How The Horses Have Wintered

After a couple of false starts, spring feels like it’s properly arrived. I’ve seen baby lambs and daffodils, mown the lawn, and the horses are moulting!

It’s the perfect time to assess how your horse is coming out of the winter. I’m really pleased with how Otis is looking; he wore a lightweight rug from Christmas until the beginning of March, when the storms stopped beating Britain. I took it off promptly so I could maximise his time naked before his sweet itch rug goes on. He still has a daily hard feed of chaff and they’re in their winter field currently. The summer field is ready for them, but we’re waiting for the ground to dry up so they don’t poach the ground too much. Then all hard feed will stop, they can eat the grass that is already there then eat the new grass as it comes up.

Condition wise, Otis is looking slightly ribby. I can just about see his ribs, but given that he is coming into spring,a native breed, and unable to be ridden, this is how I want him to be. He will put weight on as soon as they go into their summer paddock and I’ve limited the risk of laminitis as much as possible.

Phoenix, on the other hand, has a little too much weight. But given that she is stabled overnight I’d expect her to carry more weight than Otis. She is still having hay in the field, but that will hopefully be reduced in coming weeks as the grass starts to come through. She’s pretty fit though, so I’m not overly concerned as I will just ensure that her workload continues. Her hard feed can be cut back soon, and she won’t go into her summer field for a few weeks anyway, so I have time to trim her tummy a bit more. I do feel she’s bulked out over the winter, as her neck has really muscles up recently, and she’s much stronger in her hindquarters.

She’s had her first season of the year, which like last year was a bit more emotional than her summer seasons, but because she’s more established I have so many more buttons to play around with, which helps settle her and makes her more rideable, I only had a couple of bad rides. She’s also fitter, stronger, has a better relationship with me, and is happier in her routine, which all helps.

How has everyone else’s horses come out of the winter?

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.

Leaving The Arena

Apparently you can’t reblog a post more than once, even if it’s still relevant. So instead here is the link, and I will continue my ramblings below.

This is the time of year when everyone starts getting brave; venturing outside the arena. It’s amazing how institutionalised we become working on circles in the arena through winter. I do think working on a variety of surfaces is very beneficial for horses in terms of soundness as the tendons are neither continuously strained or the bones continuously beaten. 

But anyway, how does riding in a field differ from an arena?

Firstly, the ground is undulating which means a greater degree of balance is required from horse and rider. This also leads to a slight variance in their way of going – the rhythm and frame may adjust slightly to maintain balance. So the rider needs to adapt to slight changes, relax into the horse, whilst giving the horse support from the leg and quiet hands which don’t restrict the head and neck, thus inhibiting their balance. And go with the flow. 

Dressage tests on grass are usually ridden more tactfully; not quite such deep corners and more progressive transitions as the ground conditions and inclines dictate. I think it definitely contributes to the differences between pure dressage and eventing dressage.

I do a bit of teaching on grass and it definitely tests my ingenuity, particularly through winter. Any jump courses I design have to have bigger or complicated fences going uphill. Downhill fences are avoidable in wet weather so diagonal ones work quite well so long as there isn’t a sharp turn anywhere! I have to avoid using the same take off points for too long as they get poached. Grid work is uphill, and lengthening the trot and canter also need to be uphill, and other areas of flatwork need to be tactfully ridden.

But how does riding on grass affect you as a rider? I think it gives you a far better sense of balance, makes you confident over all sorts of terrain – uphill, downhill, hard ground, soft ground – and able to negotiate it correctly by adjusting the gait, your position, and horse’s balance. All of which are very useful for cross country! I think you also develop a “just get on with it” mentality which helps both yours and your horse’s confidence. 

Sometimes we get stuck into the regime of flatwork and showjumps in the arena and cross country out in the open. When really, developing the dressage side of things in the open fields improves the horse’s general way of going which improves the quality of the jumping canter. Jumping out in the open has similar benefits, as well as the horse learning not to run onto the forehand or flatten over fences, which is useful for skinnies and tricky combinations on the cross country course.

Even if you aren’t wanting to event I think it’s really useful to shake things up a bit and ride in the fields, and within a few sessions you should feel an improvement in yourself as well as your horse. Being used to working calmly and quietly in open spaces also stops horses getting over excited when their hooves hit grass and galloping off to find some cross country obstacles. Horses find their fifth leg when working over varying terrain which should mean that you feel safer in the saddle because they are more foot sure – think of the native ponies scaling the wild, desolate mountains!

Therefore my challenge to you this summer, is to take your lessons outside the arena! Practice grid work on grass, or perfect those lateral movements on an incline.

Spring Pasture Management 

Hopefully by now you’ve all had a hint of spring… some warm days, a bit of sunshine on your back, the daffodils and crocuses are decorating the verges, and the grass is growing.

