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The following is a generalisation (obviously everyone’s situation varies depending on circumstances and commitments) to guide us in the right direction regarding equine welfare.
Ensuring our horse's well-being is not just a physical thing but also a mental one. If he is happy in his surroundings then he is going to be happier in himself and consequently his work. We owe to them to provide an environment in which they feel secure and provides for their nutritional, mental and physical well-being.
In their natural environment, i.e. before domestication, horses roamed freely in herds that were constantly on the move seeking out fresh pastures. It is now acknowledged that as herd animals horses are intensely social and ingrained in their make-up, even though domesticated, are the instincts and herd hierarchical traits which dictates their behaviour in the environment in which we keep them today.
The Horse at Grass
The non-thoroughbred horse is quite capable of living out to grass all year round but we are responsible for ensuring its welfare and providing for its needs by imitating what would occur in the wild.
By putting a horse into an enclosed area, we are not only restricting his movement but also his grazing capacity. As a grazer, the horse spends many hours eating in order to fulfil its requirements.
When the grass is plentiful in the Spring and full of nourishment this does not present a problem (putting to one side the aspect of laminitis and ponies) but later in the year, when the growth rate is much reduced and that which does grow is not so nutritious, and over the Winter period when the grass does not grow at all, we need to supplement the horse's diet by providing energy foods, if we are wanting to ride it, and bulk foods to provide internal warmth (fermentation in the hind gut generates heat). In the wild horses will chew on all manner of scrub when there is no grass to meet these requirements.
The constant grazing on a restricted site prevents the horse from following its natural instincts to seek out varied herbage to satisfy its nutritional requirements to keep minerals levels within tolerance. Wild horses frequent specific patches of grazing which contain different grasses and weeds which supplement the diet to provide the variety of minerals they need in order to maintain the correct balances within the body. The more well managed paddock actually denies many horses access to such foods as dandelions and sow thistles which play a homeopathic role in maintaining their bodily health; it would be ideal if we could spray more selectively! It is at least recognised today that grass leys grown commercially for hay, haylage, etc. need to contain a wider variety of the traditional pasture grasses that existed in the ancient meadows.
We also have to consider that the grazing areas we provide is greatly disadvantaged compared to the vast acreage horses have access to in the wild because of the general wear the grass has due to the constant hoof damage and also poaching at gateways, etc. in the wet weather. Then of course there are areas which the horse will not graze because it does not like certain types of grass or where it urinates, etc. which further reduces the available grazing area.
In an ideal situation grass should be rested, sprayed for weeds and fertilized as well as managed for worms. It has always been said that one acre per horse is the estimate for keeping a horse at grass but this does not take account of any of the above factors. So one acre is not adequate but the world is far from ideal so we must compensate for this environment by carrying out grassland maintenance to ensure good quality grazing for as much of the year as possible. How many times have we seen horses and ponies existing in tiny paddocks over-run with non-edible varieties of weeds and eaten right down to almost bare soil? With a little bit of effort owners could improve what they have quite considerably.
Remember that the horse at grass must access to fresh water at all times. Grass alone will not provide enough moisture. A couple of buckets left at the gate is not the answer either; in hot weather the water will evaporate and in cold weather freeze over.Regarding shelter, whereas horses will quite happily back up to a hedge in the winter rather than use a field shelter once the heat of the summer arrives – and the flies – they will make use of such facility. It is not always possible to provide a horse with a shelter but there must be somewhere for it to find shade during the heat of the day – shade from trees. a high hedge, an adjacent building, etc.
Horses are social animals – they need companionship. Whilst another horse is the ideal, as they will re-enact the herd patterns, with reciprocal grooming, leadership, etc, any other live pal such a sheep or goat will suffice.
It may sound strange but a horse at grass can become stressed. So to summarise, what can we do to ensure our horse's welfare whilst at grass?
1. The main factor is obviously lack of food, so supplement the winter feed. Depending upon weather conditions and the quality of the grazing, it may be necessary to feed at other times of year too. When the field gets bare the stress levels increase so keep an eye on your horse's body condition. Lack of grass also leads horses to becoming bored and that's when they may look for escape routes or investigate ragwort* as a suitable meal. Signs of chewing are a good indication of boredom, lack of bulk (fibre), mineral imbalances, etc.
