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Domesticated Horses

Horses are among the most popular domesticated animals in the lives of humans. We use horses for a variety of tasks, including, transportation, servicing, food, entertainment and even as pets. With a concern for abundance, we can ask ourselves: Are we managing them in a way that is appropriate to the species and not promoting scarcity? And, are we managing them in a way that that promotes genetic diversity and abundance?  

Context Within NORA

Relationships to other needs:

Domesticated horses are found all around the world and they can be used to cater to different human needs.  People around the world, in the past and still today, rely on horses to help them farm their crops to produce food.  Horses are used to help pull plows in order to plant seeds and get farming procedures done. In a related use, horses can be used to drag logs in forestry. 

Horses have also been heavily relied on for mobility.  Before the car became widely available, horses were one of the primary forms of transportation.  In places across the world, people still do rely on horses to get from one place to another. They are still an important way to get around roadless areas.

People who don’t use horses for transportation or utilitarian purposes may keep them as pets.  This fulfills the need for supportive relationships for many people.  Having a loving relationship with a pet can be extremely fulfilling to people and they rely heavily on these relationships day in and day out. Horses may also be kept in order to engage in sports (horse-back riding, racing, dressage, jumping, polo), which can contribute to health (if not taken to extremes).


Relationships to resources:

Horses are living things that have long played a huge role in human development. Horses have been domesticated for thousands of years, and by comparing domesticated horses to wild horses, we can understand the differences between the two living things. As living things, they have their own needs, requiring resources such as clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and food such as grass or hay (living things themselves).  Another resource horses use is land.  Horses can’t remained cooped up and need space to move around in order to stay physically fit.


Relationships to organizational forms:

Horses can be used to transport people and goods, do labor, and to assist in hunting. These activities can enhance the self-provisioning cluster (if done non-commercially for the benefit of the persons using a horse), or for individual sales or committed services or sales (if done in support of a commercial activity, such as showing tourists around a city on a horse-drawn carriage).

The community solidarity cluster is also influenced by domesticated horses. For example, in the Western United States, ranch owners who move cattle sometimes enlist in help from neighbors and friends and their appropriately trained horses.  By helping one another out, this promotes community solidarity.

Domesticated horses, especially in the racing world, create networks.  There is collaboration and competition with partners in racing.  Owners compete with other owners, spectators compete by gambling on the horses, which creates an abundance of networks amongst groups and individuals.  There is also collaboration with the people involved in a racing team.  There is the owner, the jockey, the veterinarian, and anyone else they may come into contact with throughout the day or horse racing season.  All of these people work together to make sure that the horse is receiving the proper care and treatment that it needs to be successful.

Horses are bought and sold, again bringing in individual sales, as well as currencies and markets.


History of Domesticated Horses

The date that horses became a domesticated species is controversial, but many believe it happened around 3000 B.C.  Since the domestication of the horse, selective breeding has resulted in the numerous breeds that we have today. Many people believe that all horses are domesticated, but in fact there are about 28,500 wild horses in the United States, the mustangs (descendants of domesticated horses imported from Europe). We can use the knowledge gained by taking a closer look at the lifestyle of wild horses, in order to improve our handling domesticated horses. In addition, a small, endangered population of Przewalski's horses, wild relatives of the domesticated horse, continue to survive in Mongolia; making inferences from their lifestyles to those of domesticated horses is more difficult, however, because they are genetically more different.


Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity

Management of Domesticated Horses

The management of domesticated horses is a subject of intense research. When people began comparing the lifestyles and health of domesticated horses to wild horses (mustangs), wild horses were found to be much healthier. On average, a domestic horse has a lifespan of 15-20 years, only half the 30-40 year average lifespan of a wild horse. This discrepancy can be attributed to the two vastly different lifestyles the horses live. Wild horses have much less restrictions and can freely roam about wherever they please. On an average day, they travel about 20 miles. Wild horses also consume much more food, spending about 60% of their day grazing on natural grasses. In contrast, domestic horses travel less than a mile a day on average. They also spend 20% of their day eating, but most of the foods that they are eating are processed or sugary, which aren’t good for the horses and sometimes negatively affect their digestive systems.

