Do Horses Have Emotional Lives?

When I got back into horses as an adult, I volunteered for several years at an equine therapy program for at-risk youth and teens in drug and alcohol recovery.  The horses did a great job helping these kids learn how to make positive, healthy choices in their lives.

The horses were so good at it that I didn’t realize they had emotional needs themselves.  Yes, they had their basic physical needs met, like shelter, food and water, and they had some emotional needs met in that they lived in a herd and were not confined to a stall.  But I had no idea they had an emotional life of just being a horse that had nothing to do with the people they were helping.

When I took in Chaco, my first senior horse retiring from therapy work, he was burned out.  How did I know he was burned out?  He had always been a hard keeper, but it started to get even more difficult for him to maintain his weight.  But even more than that, he was also a docile horse that never bit or kicked.  When he started a pattern of biting people, that is when we knew he was burned out.

Knowing that physical and emotional needs are intertwined, I began with revamping his diet to optimize his nutrition on the physical side.  To attend to his emotional needs, I put him on acreage with space to move day and night in a herd.

As he became healthy and his curiosity returned, I realized that there was much more to his emotional life.  In his state of new health, I now had something to compare to when he had an off day.  If his demeanor was different on a particular day, I could look around and consider what changed in his environment that might affect him.

When one of his pasture mates died a few years later, his demeanor was visibly different for 2 weeks.  It was then that I realized this was an emotional issue, and it was on a scale I had never witnessed before in a horse.

This experience introduced me to flower essences  While his demeanor over the first week improved with the help of flower essences, he still wasn’t quite his usual self.

I tried to think of who might be able to lift his spirits.  My sister came to mind.  The first time they had met, they instantly hit it off.

When she came and spent the day with him, his eyes brightened and his curiosity returned.  It was a positive turning point for him in processing the loss of his horse friend.

The emotional lives of horses.  If it still seems outside your experience, spend time watching them and being around them where they are free to be themselves and you are not asking anything of them.

After years of observing and comparing different experiences, I can say that I have seen JOY in Chaco.  I have seen GRIEF in Chaco.  I have seen SADNESS in Chaco.  I have seen EXCITEMENT in Chaco.  I have seen FEAR in Chaco.  I have seen PANIC in Chaco.  I have seen ASTONISHMENT in Chaco.  I have seen APPRECIATION in Chaco.  I have seen CONTENTMENT in Chaco.

Today, if someone asked me if horses have emotional lives, I would say “Yes, absolutely, and it has much more depth than we realize.”

I’m sure there is still more to Chaco’s life as a horse that I will come to understand over time.  It’s like a great mystery novel.  I can’t put this book down.  It keeps getting better with every page turn.



Holistic Horse Management

Here at God’s Window, our goal is facilitating optimal health in the senior horses we care for. Much of what we do is based on the nature of horses, rather than conventional management practices.

Wild horses live in a herd in a large amount of space. They are barefoot. They don’t have blankets, yet they know where they can seek shelter from the elements. They spend their day foraging for food.

While the reality is that the senior horses in our care are in domestication, the more we can create as natural of an environment for them as possible, the healthier they will be, and the less we will need to manage them.

We have had great success restoring the health of aging senior horses by creating the following environment for them:

They live in a herd on acreage. They are barefoot. They don’t need blankets, but they do have shelter that they can choose to use when they want. They have access to food at all times. They have a plant based diet, and do not need grain.

I encourage you to find ways to optimize you own horse’s environment. It will support their long-term health and well-being, and you will have more years to enjoy them.

If you haven’t seen wild horses in action, check out Ginger Kathrens multiple documentaries on the lives of wild horses. It is an eye-opening experience.

Underweight Horses

As horses age, so do their needs. What once worked well, may not work anymore. You may be feeding the same as you always have, but suddenly your senior horse isn’t maintaining his weight. Winter is coming and you don’t know if he’ll make it through. Assuming nothing is medically wrong, what can you do?

Horses can consume 1 ½ % – 2% of their body weight per day in forage. For a 1000 lb. horse that’s 15-20 pounds of hay/pasture per day. If your horse is underweight, weigh his hay and make sure he is consuming enough. Sometimes an underweight horse is just not eating enough hay.

If your horse lives in a herd, you may need to separate him at feeding time so you can monitor how much hay he is eating.

In addition, consider high quality hay for your senior horse. As they age, they don’t have the same wiggle room they had when they were younger.

One senior horse I have came to me with his ribs beginning to show. I took him off all grain, and put him on 20 pounds of high quality hay per day. (He is 1100 lbs.) It’s been several years now, and he has been able to maintain his weight on hay and pasture alone.

