What's the number one rule of feeding? Which one do you place the most importance on?
For me, it has to be that horses should be fed little and often. It applies to horses of all sizes and workload, and can lead to a whole host of health issues if they do not have food moving through their digestive tract.
Horses have evolved to graze for a minimum of sixteen hours a day, therefore they are trickle eaters. Having small amounts of fibre at each stage of their gut helps regulate peristalsis which reduces the likelihood of colic, prevents stomach acid splashing up the lining of their stomach acid, causing ulcers, and means that they are most efficient at digesting their food and extracting the nutrients.
Even obese or laminitis horses require almost constant access to fibre. However, they should have fibre with very little nutritional value, such as soaked hay or straw. Unfortunately, too many people starve laminitis horses, which can lead to them developing stomach ulcers.
I also feel that there is a psychological benefit to a horse or pony having a semi-full tummy all the time. You know how ratty you and I get when we're late home and dinner is subsequently late. And we can reason why we're hungry, and when our next meal will be. Horses can't, so it stands to reason that when they are hungry they are more likely to bicker between themselves, and to be less tolerant of us – nipping whilst being tacked up, fidgeting whilst being groomed, for example. I think a lot of bad behaviour on the ground stems from horses being uncomfortable in their digestive system. Sometimes they're a bit gassy and bloated, but more often than not they're hungry. If they were to develop stomach ulcers, this also leads to negative reactions when their girth area is touched, which some people believe is naughtiness.
Horses and ponies who are starved for periods of time, or had their grazing restricted with a grazing muzzle for example, have been shown to gorge themselves, managing to take in as much grass in the short time they are unrestricted than the longer period that their intake is limited. Which is why it is recommended that ponies who need a muzzle wear it in the paddock during the day, but are stabled with a quota of soaked hay overnight, to prevent the gorging behaviour.
My reason for bringing up this subject is that last week I was involved in taking a young client to Pony Club Camp, which gave me a parental insight into the week.
I was disappointed to learn that the ponies did not need a haynet during the day. They were to be tied up in the barn; ridden for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, with a two hour lunch break in between. During this week the ponies would be working far harder than in their usual day to day lives, but their anatomy is not designed for them to go without food from 9am until 4.30pm. Yes, there is a risk of bickering in the pony lines with food, but surely if every pony had a small haynet and were tied at a correct length of lead rein, far enough apart, there would be less of a problem than when they're hungry and irritable. I would have also thought that they would perform better in the afternoon session because they were happier and had more energy.
Each evening, the pony I was involved with went out into his paddock and gorged, so he was bloated the next morning. This can't be good for his digestive system!
I felt it to be quite ironic that the children are taught correct pony management, and there is both a mini and a big badge all about the rules of feeding. At some point the children are going to realise that they aren't following the rules of feeding, and will question it. This leads to a mental internal battle, and unfortunately a lack of respect for their instructors and mentors. Which is a shame.
I think it's a case of "do as I say, and not as I do", which I don't think is the right attitude for any educational environment, and one that I certainly didn't appreciate when growing up.
The spring grass has a lot to answer for at the moment. Horses spooking at their rugs, jumping a mile at the smallest puff of wind, putting on weight, and trying to dislodge their riders! I`ve had to make sure I have been wearing my Velcro jodhpurs on a few of my hacks …
So today was interesting. I was teaching a young girl and her little pony, who is usually pretty steady and obliging. We started off with a pretty steady trot, did some lovely circles and changes of rein. I thought she`d grown so needed her stirrups taking down a hole, but she wasn’t convinced so we did some sitting trot without stirrups. Instead of her usual stable position, she was a bit wobbly and her pony was trotting in quite a bouncy fashion. But my point was made, and we dropped the stirrups. She then looked in better balance and could use her legs more effectively.
The pony isn`t that fit, and is unclipped so soon began to get a bit hot and tired. Well, he seemed to settle down to work.
We moved onto the row of trotting poles. I had placed nine in a line, and out of character, the pony picked up a little speed through the poles. He remained in trot, he just had a bit more of a spring in his step, so we did it a few more times and he didn`t get any more excited, which is fine. I like the ponies to enjoy their work, but only to the extent that their rider`s feel they are being taken into the exercise rather than having to nag every stride.
Both pony and rider were looking very confident and balanced, and were settled into the exercise so we had a change of rein. This time, as my little rider turned onto the three quarter line towards the poles, her pony drifted to the left and picked up canter. Now bear in mind that this rider is still getting her confidence up on the lead in canter, and I was contemplating lunging her in canter to build her independence. The pony didn`t get any faster down the long side, but it was a steady, bouncy canter. Thankfully, my rider kept her cool and listened to my instructions – “Sit back! Heels down! Pull your reins! Woah!” – and she managed to bring her pony back to trot. I hurried over, hoping she wasn’t too worried, making a joke – “We aren`t ready to canter yet! We`ve still got to do the trotting poles!”. After walking and discussing how well she had sat the canter, and what we can do to stop that (half halting a bit quicker and not using the leg quite so much in trot) happening again. Then we did the poles with a shorter approach so the pony had less opportunity to take the lesson into his own hands!
He performed beautifully and we progressed to a jump. I kept the trotting poles where they were and just built the last two into a tiny cross pole. I hoped the line of trotting poles would keep the pony in a steady rhythm (I also rolled them closer together so he had no reason to stretch). After a quick practice of the jumping position, which is looking much better with her lower leg more stable and heels staying down. Over the poles and jump a few times without a problem. The pony was by now quite sweaty and I hoped he had gotten rid of his excess energy, so I suggested cantering on the leadrein and leaving lunging to another day.
