eat grass.
They are genetically programmed to eat grass. 18-20 hours a day. Their bodies must have it. Their hind gut must have it. But from the moment we landed in middle Tennessee, the warnings began to pour in from the locals.
Your horses cannot be out 24/7 on the rich sugary grasses of middle Tennessee.
You’ve just moved into Founder Valley!
It freaked us out. Could grasses be that different?
Why? What the heck was going on in middle Tennessee?? It was all prying at the edges of logic.
We were determined to have our horses live like God and Mother Nature intended. But what we were being told was scary, and didn’t make sense.
Images from Ginger Kathrens’ wonderful PBS documentary series about the wild stallion Cloud and his herd in the Pryor Mountains of Montana came to mind (I’ve watched Episode 3 maybe 25 times. It is singularly the best film I’ve ever seen about wild horses).
The images that were assaulting me were of the beautiful rich green meadow at the top of the mountain where the herds spend every waking hour from mid-Spring through mid-fall. So why aren’t those horses foundering, I kept asking myself. How is that meadow different from the pastures in middle Tennessee?
As it turns out it’s very different from the pastures in middle Tennessee. Astoundingly so.
Because of us!
The entire last half of The Soul of a Horse Blogged – The Journey Continues and our new Horses Were Born To Be on Grass tells the whole story … but here’s the Sparks Notes version :).
What we discovered is that most of these gorgeous white-fenced pastures around us contain a single species of genetically modified cool season grass, planted like a thick carpet and fertilized like crazy. Nary a weed, or bush, or bramble, or berry. And if there’s a tree around, it’s always fenced.
So? I bet it’s beautiful.
To the human maybe. Not to the horses.
It turns out that choices are the single most important piece of the puzzle. When a horse has all the choices he or she might want or need their genetic makeup inherently knows how to balance itself. Like the wild horses do. And we now know that every horse on the planet, both wild and domestic, are genetically precisely the same.
But most of the pastures here in “Founder Valley” offer no choices.
The horses’ only option is one species of cool season grass (like fescue, orchard, etc) which has way more sugar than warm season grasses (like Bermuda, Dallis grass, etc) because cool season grasses generate fructan. Warm season grasses do not. A warm season grass will manufacture starch but when the gland storing the starch is full the process stops. Fructan in cool season grasses is manufactured indefinitely as long as there is sunshine.
Also pasture owners usually opt for a grass that has been genetically modified to grow earlier in the Spring and later in the fall to reduce the amount of hay fed during the winter. And according to researcher Katy Watts genetically modified grasses are always higher in sugar content than the same grass not genetically modified.
When the grass is tightly planted like a lawn the horses have to move substantially less to eat, and horses are genetically designed to move 8-20 miles a day. They need this movement for their body to function properly, both inside and out. In the wild horse meadows the grasses are patchy and scattered.
So far then the Tennessee horses are usually ingesting way more sugar with less movement than a wild horse on that meadow atop the Pryor Mountains in Montana who has many choices to balance his intake.
Then add the chemical fertilizers in Tennessee which of course don’t exist in the wild. When grass is stressed and needing water it sucks up potassium which acts as a magnet for attracting water. Potassium is the number one ingredient in most chemical fertilizers so during a period of stress on the grass a horse can wind up with up to 1000 times more potassium in his body than he needs. Not good.
And because there are no weeds, or brambles, or berries, or trees, or bushes in these Tennessee pastures, the horse has no choice but to eat what’s there, or go hungry.
Is it any wonder it’s called Founder Valley?
But we didn’t know any of this when we purchased our new place. Thankfully there is a God who takes care of us even when we don’t know we need taking care of.
As we peeled back the layers of research we discovered our new pasture contained at least seven different kinds of native grasses that are split fairly evenly between high-sugar cool season grasses and low-sugar warm-season grasses now that we’ve added a bit of Bermuda to the mix. There are plenty of weeds, brambles, bushes, berries, and trees. And there has been no chemical fertilizer on it for at least 9 years. And no chemical pesticides or herbicides (whatever the label says it’s still poison that, over time, will cause problems. Would you ingest it?).
With all these choices the horse’s genetics can function.
When ours have had enough cool season sugary grass they know to switch to Bermuda or Dallis grass. It’s built in. When they need a liver cleanout they eat thistle… Vitamin D, a few blackberries.
If a horse has all the choices he needs or wants he will not eat something that’s bad for him. If he has nothing but a genetically modified, high sugar, cool season grass … he’s going to eat it. And if it’s planted like a carpet, he’s going to move way less while doing so. More sugar per step. A double whammy.
