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?

Winter Grazing

I’m going to continue along the theme of mud for today’s post, and more specifically the state of everyone’s grazing.

This winter has been unusually mild and extremely wet. Over Christmas I visited my parents in Wales and was shocked to see how muddy it was there. However by the time we’d returned home our fields were in the same state.

It’s so hard to know what to do about grazing in winter. Some yards insist on restricted turnout, but there are pros and cons to each part.

I’m not convinced that reducing turn out solves the problem. Turning out a bit later and bringing in before your horse stands at the gate or fence walks helps prevent poaching, but that can be difficult for working owners. 

Some yards only turnout for half a day, which helps keep the horses sensible, but I feel that the horses have more energy so will do as much damage in a morning as they do in a day. 

Other yards do alternate days turnout, which again I don’t think helps the ground conditions. Fresh horses will churn up the paddock more by cantering around, and  horses will have more energy if they stay in for 36 hours.

The biggest problem I can see is that the rain is continuos so the paddocks have no chance to recover, nor is it feasible to leave horses in on wet days because the following day will be just as wet.

For some owners, keeping a horse confined to a stable is a nightmare; young horses need to get rid of energy and need the stimulation of being in a field, and older horses can stiffen up when confined. Some just get very hot!

I think it comes down to management as much as anything, which can again be hard for working owners. Hard feeds shouldn’t be too big as stabled horses don’t use as much energy moving or keeping warm as those turned out. Horses should be exercised sufficiently, so that they’re tired and don’t want to canter round the field. That hopefully means less poaching. When Otis has had to stay in I’ve tried to exercise him twice a day; either ride both ends of the day or lunge him too so he gets a leg stretch twice. Then if ad lib forage is provided in the field then they’re less likely to gallop around because they aren’t bored. 

I’ve been thinking about what I would do on my yard, or what the ideal situation is, and I think it comes down to paddock size. If the individual paddock is large enough to divide into two sensible sized halves then the drier half can be sacrificed over the winter and then given 6-8 weeks rest in the spring so it comes back as new. It may mean giving hay in the field or leaving them stabled for a bit longer into spring, but I think the bonus of having winter turnout balances this out. Another alternative if paddocks are too small to divide then providing two paddocks per horse, not adjacent (you wouldn’t want the two paddocks at the bottom of the hill would you?) so that owners can rotate between the two throughout the year.

I think if I had a part livery yard I would do the following. For ease of numbers, let’s say there are 20 paddocks and 16 horses. That leaves four paddocks resting at any one time. In January and February, perhaps December if necessary, I would do alternate days turnout, but have half the paddocks in use. So eight horses would go out each day, using eight paddocks. Those staying in would be ridden for a good hour in the morning and be lunged or free schooled in the afternoon, according to their individual needs. The next day those eight would go into the same paddocks. This means that there are now 12 paddocks resting, ready for spring. I know this throws up the problem of cross contaminating horses with worms, but those of you who have read my post on worming routines will know that I would have all horses on the same routine and poo pick daily.

I know that this routine leaves four less rested paddocks than horses, but I think this is manageable as not all horses will need to go into a field of lush spring grass, and not all horses are ready to be turned out 24/7 at the beginning of spring.

Obviously my theory only works for part livery yards, but I think it’s important for DIY yards to offer some form of support and assistance to DIY owners so that the ground isn’t too badly damaged and allowed to rest. After all, it’s the yard owner who is left with the poor grazing, as unfortunately horse owners will just move yards if they get fed up of poached fields or giving hay in the field in June.