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 …