So it’s time to turn our attention to looking after the paddocks. 

As soon as the fields are dry enough to get a tractor or ATV (all terrain vehicle) on then it’s time to help the fields recover.

Fields, no matter how much grazing is restricted over winter, become poached so they need to be rolled. Rollers are heavy so there’s a fine line between the ground being too wet that the ground is compacted, and for it to be too dry that the poached areas aren’t flattened. 

The other big job to do is harrowing. The harrow, which is like a large rake, aerates the soil, pulls up any dead grass and weeds, and encourages a thicker sward to grow. 

 Often, fields are harrowed and then rolled on the same day.

As the grass starts to grow, so do the weeds. From now on, you need to keep an eye out for ragwort. Dock leaves will also start growing and it’s important to treat docks before they go to seed otherwise the seeds will be scattered during treatment. Either top the docks or spray them with weedkiller (and rest the paddock afterwards). 

If paddocks have become badly poached then now is the time to reseed. Reseeded areas need to be rested for six weeks and then lightly grazed. 

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.


Looking After the Pastures

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.

A Watery Job

This morning I moved Otis into a new field of grass quickly. He had his hard feed and then went off grazing happily.

I knew the fencing was secure and it was clear of droppings, but when I got back a couple of hours later I realised I hadn’t checked his trough, just from a distance, as it was a double one between two fields. So I wandered over to the large, old fashioned metal field trough and was disgusted! The water was slimy, green, and opaque! Immediately we started emptying it with a nearby bucket, whilst holding the ballcock up to stop it refilling.

Soon it became apparent that a thorough clean was needed; the sides were silty and the bottom crawling with bugs and tiny red worms. Gross!

Otis watched in interest before turning his nose up in disgust – it stank like a rock pool!

Leaving the ballcock propped up on the upturned bucket we returned to the yard to get proper supplies – string to tie the ballcock up, brushes to remove the silt, a fence post to lever the trough up, and a square container for getting into the corners. Oh, and a snow shovel to help lift the grime at the bottom of the trough.

Then the work began; we scrubbed, rinsed, and emptied the trough, before trying to tip it up on its side in order to scrape the debris out. My helper, complete with his stout work boots, declared the electric fence off, so we proceeded to lift one side of the trough. Suddenly, I yelped, snatching my right hand off the trough. He looked at me in surprise – it wasn’t that heavy – then I yelped again, letting go completely of the trough so my poor helper was left grasping this substantial metal trough.

“The electric’s still on!” I cried, wriggling my fingers to get them functioning again. All I got was a look of surprise, as my helper continued holding the trough against the wire. He wasn’t being electrocuted!

We think it was his sturdy work boots that protected him, but we changed tactics anyway. He levered the trough up at one end while I rolled like a soldier during training (I’m sure it’s got a proper name) under the electric wire to scrape out the silt from the bottom of the trough. 

All cleaned out, we let the ballcock drop and lovely crystal clear water started filling the trough. As the trough was so bad we’ll be doing it again on the weekend and then I’ll go back to my usual check every time I walk past it poo-picking.

Cleaning out water troughs is never a nice job, but the more frequently it’s done, the less it smells and the shorter the job is. But how many people remember to check and clean their troughs?

We’ve captures horses and made them live in one small area, preventing them wandering in search of the best water source, so it’s only fair that we supply the best water we can.

That means the water is clean: the trough is cleaned out regularly and the water source uncontaminated. The trough is big enough for the number of horses in the field and is easily accessible to reduce the chances of infighting. The trough itself needs to be safe, with no sharp edges or corners, the metal shouldn’t be rusty, and the pipe that supplies it secure so that playful ponies can’t chew it off.

In hot weather it is much easier to have a self filling trough, and I don’t think I’d consider turning a horse out 24/7 without one. What if they tip it just after you leave? That’s twelve hours until you return and they’re next offered water. 

So hopefully this post has made you think about your water supply to your fields, and tomorrow you’ll go and check it, because it’s very easy to overlook a self filling trough when you are engrossed in your poo-picking!

The Problems of Poo-Picking

I was casually minding my own business the other evening, eating dinner and vegetating in front of the TV when my phone beeped. I picked it up and saw it was a message from my field companion.

I opened it up and just laughed:


Naughty Apollo had decided to “help” my friend and knock her wheelbarrow over. She reckons if he could, he would have giggled.

So yesterday I was poo-picking and had the wheelbarrow half full when Apollo marched over to me, hidden behind his fly mask. He walked straight past me to the wheelbarrow. So I ran after him, grabbed the handles and ran off shouting “No Apollo! No!”

He just looked at me as though I`d gone completely mad …