Self Selection

I’ve been home this weekend, for a busman’s holiday, and one of the jobs my Mum gave me was to handgraze her friend’s horse who is recovering from colic surgery. It’s a great arrangement on the yard, as the mare needs holding out four times a day. There’s a timesheet, and whenever anyone has a spare fifteen minutes or so (while their horse is eating their bucket feed or they’re chinwagging over a cup of tea) they will hold her out for grass. Then they pop their name on the timesheet and her owner knows what she’s had each day and by who. It’s such a great example of teamwork and a supportive yard in what would otherwise be a full time job.

Anyway, I digress. Mum’s instructions to me were to walk past the lush green grass on the side of the track, and head for the weedy area as this mare turns her nose up at the grass, preferring to devour the variety of weeds instead.

Mum and I have talked about how horses often opt for the unexpected plants in hedgerows, and how there’s been a lot of research in the properties of different plants. For example, cleavers has a beneficial effect on the skin and lymphatic system. This was Matt’s plant of choice when he was on box rest.

Mum spent a lot of time when he was on box rest cutting down a variety of grass, plants, herbs and hedgerow while Matt was confined to his stable to provide a variety of forage to stimulate him and to enable him to self select what his body needed. What he ate, he was given more of the following day, and when he moved onto a different flavour, his bucket reflected this. Once he could start going for walks she handgrazed him on the verge and hedgerow during his walk outs.

This is why I like it when the fields have a native hedge, and aren’t just seeded grass, as it provides some enrichment for the horses. Recently, once the grass in Phoenix’s summer field had been eaten, she showed more of an interest in grazing the sides of the track as we walked to and from the field. I tend to go with the flow, letting her choose where to stop. It was always interesting that she opted to munch on the tall thistles.

I could remember that milk thistle is good for cleansing the liver, but I didn’t think these were them so I had a look on my plant identification app (this is the ignorant gardening geek inside of me raising its ugly head), and Phoenix was definitely eating plain, bog-standard field thistles. Very carefully I might add, as she cleverly wrapped her tongue around the spikes and devoured it, stem and flower.

For anyone wondering, milk thistles have round, purple flowers with pale green leaves with white veins, giving a mottled effect. This thistles Phoenix was so delighted by have narrower, taller purple flowers, and leaves of a uniform green. I’m going to keep an eye out for any milk thistle and she if she’s as taken by that as the usual subspecies.

Then I began to wonder why the thistles were such an attraction, despite the dangers involved in eating them. Once source I read said that thistles have deeper roots than grass so are more nutritious. This aligns with my observations in the garden, where all the weeds have far deeper and longer roots that the grass, which is why they’re so difficult to eradicate and why my lawn will never resemble a bowling green. It’s a sensible theory. My Dad’s theory is that thistles probably have a higher water content than grass, especially during the hot months we’ve just experienced, so are more attractive to horses.

Dried thistles are very palatable too, and less spiky so even the fussiest horses will eat the leaves and stems. I’m building up the courage, and trying to remember my gardening gloves, to cut down an armful of thistles to put in the field for Phoenix and her friends to pick at if they wanted. In the meantime, I’m sure she gets enough enrichment from the hedge at the back of the field and the variety of grasses and weeds in the paddock.

It’s always interesting watching your horse’s choice in forage whilst grazing, and definitely worth identifying the plant so that you can supplement it if necessary, or take them to areas when it grows in plentiful supply for them to nibble at.

Has anyone’s horse got a favourite non-grass plant which they always search out? And have you looked it up to see the benefits of that plant?

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