A Moment on the Lips, A Lifetime on the Hips

Grass growth in the UK has gone insane in the last month and there seems to be an unprecedented number of horses coming down with laminitis or being very much at risk of it.

The best tactic for weight management is to start early. But that’s easier said than done! Unfortunately I think until an owner has experienced Code Red; drastic weight loss or the dreaded laminitis itself, it’s all too easy to be complacent. Especially with our tendency to anthropomorphasise our horses. Plus, it only takes an unfortunate coincidence of a couple of equine rest days and warm, wet weather for grass to grow rapidly and obesity to occur.

About two months ago, a companion pony of one of my clients had his annual check up by the Blue Cross. They declared him to be obese and advised that he lost a significant amount of weight very quickly.

It was a case of being cruel to be kind. The Blue Cross representative recommended shutting the pony in the corral for half the day and using a track system. Initially, my clients were told to shut him in during the day, and out overnight, but after considering their current routine it was decided that it was easiest to have the pony in the corral overnight. Especially as their evening bucket feed could be used to tempt him into his prison.

It goes against what we all know about feeding horses little and often, but drastic steps were needed. Besides, there are a few tufts of grass or weeds for him to pick at overnight. I set up the track system, and I’m pleased with the routine that’s now in place.

Every couple of days, once fat pony is safely locked away in the evening, the Shire cross who, by no means thin, but happy to eat the new grass, gets given a foot or two more of long grass on the track. He eats that overnight and in the morning, fat pony is let out of the corral and he gallops around the track, throwing in some bucks for good measure, to inspect the new section. Of course he does get to eat a little bit of it, but give that he’s put some effort into going around the track and there’s only a little bit to nibble at around the rest of the track, he’s fine.

I’ve noticed a lot move movement from both horses whilst grazing just in the time I’ve been there, which can only be good for both of their overall fitness.

Another bonus is that the grass is plentiful and should last well into the autumn at the rate it’s being grazed down, which will give the winter paddock ample time to recover.

We’ve had to get creative recently with another pony and his forage management after the farrier notices some bruising on his toes. Whilst not laminitic, he also felt a bit “off” to ride so his haynets are double holed, being weighed so he doesn’t get any more than 1% of his body weight, being long reined for miles (and I mean miles as I’ve done a lot of it!), and then we’ve set up a track system on the barest section of the paddock. As this pony lives on his own he has a tendency to stand still, with minimal walking around. He’s currently shut in a corral overnight with small nets in different places to encourage him to wander around the area. Then I’ve told his owners to take his breakfast bucket to the far end of the L shape before letting him out of the corral in the morning. Then he will hopefully start trotting along the track to get breakfast. It’s not much but a bit more exercise than feeding him by the gate. Then he can have any hay put at feeding stations along the track during the day. When he’s not at quite such high risk of laminitis and is in more work then he can have the track lengthened by a couple of inches a day, and hopefully not need to be shut in the corral overnight.

It’s tough, and most owners don’t like the idea of starving their horse, but it is a case of the lesser of two evils – starvation or laminitis – and once you’re on top of their weight and diet it is easier to find a happy medium of a level of feeding which you as an owner feel comfortable with (using muzzles, track systems, soaked hay as preference to grass, a bucket feed) which doesn’t cause weight gain, alongside an exercise regime and daily routine which complements this so that your horse is happy, and in the right condition.

Otis Update

I thought you’d all like an update on Otis.

He’s come through the winter nicely, although dropped a little bit of weight in the last month since his rug has been off, but I’m happy with that as he needs to be a little slim in spring so I don’t have to reduce grazing or anything. It’s not like he can be exercised to remove excess weight!

He’s still hairy, although that’s rapidly falling out of him. He’s very happy, still a little limpy in trot, but it doesn’t stop him cantering over for breakfast!

What I have enjoyed seeing these last couple of months is his relationship developing with Mallory. We always knew he was a gentle, sensitive soul. One who just rests his head against you and absorbs all your problems. Who calms you with a blink of his large, brown eye. But recently it’s become even more evident.

I bring him out of the paddock to feed as his field mate practically inhales his food and Otis’s is yummier, so it’s easier to separate them. I leave Mallory sat in the barrow, on top of the hay while I put the buckets down. Usually singing “postman pat and his black and white cat… Just as day is dawning, he picks up all the postmen in his van” because she’s delivering the horse’s food.