2. If you ride your horse off grass, that will further effect the feeding requirements. Also bear in mind that he will have been eating all day and then you come along and want to have a ride. He will feel rather bloated and very unlike working. So if possible tie him up to allow his system to settle for half an hour – he will feel much better then. Make the use of that time to interact with your horse by grooming him and, as the handler, reinforcing his dependence on you as the provider of something which brings him pleasure.
3. Provide company. As a herd animal it is unkind to keep your horse alone. As it is often not practicable to have a second horse, provide an alternative.
4. In the wild, horse would seek shelter behind rocks, under trees, etc. The heat of the day will do more harm to your horse than the cold – horses can suffer from sunstroke, so you must provide somewhere shady.
5. Horses are flight, not fight animals, that is they run away from predators. In an enclosed field if they take fright they are more likely to do themselves harm so make sure that as many of the dangers are eliminated as possible i.e. nothing left lying about, protruding tree stumps etc. Horses have a natural curiosity which can also can them into trouble so think about what an inquisitive mind might seek out.
"RAGWORT: Keep vigilant, remove any you find growing in your paddocks – it is a killer .
The Stabled Horse
By keeping our horses in stables we are really changing things. Not only do we remove the natural eating cycle but also stop any movement. This can have a two-fold effect. We have to work even harder to reproduce the grazing pattern and also be mindful that because the horse is stood all day, circulatory problems as well as digestive problems can manifest - stiffness, filling legs, colic.
As the stabled horse has more time on his hooves, he needs to be kept mentally occupied otherwise stable vices may develop. So think about where your stable is sited – what does your horse look at all day? If you were confined to a single room how would you feel – would you like a light, airy environment? How would you keep yourself occupied – what mischief could you get up to?
So how can we keep our stabled horse a happy horse?
1. Re-create as natural an eating cycle as possible – little and often – we've all heard that one so listen and act upon it. This is not just common sense but also important because of the make-up of the horse’s digestive system.It is preferable to feed hay off the floor but this is not always feasible if your horse is a bit wasteful or, regarding his hard feed, knocks his bucket over. Hayracks are preferable to hay nets (set at an appropriate height) as they eliminate the danger of hooves becoming caught in them.
Signs of chewing around the stable are not always due to boredom. The horse has an in-built desire to chew so make sure the he is fed plenty of bulk to satisfy the urge. If you have to restrict bulk because of the waistline, feed from racks with smaller holes to slow down the intake or arrange to feed in smaller quantities throughout the day (back to "little and often" again).
2. Think about the stable itself – its site, size, etc. The atmosphere – fresh and airy or dark and stuffy. A well-ventilated stable is not only healthier but also far more pleasant. A stable sited "round the back, behind the wall" etc. is no fun for your horse either; that’s like you being in a room with no windows. Imagine being in Alcatraz 24/7!
3. Again companionship is important. Ok, so they can't physically socialise together but at least they can communicate visually, vocally and telepathically.
4. As with the grass-kept horse, make sure there are as few a things as possible to injure himself on such as protruding catches and sharp edges. Remember – horses just love to rub.
5. If your horses has rugs on, check the fit; an uncomfortable horse may start rug tearing or worse, he may get sore patches.
(At this point we recommend "Bossy’s Bibs" – see "links" on our web site)
6. Even though you horse is exercised regularly or may have some turn-out time, he still spends a lot of time confined. Horses need sensory stimulation and have a tendency to create their own amusement! There are all sorts of horse toys on the market to help occupy an active mind. Some horses like to make a noise which, although annoying to us, is marvellous fun for them. Rack chains satisfy the urge!
7. Feed licks are a good way of alleviating boredom but be mindful that your horse does not overdose on them (we have yet to find a horse that keeps a "Horslyx" for 6 weeks, they are just so good!!).
N.B. Some horses have died from overdosing on licks (ref the last para) and we need to add a note to assure folk that Horslyx are not going to causes problems to horses.
A Horslyx tub should last a horse approximately 6 weeks, there being a recommended daily intake. Horses love Horslyx so much you may have to limit access but there is no danger of any harm being done if you find your horse has overlicked!
For further information and advice, please telephone the Horslyx helpline: 01697 332 592
In view of the recent deaths of two horses from colic caused by actually chewing on a lick (not Horslyx) be careful.
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The articles contained HORSETALK cover all aspects of equine management and training but are only intended to provide a guideline and are not to be construed as a substitute to seeking professional advice for individual situations.
Please do not hesitate to contact us for assistance.
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