Working with horses was not something Melissa Hatalsky saw herself doing on her family’s multigenerational hay farm outside of Sharon Springs. The day Hatalsky’s daughter, Olivia, asked for a horse of her own was the day Hatalksy’s path was forever altered.
The search for a horse lead Hatalsky and her daughter to Scooter, a beautiful nine-year-old Quarter Horse. It didn’t take much for the two to fall in love with the sorrel colored horse with his handsome flaxen mane and deep brown eyes, but there was a catch. The horse was unsound. So much so that euthanasia was being considered. Scooter was suffering with Navicular disease, which had significantly altered the shape of the affected hoof. Rather than walk away, Hatalsky took the horse home.
“I just couldn’t accept that the horse had such a dire future,” said Hatalksy. “To me, he wasn’t a broken horse; he was a magnificent being worthy of help, and I refused to give up on him.”
Fortunately, Hatalsky knew of Geri White, a certified barefoot physiological trimmer. It was White, who directed Hatalsky to the work of Jamie Jackson, author of Paddock Paradise.
Jackson spent months studying horses in the wild and made some discoveries that contradicted the conventional assertions made about horses by humans. He discovered that, in the wild, horses form paths along which they travel for miles each day, traversing varied terrain while continually grazing and socializing within the herd. While health and soundness issues like Navicular disease can occur in the wild, horses are generally in excellent health with little to no hoof-related or digestive issues. Pressure on these wild horses is largely predatory or weather-related.
Hatalsky learned through White and Jackson’s work that what Scooter required wasn’t conventional stall or paddock time; what he needed was an entirely new system that nurtured his natural instincts and encouraged movement.
Not your average pasture turnout
“This is not simply pasture turnout,” Hatalsky said. “Our horse environment is built on multiple levels that are woven together by ample lane-ways or tracks. Food, water, minerals, and shelter are carefully positioned throughout the entire living area. This stimulates and encourages freedom of movement over a variety of surfaces including dirt, sand, gravel, mud, and rocks, and through terrains that encompass meadows, streams, hills, valleys, and wooded areas,” she continued. “This gives them unlimited access to forage, water, and shelter, and they have safe areas to roll, nap and play.”
As a result, horses are less stressed and more social. And, said Hatalsky, “Herd socialization improves behavior problems brought on by limited contact with other horses and lengthy stall time. All of their needs are met 24-hours a day, delivered in a way that allows free choice and freedom of movement.”
Hatalsky utilizes feed bags that hang from posts or trees along the entire track mimicking natural grazing and allowing for additional grazing of grasses and other forage along the trail. This encourages the horses to move as instinct would direct, which, according to Hatalsky, improves digestion and eliminates many of the food or stress related issues like colic people often see in horses.
The paddock system “track” is a wide path that does not make horses feel closed in, and threaded throughout the system are open “social” areas, where the horses can rest. Some of these open areas are under the canopy of the forest, an area the horses seek out in the heat of the day, or open pasture, where they may freely graze.
“You get a horse that is more fit, with better hoof quality and overall health,” she said.
While any long-time horse person might gasp at the bare roots in the forested area or the large rocks the horses traverse at the stream, Hatalsky said the horses develop strong core muscle groups and sure footing, largely due to the varying slopes and uneven terrain common in the wild.
“Horses are actually very sure-footed in the wild,” Hatalsky explained.
The system encourages movement and that movement encourages horses to behave much as they would in the wild, including grazing habits.
At one site along the trail, the horses have unfettered access to a small pasture, but the pasture looks largely untouched. “The horses have developed their own rotational grazing schedule,” explained Hatalsky. “We see them up here about every three days or so.”
Balancing natural and conventional
While the paddock system Hatalsky employs greatly reduces health issues among the herd, she said it is not a cure-all and that she does rely on conventional veterinary care when and if necessary. “It’s about quality of life,” Hatalsky stressed. “Any time you’re involved taking care of responsible for this many horses or your own horse, you should have a talk with your vet and ask what tools can I have here on hand in an emergency situation and your vet will work with you.”
“While I do believe in a lot of natural methods; while I’m a huge supporter of erring on the side of doing everything in my power to do what’s natural, that doesn’t mean I ignore modern science or medicine,” explained Hatalsky. “I believe it’s my responsibility to take a balanced approach.”
Hatalsky said all you need to utilize this form of track system is critical thinking and minimal fencing. Even the small farm with a few acres can still apply the techniques developed by people like Jackson, White, and Hatalsky.
“For some horses, this is the first time they have had the ability to freely move and make choices as part of a social group. It sounds so simple, but it’s actually quite profound,” said Hatalsky. “Paddock paradise is scalable for any size property. All that is required is your imagination. The horses will explain the rest.”