Then we take the barrow into the field, lift her out, and empty the hay. As I’m doing this she usually runs back to Otis, hugs his head (which isn’t much smaller than her whole body), tells him she loves him, and then turns his bucket upside down before giving it back to me, whether it’s empty or not. He just stands there, lapping up the attention, and carefully moving towards the bucket when she’s out the way.

His gentleness is paying off though, as any banana skins or apple cores are specifically requested to go to Otis now. But I love how tolerant he is of her, and how he’s teaching her how to treat others, whilst letting her express her feelings and childlike tendencies – carefully laying her favourite comforter over him, clapping, giggling in joy as she sits on him bareback, usually backwards, spinning Around the World regularly to change her view.

Snow Day!

Most of the UK had a snow day today. Made better than normal because it was a Sunday so it didn’t cause the country to grind to a halt, or confusion to reign over cancelled school and the guilt that you should be working, not enjoying the white stuff.

We had a lovely day, one of the best snow days. We went as a family to the yard as the snow began to fall, and Mallory got more and more excited. It’s the first snow she can remember, and she’s been hoping for some since Christmas. When she woke up on Christmas Day and learnt that Santa had visited, she immediately looked out the window to see if it had snowed.

Anyway, I wanted to fulfil a bucket list activity and ride in the snow. Luckily for me, Phoenix is barefoot so I didn’t have to worry about snow balling in her feet. Unluckily for me, she hadn’t worked for 48 hours so was rather fresh! We have fields to ride around, which was perfect for this morning’s task. I tacked up as the snow fell thickly, and to Phoenix’s surprise, she didn’t go straight to the field.

She danced down the track to the fields before getting used to the feel beneath her hooves. We had a lovely walk round the fields, checking the ground, before having a canter. Not as fast as Phoenix would have liked, but plenty fast enough considering the weather conditions.

Phoenix and I returned to the yard, in a cloud of large,swirling flakes, finding a snowman on our way, with a very excited toddler and husband.

I think riding in the snow definitely takes some getting used to. In countries that have more than 12 hours of snow, you have chance to adapt and prepare for snow. Most people in the UK don’t ride on a snow day because of the problem of snow balling in shod hooves, and the fact it’s a novelty. Yard jobs take longer, and the horses tend to be on their toes. I found it most disconcerting that I couldn’t see the ground properly, and had to trust Phoenix to pick her way around dips and puddles. I never expected Phoenix would be the one I ticked this activity off on.

After riding, it was time to turn out with plenty of hay in the field. Luckily I had my yard staff so jobs didn’t take too long and Phoenix was quite happy in her snowy field. Some people leave their horses in when it’s snowing, and to be honest, it depends on how easily you can get to the field – is it safe? If it’s a treacherous journey then it’s better to stay in. Equally, if your horse is likely to be unsettled in the snowy field it might be safer to leave him in.

Once Phoenix was sorted, Otis needed looking after. I gave him and his field friend a slightly larger than normal bucket feed, and then doubled their hay ration. Because of the snow, they were going to have a second hard feed this afternoon, and most probably extra hay, depending on how much they ate during the day.

I did discover the most perfect combination of sounds whilst with Otis. As all equestrians know, the sound of a horse munching on hay is one of the most relaxing sounds ever! However, the crunch of fresh snow is also a lovely sound. Put the two together and it’s an auditory utopia. In my opinion anyway. What do you think?

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?

Bales of Hay

Recently our yard has converted to small bales of hay, and such an improvement in my opinion.

Now when I’m filling my haynets in the morning it takes me half the time and half the mess. Each night net has three wedges in, and the field net has two. There’s no splitting of slices and tearing of stalks. In general the whole hay area seems to be more economical because a whole small bale is finished, with only a smattering of stalks left before the next bale is opened. When the large bales were being used half or quarter slices were abandoned on the floor, stood on and wasted, and when the bale is almost finished the next one would be lifted in, squashing the leftovers and meaning that the old bale slices were definitely not going to be used.

At the yard I grew up on we had small bales, which were unloaded from the lorry in July and stacked in the granary. Every Sunday through the winter we would throw bales down the stairs and stack two dozen under the stairs, which would last the yard a couple of days and then it was up to individuals to get their own bales. As they were all stored inside we didn’t have any wasted bales, but I know that outdoor stacks of small bales can have more wasted bales than stacks of large bales, but then I think a lot of that depends on how well the tarpaulin is secured and how sheltered the stack is. 

