Mud! Mud! Glorious Mud!

With yet another storm about to hit Britain, we have had the wettest winter since, well, forever! But what does all this rain mean for our horses?

I feel very lucky in that Otis’s field has minimal mud, so he and his friends have been happy all winter, with no concern about mud fever, tendon injury etc. Phoenix’s field isn’t so good, but even so it’s only pastern deep at the gateway. Some fields are knee deep in mud, and only last week I saw horses being evacuated from their field which was so submerged that only the top rail of fencing was visible!

So what problems are you likely to encounter with muddy fields? Firstly, the obvious problem of mud fever. Some horses are more susceptible to it than others, and once a horse has had mud fever they are more likely to get it again. How can you prevent mud fever? How long is a piece of string?

The bacteria involved in mud fever thrive on damp, warm conditions. For example, a muddy field! The best preventative is to avoid the muddy field, but this winter it is nigh on impossible. So drying the legs regularly, giving time off the mud is important. I don’t think horses with heavy feathering should have their legs clipped as it gives some protection, however if they develop mud fever it can be hard to treat with all the hair.

The next big problem that I’ve seen a lot of these last few months are field injuries. Either pulled tendons from the deep going, or slip injuries where a horse loses their footing and jars themselves, or they slide over in the field, or they do the splits. The injuries associated with slippery ground can affect the muscles of the back, hindquarters, shoulders or legs. Basically all over! In particular, the sacroiliac area is often damaged by horses slipping around, and pulling themselves through deep, heavy mud. The only real preventative is to avoid the deep going in the first place, but if you can’t then sectioning off the deepest area of the field, for example the gateway, so that at least the horses aren’t trotting or cantering through the deep mud. Checking legs daily for any signs of heat or swelling, and if your horse starts to behave abnormally (such as today’s client who fidgeted and fussed when I put the saddle on, and we believe he’s tweaked his back) then rest them and call the physiotherapist, chiropractor or whoever usually manipulates your horse. They will identify sore spots and be able to ease it if it’s been caught early enough, or refer to the vet for further diagnosis.

Some yards have stopped turn out completely for the moment, and it’s a hard balance to find between looking after the land and not wrecking it for spring, and ensuring the horses stay emotionally happy and healthy. I think it’s a balance between exercising horses sufficiently that they do not feel the need to gallop around their fields, so doing more damage to the land, and if they are staying in that day they they get out for a leg stretch at least twice. And not having miserable horses standing all day in the mud because if they’re standing there miserably, they might as well be standing in their stable! I’ve found that letting your horse guide you is the best; yesterday I rode first thing in the sleet and Phoenix didn’t seem overly keen to go out, so I gave her some hay and left her munching for an hour while I rode another horse, and likewise if she’s standing at the gate at 2pm there’s no point leaving her there for another 3 hours.

What can we learn from this winter for the future, in terms of your routine, or field management? Firstly it’s important to be critical of yourself: is your winter grazing the driest bit of land? And if not, change it! Winter grazing needs to have good drainage; it could be your most uphill piece of land, or have empty ditches on the perimeter to aid drainage. The type of grass also is important too, but I’m no expert on field management so I’ll leave that subject before I get in too deep. Could your gateways be improved? By laying hardcore if possible, or those grass mats. Is the gate in the best place? Can you use two gateways to reduce footfall and damage to the gateway and to reduce the likelihood of horses standing at the gateway expecting their next feed.

Next, it’s important to consider which horses you have in the paddock. Big horses, or heavy horses do more damage to the land because they sink down into the mud, so destabilising the land. Small, finer ponies do less damage, so they might be better in your field which doesn’t drain as well. The number of horses is also important to consider. There’s the guideline of one acre per horse, but this acre must be very fertile, have good grass and sward, and only have a 14.2hh grazing it. Who probably lives in overnight. Bigger horses need more space, and when there’s less grazing because of the time of year and the mud horses in general need more space. So if you have five acres, you don’t really want any more that two big horses in, or four small ponies in winter. The ratio may need to change in the spring and summer as ponies notoriously need less grass to avoid laminitis, in which case you might put those four ponies onto three acres, and those two big horses onto four acres. Roughly speaking anyway. The moral of the story is to have the ratio right for winter and adjust it accordingly in the summer, rather than have too many equines for your space in the winter.

I think everyone has some lessons to learn from this winter about preparing and managing their fields ready for next year, and we’ll all be busy come the spring repairing the damage to our winter paddocks; be it blown over fencing from the high winds, or the fact that fields more closely resemble a ploughed field than a grazing area. It’s been a tough winter for all horse owners, but we should try to take the problems of this year on board so that we can make improvements for next year.