Another senior horse I have can no longer chew hay, so he gets soaked hay pellets. Again, I feed him 15 pounds of pellets per day. (He is 1000 lbs.). He also maintains his weight well.

While there are other ways to help a horse put on weight, I prefer to start with high quality forage at 1 ½ – 2 % of their body weight. Once this need is met, it’s amazing to see how senior horses respond. Sometimes that’s all they needed.

The Power of Nutrition

Nutrition is the cornerstone of a healthy horse of any age.  This is particularly true of senior horses.  Without good nutrition, senior horses simply don’t live as long nor as vibrantly.  Here at God’s Window we want senior horses to thrive in their golden years.  It all begins with the best forage and nutrition.

Veterinarian, Dr. Doug Herthal also sees the relationship between nutrition and healing in horses and developed Platinum Performance to address the nutritional needs of horses.

Click here to read an interview with Platinum Performance founder, Dr. Doug Herthal.

Grazing Walks

A horse’s digestive system was designed to eat a steady trickle of a variety of plants throughout the day. In modern horsekeeping it can be difficult to provide the same level of variety that a wild horse may see.

Consider taking your horse for grazing walks through the woods. You’ll be amazed at the variety of plants your horse will eat. Soon you’ll begin to be able to identify which plants your horse eats and which ones he doesn’t. This can give you insight into how he feels that day and what he needs.

When my second horse, Thunder first came, he ate every dandelion in sight on our walks through the woods. I researched dandelion, and it turned out it was a liver detoxifier. Given Thunder’s history,  it didn’t surprise me that he sought out dandelions. In the early days of his rehab I made a point to make sure he had his 10-15 minutes of dandelions several times each week.

Meanwhile, over the years I’ve noticed that my first horse, Chaco, will eat horsetail in small quantities. Horsetail is mildly toxic, and the vet said just don’t let him eat pounds of eat per day, but a few plants shouldn’t hurt. She also said it is rich in minerals and mildly anti-inflammatory. Another plant manual I read said it helps with connective tissue.

Our horses can’t speak to us in words, but they do speak to us all the time through their actions. It’s like decoding a mystery. The more time you spend with your horses and witness the decisions they make, the more the mystery of who they are unfolds before you.

Try a grazing walk through the woods with your horse. I’d love to hear what you learn.

Thunder and Chaco enjoying their grazing walk through the woods.


Problems? Change the Environment

Cell biologist, Bruce Lipton, writes about what one of his professors in graduate school taught him regarding studying cells: If the cell isn’t doing well, change the environment.  He saw this statement play out on a regular basis in his study of cells. 1

The same can be said of horses. If your horse is not thriving, look at their environment. What are they eating? Where do they live? How much movement do they have? What is their social environment? What stressors are they exposed to? All of these factors and more will affect their well-being and long-term health.

Here at God’s Window we answer each of those questions with only one goal in mind: What do our horses need to thrive?

It’s amazing how healthy senior horses can be when their needs are met in the right environment.  Try it with your own horses. They just may surprise you.

1 The Biology of Belief, by Bruce Lipton

Sample Diet

“Nutrition plays a role in every equine health condition, and the horse’s diet can either support or hinder healing and inflammation.”  – Dr. Doug Herthel, founder of Platinum Performance

My first senior horse, Chaco, came to me cribbing constantly and underweight. He had a history of difficulty keeping weight on.  I knew a good diet was critical to having a chance at the cribbing going away and him being able to maintain his weight.

My first horse the day I picked him up. 26 years old.
My first horse the day I picked him up. 26 years old.

Here’s his daily diet before I owned him:

1. 3 scoops of soaked beat pulp
2. 1 scoop of soaked alfalfa cubes
3. A few scoops of senior horse feed
4. Local western Washington hay
5. Some pasture turnout in summer

Here’s his daily diet I switched him to when I got him:

1. 20 lbs. timothy/orchard grass mix hay (from eastern Washington)
2. 2 lbs. eastern Washington alfalfa hay
3. 24/7 pasture turnout
4. Mineral supplement
5. Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation during the non-growing season


Six years in to his new diet. Age 32.


*I got rid of the local western Washington hay. It had a poor nutritional profile.

*I got rid of the senior horse feed. It was grain based. Not only did grain cause Chaco to crib, but grain is related to numerous health disorders in horses.

*I got rid of the beat pulp. While beat pulp can be a source of fiber, I wanted to see if just feeding him high quality hay would take care of his nutritional needs.  (It did).