The kind of pasture a horse needs is ugly. Patchy. Some grass here and some grass there. Not a thick carpet. And that ugly pasture needs lots and lots of choices. By the grace of God that’s exactly what we have and exactly how we left it …except for planting a few bags of additional warm season Bermuda grass.
And the big takeaway from all this? Pretty much the same as the rest of our amazing journey: Knowing that when something doesn’t seem logical it probably isn’t. If it doesn’t make sense, it’s probably not right. We need to always question everything. Be our own experts. Gather information and make decisions based upon our knowledge and wisdom that relates to us, our situation, and our horses.
That’s the mindset we started with back in California when we discovered that a horse’s hoof was supposed to flex to create blood circulation in the hoof and there was no flexing with a metal shoe nailed on.
We brought that mindset with us to middle Tennessee.
Our herd of six were virtually maintaining their own feet in their dusty rocky “paddock paradise” in California. Dani Lloyd trimmed every 8-9 weeks, usually doing little more than light maintenance. They were moving 8-9 miles a day on the kind of terrain they were genetically born to live on. The trimming schedule changed in middle Tennessee.
Mark Taylor is now trimming every six weeks and the hoof walls are always a bit long by trim day. We find ways to ensure a lot of movement but the terrain just doesn’t provide the wear and tear that they are genetically designed to get. It takes 5,000 to 10,000 years to even begin to change the base genetics of any species so Mother Nature has no way of knowing our guys are not on Great Basin-like terrain. She is still growing that hoof as if they were. So we have to help them along with the trim, with movement, and with quite a bit of pea gravel in their well-traveled areas like the barn breezeway, the round pen, and around the pond where they drink. And even three to four weeks after a trim, our 24 hooves look for the world like they looked when forged on the southern California high-desert type of terrain.
We were handed yet another lesson this past Spring because like so many humans who are hung up with human concepts we brought the herd through the winter at their normal weight, upping rice bran portions to be sure they didn’t get too “skinny and look unhealthy”. The problem with that contorted logic is that horses in the wild will naturally thin down as winter wears on because the forage is more sparse. And they evolved to do so because bursting into Spring lean and mean so to speak sets them up to better handle those “rich Spring grasses” without gaining too much weight.
We didn’t see this issue the first Spring because the horses had only been here about six months and were apparently still adjusting to the move. But this, their second year, when the Spring grasses began to emerge – cool season higher sugar grasses always emerge before the warm season grasses containing less sugar – the horses all blimped up quite a bit. We missed it in the beginning because we are with them every day so I’m really thankful that Mark Taylor, our hoof specialist, was coming every six weeks. He spotted the extra weight immediately.
Whoa! Why are the horses so fat?
We slowly but methodically cut way back on the rice bran (which is the only weight maintenance supplement they receive).
This fall we let them go into winter with a good weight but at some point we’ll start cutting back on the rice bran – watching and judging as we go – so they’ll hit the Spring grass season nice and lean and be able to handle the higher sugars with less effort. Just like in the wild.
So here we are, marking the two-year anniversary of our guys and gals being out 24/7 on the “rich grasses of middle Tennessee.” Founder Valley as they say. Our herd is a happy, healthy bunch and Kathleen and I are mighty proud parents. And I’m finally a happy camper because Kathleen is now here for good teaching eleventh grade literature at a top college prep school only five minutes from our house while her law license calls sadly from the file cabinet. Which will win? Stay tuned :). All I know for sure is that it was a long two years without her.
When I gave Cash the choice of choice and he chose to trust me he left me with no alternative. No longer could it be what I wanted, but rather what he needed. What fifty-two million years of genetics demanded for his long, healthy, and happy life.
So here we are with six happy, healthy horses, all very well adjusted and loving their natural life as we continue to receive our life lessons from each and every one. We are replenished daily, hourly, by scenes like the ones above and below. On a recent evening Kathleen and I sat on the porch with a glass of wine watching the herd, and talking. “I know in my heart that the philosophy is correct,” she said. “That our horses are living the life they should be living, and because of that they should be able to take care of themselves.” She paused for a moment, then added, “But it surely feels good to see two years come to an end and be able to witness the hard cold proof of it all.” I smiled, teared up a bit, and said simply,
“Thank you God.”
Joe Camp is the author of the national best seller The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd, The Soul of a Horse Blogged – The Journey Continues and his new series of eBook Nuggets from the Soul of a Horse. He is also the creator of the canine superstar Benji and the writer-director of all five Benji movies. For more visit www.thesoulofahorse.com