Topping Fields

This time of year, and hopefully earlier in the spring, sees a lot of paddock maintenance for horse owners.

The grass is growing fast, which unfortunately means that the weeds are growing even faster. I keep seeing ragwort rearing it`s ugly head, in paddocks, in central reservations, in hedgerows. That needs pulling up faster than a teenager squeezing a spot. Other weeds, such as dock leaves or buttercups can be sprayed, providing that you get the right weather conditions. Or they can be chopped off.

Spraying them with weedkiller attacks the roots, which should kill the whole plant and stop it re-growing or the roots getting more established. However, you need a calm day, patience, the ability to rest your paddock for a fortnight, and a couple of fine days (easier said than done in Britain). That means that most of us opt to top the fields.

Topping is basically mowing the lawn on a large scale. The plants are chopped off an inch from the soil, which weakens the plant in the fact that they can`t photosynthesise, but ultimately they will return next year. The secret to topping a field is to do it before the docks have gone to seed, because ultimately you are just spreading their seeds and helping their cause. Also, they have then had a month of growing time, which means stored energy for next years growth, and more established roots. With buttercups, you want to top before they flower because that will weaken the plant the most and hinder regrowth.

So topping the field removes all the weeds, but it also has another useful job, which people tend to forget.

Horses are notoriously fussy eaters and quite often they leave areas of grass in their field, which get long and unsightly. This is called sour grass, and no matter how well grazed the rest of the field is, the horse won`t touch these areas. In order to prevent these sour patches extending and taking over the field, the best course of action is to top them. Cut the grass so it is quite low and then leave the field to rest for a week or so. There will be some new growth and the horse will, or should, graze the field more evenly. If you don’t top fields, or cross graze with other animals, then the patches will eventually take over the whole field and leaving it looking very horse-sick.

We, (well, the royal we) have put a lot of effort into repairing Otis`s field. He was moved into another field in May which had more grass. But also bigger weeds. So we divided the field in half lengthways, and he grazed one side down. Once he`d been in the first half a fortnight he had eaten the good grass, exposed the sour patches, and eaten around the weeds. On the next calm day, I moved him into the other side so he could begin the same procedure and his loving chauffeur/groom/minion sprayed the dock leaves and some buttercups. I had been pulling some buttercups up as I poo-picked in the fortnight previous, so there weren`t that many to get. Once the dock leaves had wilted we scythed them down, and scythed the sour patches of grass. Interestingly, although these areas looked lush and green, when you looked closely there was no sward and the grass near the soil was yellow and soggy – hardly appealing to Otis.

A fortnight after the spraying of the weeds we repeated the process in the other side of the field. You could see there were a few little dock leaves that we had missed, but we will get them next time!

Now Otis has grazed both sides in a ten-day cycle, which has evened the growth of the grass and means the patches of sour grass haven’t gotten any bigger, and they may have even gotten a little smaller. But last weekend we decided to top one half of the field. Immediately it looked better, and now that it has rested a week it has a much more even growth to it, so hopefully when Otis goes into it this week he will eat all of it! I think, and I know I`m slightly biased, but our field looks better than the neighbours.

 

Buttercups

Did you know buttercups are poisonous to horses?

It is knowledge that I didn`t acquire until my late teenage years. I think it`s because we only had one field which had buttercups in – aptly names “Buttercup field” and it was regularly topped.

Buttercups have an acrid taste, like many poisonous plants, so are usually left untouched by horses unless they are ravenous. The bigger problem, from what I can see, is that horses grazing amongst buttercups, usually get a “buttercup burn” on their muzzle and lips. So the best thing to do is to reduce the number of buttercups in your field. If your field has a lot of tall buttercups, which hinder the grass growth, then topping is a simple and straightforward management approach.

I also discovered, in my research, that dried buttercups, such as those in hay, are safe because the toxins have degraded. Some species of buttercup are also resistant to herbicides.

To my simple mind, the best way of reducing the buttercup crop is to alkaline the soil. Buttercups thrive in acidic soil, so by applying calcium carbonate to the soil you are reducing the attraction of your paddocks to buttercups. This process is known as liming. Pastures which do not drain very well are usually prime suspects for buttercups, but short of building a complex drainage system for your farm, there is little that can be done from that aspect. Another indication of a water-logged, acidic, poor draining field is the presence of dock leaves.

Some people have found that broad leaf weedkillers are successful in killing off buttercups, but this will involve resting your paddock from three weeks after spraying, and can only be done at particular times of the year so that it is efficient.