Yes, small bales of hay are more labour intensive and more expensive per kilo than large bales, but I think if you have a livery yard they are definitely a more economical set up than large bales. Another decision made for my imaginary livery yard! 

Haynets

Recently I was catching up with an old friend a few weeks ago and she was telling me about her daughters mare, who had recently been in hospital with a severe parasitic infection in both eyes.

The infection was caused by your every day black fly, which just goes to show how important it is to check out your horse`s eyes in summer and to provide them with a fly mask. Luckily, the mare pulled through.

The hospital that this horse stayed at for six weeks had a strict “no haynets” policy, due to the high incidence rate of horses being admitted due to haynet related incidents.

When a horse eats from a haynet long stalks of hay are precariously close to their eyes, and if there was a thick, or particularly rigid stalk then they could easily poke themselves in the eye. If some dust or seed was caught then an eye can easily become infected. An alternative problem is that the hay stalk can scratch the eye, which can cause an ulcer, which when left untreated can cause all sorts of problems.

My friend was telling me that the equine hospital feed hay on the floor, which I agree with as it is so much better for the horse`s respiratory system – dust is caught by mucus and gravity pulls it down the nasal passages, away from the lungs – feeding from the ground encourages correct muscular development. As a result, my friend has had a haybar fitted into her mare`s stable, and won`t be using haynets for her other horses. The filly isn`t allowed haynets anyway because she chews at them, unties them and then tries to tie herself up in them!

The hospital also recommends not using haynets when travelling horses. I can see their point – the trailer or lorry is a cramped environment so horses cannot escape any long stalks. Additionally, the movement of the vehicle can sway the haynet close to the horses eyes. Given all this, we should still remember that eating can help keep horses calm when travelling, and when you are travelling multiple horses it can stop bickering in the ranks. Perhaps it is better to use the haybags that are available, or small holed haynets, haylage or hay with soft/short stalks. I always tie my haynets to the front of the trailer, so that Otis has to reach forwards to eat; when it is tied next to his lead rope it is very close to his eyes and he has to twist to snatch a bite, which I think is detrimental to his balance. I would always travel him with hay though, as he gets worried by travelling and I feel eating helps destress him – I back up this theory by the fact that every time he travels with a haynet, eating happily, he arrives dry. When he leaves his hay, he is white with sweat.

I was watching Llani eating from his haynet soon after seeing my friend, and you could really see the jerking, snatching movements he made with his neck as he tugged the long stems out of the net. The next day I put Llani into Otis`s stable, with the haybar, and you could instantly see the more natural position of his eating. He held his neck relaxed, and chewed through the hay in a very calm way. There was no sudden jerking of his neck. I can only gather from this that eating from a pile of hay is much better physiologically for the horses than eating from a haynet, as they are less likely to tweak a muscle by the snatching motion and their eyes are further away from the hay stalks.

I`m not sure on other people`s feelings on haynets, but I think they should be used with discretion and when alternative options are available use them to reduce the risk of injury to the horse.

Feeding forage

Now the grass has lost it`s nutrition, we all turn to feeding forage, and then argue over the best feed, the best method of feeding it, and how much and how often. Everyone has their own opinion, but we should remember that horses are grazing animals, and designed to be eating for eighteen hours a day, and by limiting their intake we are putting them at risk of developing colic or other digestive problems, such as gastric ulcers.

What`s the choice of forage?
Hay. This is the obvious choice for many horse owners, as it is easily obtained, and at a relatively cheap price. Hay is more expensive in wet years as there is less availability, because it needs four or five days of warm, dry weather to be cut. The first cut (May/June) is higher in nutritional value. I remember in my later years in Wales not getting out hay delivered until August as it`s been so wet. Later cut hay is better for the overweight horses or laminitics as it has lots of indigestible stalks and a lower nutritional value. Hay can also be easily soaked, so removing most of the nutritional content for those suffering from laminitis. Soaking hay removes dust for those horses with respiratory problems, but as it also reduces nutritional value it isn`t the ideal solution. Some hay can become dusty or mouldy when stored, so bales should be checked upon opening.
Haylage. This has a higher water content, but also a higher nutritional value, and is less weather dependent on cutting. This means that the price is less likely to fluctuate with the weather. Because of the moisture content it is less dusty, meaning it is better for horses with respiratory problems. As with hay, the small bales are easy to transport and store. I have recently been exposed to large bales of hay, haylage, and straw. I am not a fan. I have to peel off slices, pull apart slithers making a complete mess, and if I run out I have to go and get the tractor! You can buy branded bags of haylage, which have an analysis (same as hard feed) on, so you can work out how much you should be feeding, as the moisture content affects the quantity fed. One major problem with haylage is that it needs to be used quickly; open bales will go off, dry up, and then spores shrink and are inhaled instead of ingested, leading to lung problems. Mould will also grow quickly on open bales of haylage. This isn`t a problem if you have a herd like my riding school, but if you have your horse on it`s own, then you should avoid using haylage.
You can also feed straw (oat straw I think it is, that is more edible and palatable to horses). Silage is the main forage to avoid at all costs, as it has such a high moisture content it puts horses at risk from botulism.
Don`t forget that the chaff and sugarbeet you put in your horse`s hard feed counts towards his daily fibre intake.