Why are horses kept in ways that are unnatural to them?  Owners of horses do what is easiest for themselves. Many can’t afford to own acres and acres of land for the horses to roam on, so they usually have a coral for the horses to exercise in or a small field or pasture. This means that domesticated horses have very little exercise and hence unhealthier lives in comparison to wild horses that have much more space to roam.

Wild horses eat throughout the entire day. They grab a mouthful of grass here and there and eat in a grazing style.  Horses cannot eat large quantities of food at one time, because their stomachs aren’t that large. Also, by eating all day, the horses are producing a constant amount of saliva that balances out their stomach acid. However, domesticated horses don’t always have the luxury of grazing all day, especially during the winter when they are kept in a paddock.   They can’t graze and are given food in larger quantities at set times during the day. This can interfere with the amount of saliva that is produced. Insufficient saliva fails to neutralize the acid in their stomach and can cause ulcers. This is why many people today put down grass or hay in the paddock with the horse and try to make sure that it almost always accessible to them. Also, many horse owners can buy hard feed which increases the amount of chewing which increases the supply of saliva.

Horseshoes have also become a controversial topic. Domesticated horses are almost always shod with horseshoes on the bottoms of their hooves, as opposed to wild horses that go essentially “bare-hooved.”  There are two defining periods when horseshoes became popular: the Middle Ages in Europe and subsequently in America when people realized the utilitarian promise of horseshoes. During the Middle Ages, when horses were used in war, they weren’t always kept in ideal conditions, such as bad, muddy, wet terrain in which the horses’ hooves suffered. Horseshoes were used to protect their hooves and to aid them in lasting longer. When horses were used for draft purposes, it was necessary to protect their hooves to help the horses move more efficiently as they worked. Today, however, horseshoes are found to be unhealthy for horses and can cause much pain. They cause problems in circulation, shock absorption, white-line damage, and hoof deformity (explained here). Many people are becoming more aware of these problems and are encouraging other horse owners to refrain from putting shoes on their horses in the first place. This correlates with the increasingly popular “back to basics” approach.

The “back to basics” approach involves taking a look at what is more natural for horses and applying it to the lifestyle  provided to horse, creating more abundance among domesticated horses.  Wild horses are much healthier than domestic ones and in order to create abundance we need to make sure we are doing what is best for the horses, which seems to be looking at the basics of their lifestyle in the wild. 

Threats to Genetic Diversity

Preserving the genetic diversity of domestic horses is also very important, especially in the horse racing industry.  Horse racing dates back to at least 666 B.C., and is still extremely popular today. Because of the competitiveness of the sport, genetic diversity is a hot topic. Many top race horse owners are castrating their horses to improve racing performance and to prevent passing on their superior genetic traits to horses of competitors. Meanwhile, some race horse owners sell the sperm of their horses in order to earn hundred upon thousands of dollars. In combination, these two trends mean that a small number of stallions account for a very large portion of the gene pool in the next generation, drastically reducing genetic diversity.

Cloning is also a topic that is on the rise. Though it is illegal in the United States, it is legal in Europe and is being used.  The more popular it becomes, the more likely that it will become legal in the United States. It is predicted that it will become popular  primarily in the racing industry, where it could exacerbate the above-mentioned trends toward genetic uniformity.


Approaches to creating greater abundance

Government regulations: Animal cruelty laws, such as the US Animal Welfare Act of 1966, regulate treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers. Such laws can potentially be amended in order to address the kinds of issues discussed here.

"Back to basics" horse rearing

Restoring genetic diversity – suggestions for appropriate approaches needed here! 



Return to Freedom: American Wild Horse Sanctuary

Barefoot for Soundness

Heel First Landings, Inc.


​Holistic Equine

Training Horses Naturally

USDA: Animal Welfare Act

Eating Habits

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Endangered Species



Hintz, Richard L. 1980. Genetics of Performance in the Horse. Journal of Animal Science 51 (3): 582-594.

West, Chad. 2006. Economics and Ethics in the Genetic Engineering of Animals. Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 19 (2): 413-442.

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