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.

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