I was first introduced to the term “self-selection” in a barefoot trimming clinic in Australia about a year ago. The couple that were hosting the clinic, a trimmer and a vet, were starting a holistic rehab center in New South Wales in which one of the main focus points would be a Paddock-Paradise-style track system with a wide variety of planted herbs to provide the natural process of self-selection to their rehab horses. The thought behind this being that in the wild, horses (and other grazing animals) will seek out and choose to eat specific plants with medicinal properties to benefit their unique health, a process that most domestic horses don’t have access to, and which most horse owners compensate for by feeding an excess of supplements that blanket a wide variety of needs as a “cover all the bases” strategy.

I didn’t think much more about it until one morning a few months ago. We had gone out to look for the horses and found them grazing in a grassy low spot behind a hill. After a while I noticed that, despite the clear availability of grass, most of the horses were choosing instead to eat the bushes of thistle that dotted the meadow. Curious, I researched the medicinal/nutritional properties of thistle and found that it’s used for a wide variety of purposes; from promoting skin health to reducing asthma symptoms and lowering cholesterol. The nutritional value of thistles was also covered in an academic study by Manuel P De Santayana, ‘Ethnobotany In The New Europe,’ which noted that in comparison to most common vegetables, thistles consistently contained higher levels of fiber, protein, magnesium, calcium, copper and zinc.

The horses at Ranchlands have the rare fortune of living on several hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres of land with varying vegetation. They eat grass predominantly, but supplement at their leisure with Sagebrush (historic medicinal uses include helping to clear out intestinal worms as well as aid general digestive problems and nasal congestion), Dandelion (historically used to treat liver conditions and can be used as a mild laxative), Winterfat (used by the Blackfoot to treat fever), and Woolly Plantain (commonly chewed to soothe toothaches) to name just a few.

Grazing animals and the land they inhabit mutually benefit from the process of self-selection grazing. Without access to the land these horses would rely on us to provide them with the specific nutrients they need, and without the horses the land would grow stale. With attention to regenerative grazing plans the land that livestock occupy invariably improves. There is an inherent symbiosis between mindful ranching and natural processes. Ranching can be an effective middle-man between the limited space of modern civilization and the protection/active care of the natural world.

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  1. Fascinating stuff. Here in Scotland we have observed similar behaviour in wild red deer hinds who come to a particular part of a large grass field in front of our house at only one Time in the year. I’ve seen a row with a broken leg eat a plant that has the qualities of aspirin and our dogs carefully forage for a particularly tough Broad and flat grass that grows at the riverside. We are mostly familiar with dogs eating cow poop but this year I’ve seen mine taking bites out of cow pats – preferably from the middle where it’s soft – which is both disgusting ( to our human sentiment) and fascinating – they nearly all do it and I believe it’s to do with diet ( there are 14 of them). Interesting article – thanks for sharing – it’s amazing what you can learn through stopping and observing.

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