*I added a powdered mineral supplement to balance the nutritional profile of the hay.

*I supplemented omega 3 fatty acids in the non-growing season.  During the growing season, grass has omega 3 fatty acids. If the horse doesn’t have grass, then supplement the omega 3 fatty acids.  Sunflower seeds, ground flax seed, flax oil or hemp oil all have omega 3 fatty acids.

Today, his constant cribbing has stopped.  He can maintain his weight on hay and pasture alone.  And an added bonus is his silky soft coat. It is so soft and luxurious I can’t get enough of it. What’s the secret? The diet.

Are you having health problems with your own horse?  Take a close look at the diet. Good nutrition will only support your horse’s overall health.


Skin and Coat Issues

A bare spot covering half of his ear, a winter coat that shed leaving bare spots of skin because the summer coat was slow to come in. My first year of horse ownership was full of surprises. I had know this 26 year-old gelding for several years before I owned him, and I didn’t recall these odd skin and coat issues.


Bare spot on ear.
Summer coat slow to come in behind shedding winter coat.





Moth-eaten appearance around head.



My holistic vet assured me to not read too much into these coat issues because I had just dramatically improved his diet, changed his environment to a herd on acreage, and gave him regular exercise. For the first time in a long time this horse’s needs were put first and being met. With those changes alone, his body needed time to adjust and respond to the improvements. It’s also not uncommon for a body to unwind old patterns before making new ones.

She suggested I let a full year play out and see if the bare spot on his ear goes away on its own, and if he sheds more normally next spring. In addition, other than his moth-eaten appearance, he seemed to be in good health. His eyes were bright. He had energy, and got along well with his pasture mate.

Sure enough, the following spring he shed normally. The summer coat was right behind the winter coat as it shed. The following winter the bare spot on his ear completely filled in and was normal.

No more bare spot on ear two winters later.
No more bare spot on his ear the following winter.

Does your horse have odd skin and coat issues going on? If so, for a long-term solution, look at the quality of the diet first, along with the environment he lives in and the exercise he gets. All of these areas contribute to the overall health of a horse. If any of these areas are lacking, it’s not uncommon for skin and coat issues to show up.

How do you know for sure if that’s the cause? You don’t, until you make the changes and then see what happens over the course of the next 1-2 years. If the problem is still there, then something else is going on. However, as in the case of my first horse, a year later the skin problems were gone, and all I had changed was his diet, along with environment and exercise.

Like anything worthwhile, there are no short-cuts. It is an investment of time and money. When your horse feels better and better as he ages, and you both are still around to enjoy each other’s company, it’s worth every penny.  Take a chance. Invest in a high quality diet for your horse.  Evaluate his living environment and exercise.  You only have something wonderful to gain.

Nutrition and Vet Bills

Nutrition is the cornerstone of rehabbing a senior horse.  Without proper nutrition, all the other work you may do will not be nearly as effective.

Several years ago, I started rehabbing senior horses with one horse who was a hard keeper.  My intention was to bring about a fully alive, thriving senior horse.  I started with evaluating his diet.

I decided to feed him the highest quality hay I could find, and not skimp.  Yes, it was more expensive, but I wanted to give him the best diet possible, so I might just have a chance at improving his health and well-being in his golden years.

That first year I owned him, I had $1000 in vet bills.  I still stuck with my plan of feeding him the best diet possible, with the cornerstone being high quality eastern Washington hay and a mineral supplement to balance the nutritional profile of the hay.  Six years later, I haven’t had any vet bills since that first year, other than routine maintenance.  My horse feels great, is thriving, and is going on 33 years old.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.

The better food you feed your horse, the better your horse can maintain itself and the lower the vet bills will be.  I figure I’m going to spend money somewhere.  I’d rather have it be on high quality hay.

Curing the Cribbing Horse – Clue #5

After our first trip to eastern Washington the previous summer, my horse, Chaco and I visited the same place again a year later.  This time I had learned a new way to trim his feet that did not cause him pain.  I was looking forward to two weeks of no cribbing.

A few days into our trip he started cribbing.   I hadn’t trimmed his feet, so I knew that wasn’t the cause, but two days earlier we had opened the gate to another field.  I asked the owner, what was growing in that field.  The answer was some clover.  I later learned that clover can be high in starch (so can grain), and that causes him to crib.

That same summer the local vet had a record number of founders in horses.  For whatever reason with the weather and the plants, horses were foundering and my horse was cribbing.

Clue #5 – Starch causes Chaco to crib.