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?

Healthy Eating

As horse owners we devote a lot of our attention on our horse`s diet; are they getting enough energy, are they putting on weight, are they getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals, is there enough fibre in their diet?

But how about our diets?

Speaking for those in the equine industry I think it`s safe to say that we have appalling diets. All riding schools I`ve worked at have a constant supply of sweets and chocolates, particularly at Christmas time, and the staff make frequent trips to the snack box. Thinking about it, it`s a good job the work is so active otherwise we`d all get fat!

For my birthday I was given a Fitbit. Has anyone heard of them? I`d only recently become aware of them, but they seemed right up my street. I know I have an active lifesstyle, but I like to know how many steps I`ve done in a day, or  how many calories I`ve burnt. 

I`m going to sound a bit like a Fitbit sales person but you need to know what the Fitbit entails. I`ve got the Flex model, which monitors your sleep pattern (I`m a notoriously poor sleeper), and steps taken (judged by the activity of your arm). It is then linked to an app on your phone or tablet in which you can enter your weight and other vital statistics, calories and water intake. You can also set goals, and view the record of your daily and weekly steps, sleep pattern, distance travelled, tracked exercise and progress towards the goals.

I had a few teething problems – such as when the Fitbit registered 300 steps as I lay in bed reading! But I soon changed the settings as it was too sensitive and I wave my arms a lot when teaching so need it as least sensitive as possible! Now I`m not too sure how accurate the Fitbit is as I regularly “do” 47000 steps a day, but I know that I`ve ridden for at least three hours of the day.

However, the real benefit of the Fitbit is that I`v realised just how little water I drink. Of course, I drink a couple of cups of tea in the morning and then a couple of drinks in the evening, but that really isn`t very much considering the recommended daily amount is two litres. So I`ve begun to try and drink a bit more water during the day. Unlike those who work in an office though, I`ve always been aware that not all yards have toilets, and I need to make sure I time my drinks to fit in with my work schedule! Having to log the amount I drink really drives home how little I consume. I`ve started trying to drink a glass when I get up, and before I go to bed, but I admit recently I`ve not been very good. Coincidentally, at Otis`s first ODE in April all prize winners received a sports water bottle. This has been surprisingly useful in making me drink during the day.

Another useful part of the Fitbit app is the calorie counter. Whilst I don`t particularly want to count calories, looking at the list of items I`ve eaten during the day makes me realise that I don`t have a particularly balanced diet, and tend to snak quite a lot.

Which I`m sure is typical of a lot of people my age and in my job.

I`ve never been that good at eating; as one person once told me, I “eat to live” as opposed to a food fanatic who “lives to eat”. I`ve got better as I`ve gotten older, but eating is still one of those things that gets in the way of living!  Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and I`ve always eaten a good helping, which I know is a meal most often missed by people. Again, dinner is also a natural way of finishing the day, and we usually eat well. I think my problem is lunch. I`m not very good at preparing food when I`m not hungry, and don`t like eating a lot of food as I`m usually riding straight after lunch. But I guess this is the area to improve my diet; mae a sandwich and then have a couple of separately packaged items, like some fruit, or a boiled egg (a new favourite) so that I can have two mini lunches, perhaps an elevenses and a twoses …

So perhaps it`s time for all of us to re-assess our diets and try to eat a bit healthier; perhaps putting as much effort into our own diets as we do our horses!