We talked through the plan for cantering – hold on to the grab strap for a couple of strides, and when she felt secure let go, one hand at a time. The pony picked up canter when I asked, as normal, and we cantered down the long side. With my sideways glances I could see my rider sitting up nicely and just holding the reins. The next moment, I saw the hind legs of the pony way up in the air! I started slowing down, and to my relief my rider had only tipped forwards slightly. Unfortunately, as she was putting herself back into the saddle, he threw in another buck! This time, she flew towards his neck and I grabbed her little waist, pulling her sideways off the pony whilst pulling the pony up with the other hand. We stopped and I plonked her on the ground. She looked quite shocked, and a bit worried, so I immediately explained what her cheeky pony had done and how well she had sat the first buck. That stopped any threatening tears, and as she was unhurt I put her back on. We had a walk around the arena, with me nearby, just getting our breath back and processing the last couple of minutes.
Then on the other rein to the canter rein, and at another corner in the school we did some trotting to build her back up. This rider tends to think about things a lot, and can build up a worry, sometimes needlessly. So I felt it was important to have another canter in this lesson. So she ended on a good note and wasn`t left reflecting on the bucking canter.
Again on the opposite rein to the previous canter, we got ready to canter. I wasn`t taking any chances and held onto her leg with one hand as we cantered. The pony skipped into canter angelically, and I watched her and him closely (there was no pressure to let go of her grab strap) and after half a dozen strides, as his tail was starting to swish threateningly, we stopped.
Giving him a pat and telling my rider what a good job she had done, I have to say that I was relieved to have gotten through that lesson successfully. Tonight, the pony is going to be lunged, and will be lunged before she rides for the next couple of weeks while the spring grass is about! Our next lesson will just build on from todays and hopefully we`ll get to do some more cantering because I really do want her to start cantering independently. She has a lovely, balanced seat, it`s just a question of her feeling confident enough to control him without me next to her.
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.
Let’s take a look at how a wild horse’s weight naturally fluctuates through the seasons because the spring grass is starting to come through and then we all have to be vigilant for the dreaded L-word.
This is when horses should be in their peak condition. Grass is growing steadily, it’s warm, the grass has a fairly good level of nutrition but there might be slight variations if there’s a hot spell.
There is a flush of rich, highly nutritious grass in the autumn, and the horses put on a bit of weight in preparation for the coming months. After the flush of grass, the temperature cools down and the grass grows more slowly and with less nutritional value.
Wild horses may look on the rotund side in autumn, but their bodies are stock piling energy reserves for the colder months.
Grass stops growing at six degrees Celsius, and what does grow isn’t very nutritious. Wild horses forage to fill their belly, but rely on their fat stocks for the majority of their energy requirements.
Towards the end of the winter, the horses start to look a bit ribby and thin as they use up their fat resources.
Wild horses are looking thin, but the spring grass grows rapidly, is lush and full of sugars. The horses put on weight and no longer look half starved. They can end up looking too fat, but once the grass growth levels off for summer then the horse’s weight will plateau.
So how do we, as horse owners, affect this natural fluctuation and what problems does this cause?
By domesticating horses we put them at risk of obesity. For starters, we limit their habitat. This means that they do not need to scavenge for food over miles, thus limiting their exercise. Partnered with the fact our paddocks are specifically grown with horses in mind. That means it’s good quality, plentiful and encourages horses to put on weight easily. After all, in the wild, how often do you see large areas of good quality grazing? You don’t. It’s either small patches of good grazing or larger areas of poorer grazing.
So our horses don’t have to work as hard to fulfill their energy requirements.
Next up, is how we dress our horses. Some of us clip, most of us rug. Clipping removes the thick winter coat, and doesn’t really cause a weight problem in itself. The problem comes in how we rug the horses. Putting a rug on horse means their bodies don’t have to work as hard to keep warm. Which means their energy requirements are less. An unrugged horse will raise their long winter coat, trapping pockets of air to insulate themselves. They will also be using up energy to keep warm. Now, I’m not saying either side is right, but I am saying that there is a balance: an over rugged native pony won’t lose valuable pounds over winter which means that they are already obese coming into spring and are at high risk from laminitis. A clipped horse in too few a rugs will shiver and lose condition because they don’t have their long winter coat to trap air pockets. We have to find the personal balance between clipping and rugging to keep our horses at the optimum temperature.
Stabling horses, and supplementing forage in winter is vital for horse owners because we require horses to work for us and in order to perform for us they need more energy than a wild horse does through winter. Additionally, we have limited land available to us so need to rest our paddocks. Wild horses would roam across vast areas, avoiding the exposed, bare areas in winter thus letting the ground rest and spring grass to flourish before returning there in better weather.
There isn’t much we can do in terms of not stabling unless we are lucky enough to live on our own large private estate (in my dreams!) but we can be aware of the changing daylight hours, changing temperatures, and make sure forage levels are adjusted in line with grass availability. For example, as the spring grass starts to grow it’s wise to slowly reduce hay put in the field for horses so they don’t have too much intake of food and put on weight too quickly. Often we don’t see the spring grass in our paddocks, but that’s because the horses are eating it as soon as it grows! To monitor grass growth, watch empty paddocks, or grass outside the fields and that will give you a good indication.
By putting our own demands onto horses and domesticating them, we don’t want our horses’ weight to fluctuate, we want them in prime condition all year around. Which is fine, but it’s wise to remember that we have to work with the land, so having your horse come out of winter a little on the lean side is no bad thing because they will soon pick up as the spring grass grows. Likewise, having a horse who will winter out being a bit tubby in autumn is a good thing as he’ll soon lose that keeping himself warm and then be of a good weight ready for the spring.
It’s hard to balance both the natural pressures of the environment and the artificial pressures that we apply to our horse’s lives, but I don’t think we should worry about them being a little lean coming out of winter.