So what is the best method of feeding forage?
In the stable, hay was traditionally fed in hay rack, but we have moved away from this for several reasons. Research has shown that eating with their heads in an unnatural position causes respiratory problems as dust is inhaled and goes down the trachea with gravity, rather then, if the horse is in the grazing position, being snorted out through their nostrils. Additionally, holding the head in an inverted way inevitably leads to an overdevelopment of the dreaded underside muscles of the neck (a dressage rider`s darkest fear). Plus, the reason I opted for the stable without the hay rack, is that by throwing the slices of hay up there you end up showering yourself in the stuff! Highly attractive…
The next method, is one of the most time consuming, but it allows you to monitor what the horse is eating, and to slow their rate of eating, is the haynet. Now these come in all sizes, and with a variety of sized holes. Eventually though, all haynets end up with a couple of large holes. The small holes are great for horses who gorge, or those that you want to remain occupied for a long period of time (e.g. overnight) whereas the larger holes are better for those horses who need to get as much fibre into their system as possible. I hate haynets; they`re time consuming, and there`s always the risk it hasn`t been tied securely and the horse either unties it as they eat and drag it round their bed, or it sinks to the floor as it empties and they get their hoof stuck in. I remember having to rescue a child`s pony that had the haynet between his hoof, and the shoe. It took a lot of cutting, swearing, and wriggling to free him. However, they do have their benefits with those fatties who like to scoff their dinner.
My preferred method of feeding forage in the stable is a hay bar, or hay manger. I chose to use it with my horse because it encouraged him to stretch down to eat, in a hope to reduce his underside muscles, but without the waste of putting it on the floor. It`s also super quick to fill up. The only problems I`ve come across are those fussy riding school horses who flick the haylage out onto the floor, before mincing through it then peeing on the rest. There`s nothing wrong with the haylage, I`ve had it tested. The other problem is that some horses gorge, then stand for hours through the night with empty stomachs. Obviously increasing their risk of stomach ulcers. My horse, as well as several of his neighbours have a munch, then stand back to digest it, and come back when they`re peckish again. For this reason I never worry if I accidently put too much in, or if any if left over. I know he`s had sufficient.
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In the field you can give hay in massive mangers, but that assumes the horses are all amenable, or in small piles around the field. We do this for the riding school, pushing it off the back of the vehicle as we drive along. But since recent research into atypical myopathy and fungus on the ground, owners should be moving away from feeding on the ground. There are many gadgets on the market, such as hay boxes. These are lightweight boxes in which hay is put, keeping it dry and mud-free, but the horse can eat it through a hole. Other methods I`ve seen are filling builders sacks along the fenceline, or using large rubber mats. Horses should be given forage in the field twice a day during the winter, to ensure they are mimicking their natural grazing lifestyle, but also to ensure they are keeping warm, producing exothermic energy as they digest the food (Sugar beet is particularly good at this).
S/W Ver: A0.03.1DR

Ultimately it depends on your horse as to which method you prefer, but it is vital that your horse never goes too long without forage of some description. This may mean feeding more of a lower nutritional value, to keep the guts ticking over, or using smaller nets, or putting hay into his stable at regular intervals throughout the day.

Some livery owners I know weigh their haynets religiously. It`s a good thing, but it doesn`t account for the nutritional quality, or the moisture content of the forage. I also think it can lead to owners under feeding their horse, which is never good at this time of year. For example, if you`ve worked your horse a bit harder the last couple of days, his dietary requirements will go up, so by giving him a bit more forage, you are reducing the risk of increasing the hard feed, and also keeping him content. I personally prefer the ad lib approach, so long as the forage isn`t wasted, and the horse isn`t fed excessive amounts.