This time of year really shows if you’ve taken the time and effort to look after your horses fields. Well managed land will still have grass, will have a good sward, no weeds, and with no patches that will soon become poached. These lucky people probably won`t need to give hay to their horses in the field until November!
I go to many yards, and have seen many yards over the last few years, and it always seems to me that pasture management is never a priority, and is usually done in a haphazard, last minute way. But what I want to know is, why. Why do we equestrians find it so difficult to manage the land? And why do so many yards have horse sick paddocks, and owners need to provide hay in the field all year round?
My only conclusion is this; nowadays most equestrians come from non-agricultural roots, which means that field management is learnt out of a book which doesn`t compare to the innate understanding of the land that comes from being brought up in a farming family. For this reason, looking after the fied tends to slide to the bottm of the never-ending job list.
Then I also think the way we keep horses has changed. We no longer rotate different animals around the field and establishments only usually have horses. This means that weeds and unwanted plants (such as clover, which when consumed in large amounts is poisonous to horses due to the high nitrogen levels) grow. Likewide the ground is not naturally fertilised by sheep and cow droppings, and we owners meticulously remove the horse droppings. Yes, horse manure is not the best fertiliser in the field, but the combination of all three types of droppings in a cross-grazed field half a century ago would balance out nicely.
Next of course is the fact that large open fields with two dozen horses roaming in are long gone, replaced with small individual turnout paddocks. Small paddocks are more likely to become poached, and tracks will appear from horses fence walking more easily, and horses are more likely to stand by the gate as there is very little other places for them to wander to. This problem can be compounded by people erecting electric fencing to try and rest patches. So fields aren`t rested and rotated as frequently as they used to be, and subsequently they aren`t fertilised, topped, harrowed or rested to the extent that the sward can re-establish. Equally, we allow the fields to rest but are so anxious about laminitis that we let the horses back into that field before it has rested sufficiently.
At the yard I kept my ponies at when I was younger is an old fashioned sort of yard, with five large fields. The herd has one field and when that is beginning to get low on grass the “skinnies” are let into the next field and when they`ve taken the edge off the grass the rest of the herd are allowed in and the field they have left behind is rested. Sometimes they have two fields, but each field has at least one months rest. In the winter everything was stabled 24/7 for two months, which stopped the fields being poached, and meant that they were fully rested in the spring. I think this has changed now and the horses have one field for winter turnout.
The longer rest periods meant that the grass could recover and any treatment could be done and the horses didn`t go back in straight away, which allowed the field to benefit. For example, when you harrow you aerate the ground, which will encourage grass growth. So leaving horses off the land for another fortnight allows the grass to grow, utilising the benefit of the harrowing.
I think there is an element of having too many equines at yards for the grazing available. It is really easy to accept new horses by the fact there is an empty stable and individual turnout paddock, but really there should be two fields per horse, at least, so there can be sufficient rotation. Horses don`t have to go from their paddock straight to the lush one, there can be a cycle by which the “skinny” horses go into the paddock with the most grass, eat the richest of it, and then then move onto the next paddock after a week and then the fatter horses or ponies can go into the paddock with better grass than theirs, but not too much that it would put them at risk of laminitis or obesity. If there aren`t enough empty paddocks to rotate the grazing then there are too many horses on the land.
I`m beginning to think that there is a gap in the market for an Equine Grassland Manager, who is employed by different yards to go in, assess the land, test the pH of the soil, purchase or organise treatment for the land (fertiliser, harrowing), and come up with a plan to help the yard manage their land econmically. After all, it`s a false economy to skimp on grassland management as feeding hay all year round is expensive and time consuming! And patches of hay on the ground doesn`t do the grass any good. Likewise, I think that if I had a yard I would be interested in hiring a specific person to care for the land – they could be part time, but when they worked their job was to ensure the fields were kept to a high standard and topped or harrowed as necessary. If done well I think land management can be the difference between a good yard and a bad one, and it makes horses happier and healthier.
I don`t think I would have individual turnout paddocks either; I wouldn`t opt for the large herds we had as kids as I remember horses kicking each other and people arguing about the vet bills. But I would have small herds of three or four, and I would choose the groupgins carefully. Only put one dominant horse in each herd, introduce them gradually, and put similar horses together (sex, age, weight) to reduce the likelihood of there being a problem. Then any aggressive or dominant horses can have individual turnout if the owners insist, althought I do wonder why some horses are aggressive to others when they are, by instinct, herd animals.