Foal Time

Despite the lack of spring weather, foals have started to make an appearance – how cute!

Here are ten facts about foals for you to get your teeth into.

  1. The gestation period of a horse is eleven months, but they can be born up to four weeks late. Most breeders aim for foals to be born in the spring so that they benefit from the spring grass via the mare’s milk and can grow during the better weather and are strong enough to withstand the demands of winter.
  2. Foals stand, walk and trot very quickly after birth – ideally within two hours. This is because they’re prey animals so need to be able to flee predators from the beginning. Predators are attracted to the smell of the placenta so moving away from the birth site is important. Foals can gallop after twenty four hours.
  3. Foals with floppy ear tips are premature because the cartilage has not yet fully developed.
  4. Many foals are born with bowed legs, called “windswept”, particularly large foals born to smaller mares. Immature tendons and ligaments can also cause a foal’s fetlocks to touch the ground as they walk. The legs will straighten out over the first few days as they strengthen.
  5. Foals are often born at night, or in the early hours of the morning, and the birth is a quick process. Both of these factors help protect them from predators.
  6. After a week, a foal will try grass, starting to eat a little bit of hay and grass because by the time they are two months old their nutritional needs exceed the milk requirements from the mare.
  7. A foal’s legs are 90% of their final adult length when they’re born. This gives them an advantage as a prey animal, and also explains why they look so wobbly and leggy as newborns.
  8. If a foal grows to quickly, or is overweight then their joints swell with a condition called osteochondrosis. In osteochondrosis the boney foundation of joints doesn’t develop properly so the joint surface is rough and can deteriorate, causing arthritis and lameness in later life.
  9. Foals have certain juvenile characteristics which, in a similar way to human babies, elicits caregiving. The eyes are large, face is short and forehead is high.
  10. Foals are born with a deciduous hoof capsule, which is soft and rubbery to protect the birth canal from the sharp, hard hooves. The capsule wears down within minutes, enabling the foal to stand and move.

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Yard Storage

Is spring finally here? Until tomorrow it seems anyway. The last couple of days have been sunny and warm. The mud in the field has dried so that it’s like being in quicksand and you have to pull your foot up slowly, toes curled up, so that your welly is sucked out of the mud and you aren’t left with a soggy sock.

Anyway, yesterday one of the liveries was having a spring clean. All her rugs were out as she was putting lightweight rugs onto her horses and taking the thicker ones to be repaired and cleaned.

This prompted me that I’ve had a blog subject on my to-do list but never gotten around to doing it. And that is, storage of all your horsey gaff.

Most people don’t have a large garage or garden shed (a vacant one at least) in which to store their numerous rugs, spare boots, travelling equipment, body protectors etc, so they need some space at least at the yard. What options are available?

Most yards allow you to have a small storage box outside your stable, which is useful for everyday bits and bobs – grooming kits, riding hat, boots and whip for example. One stable Otis had had a corner cupboard which was incredibly useful and didn’t impinge on stable space either.

Then it’s a matter of storing rugs, feed, bedding, and the other less frequently used but still essential equine equipment. One yard I go to has a row of garden sheds. Each livery owner has their own shed. Obviously this takes up a lot of room, so would only be an option for bigger yards. However, in terms of security, it’s nice to know that your gear is under lock and key so won’t go walkabouts. I have to say it’s luxurious to have this much storage space.

Another yard I visit is an old farm which has been converted into a DIY livery yard. One building is used for storage. I think it must’ve housed pigs but it’s got a central walkway and low walled stone pens on each side, which is perfect for putting storage boxes in. Two or three liveries share each pen, which means each person’s stuff is kept fairly separate yet it’s all easily accessible. The only downside is that unless you can lock your storage box, things could be borrowed. But I like to think livery owners have all the paraphernalia they need so don’t need to borrow from others.

I’ve also seen large metal lorry containers put to good use. One yard has it as their tack room, and another has divided a container into lockers. Each wooden cupboard has two shelves and a door. I think this is a really good space saving solution, but it’s only really for essential every day items. With hindsight, with which everything can be improved, I think I would have larger lockers. Liveries can individually provide locks for their cupboard, but the container itself is pretty secure.

On a similar vein, I’ve seen part of a barn divided up like stalls, with wooden partitions, and each livery has their own area. This is more spacious than the container lockers but the security isn’t as good.

It’s hard to find the right balance of space and security for liveries, without becoming the equine equivalent of the Big Yellow Self Storage Company, especially when some people have far more rugs or tack than others. And for some people it is their only storage for horsey things because either they don’t have space in the garage, or their partner doesn’t want equestrian things taking over house space. I’m lucky in that my husband doesn’t really go into the garage … so he has no idea how much equine stuff is there. Not that he’d mind, of course.

I want to know, what storage solutions other yards have and how you, my readers rate each experience you’ve had.

Seasons

Last week I brought Phoenix in after her fortnight of running feral. She was good overall, but I noticed that she was in season. She trotted over to me in the field and was a bit possessive when the other mares wandered over. Then on the yard and to lunge she just got a bit distracted by any gelding that passed – turning and pricking her ears at them. Nothing bad when you consider how hormones can affect some mares, but today (now we’re out of season) I realised that I know very little about a mare’s oestrus cycle and I’ve never blogged about it.

Of course I learnt about breeding at college – we had a lovely male lecturer who was quite effeminate (he’d call out whilst teaching us “*our name* angel, darling, petal, poppet. Will you NOT do that?” Which elicited lots of giggles from us teenage girls and vows to not repeat said behaviour) who taught us about breeding. It was so memorable because there were lots of squeals, shudders and yucky faces made at the technical terms – and for my BHS Stage IV.

Mares come into season every 19-22 days from early spring until autumn. The longer daylight hours triggers the first season and the shorter days cause their seasons to cease. In winter, they don’t have seasons (although it’s been known in mild winters for mares to have a random season), which is called an anoestrus period. This is to stop a mare foaling the following winter – the gestation period of a horse is 11 months – when it’s coldest and hardest to survive.

However, in competitive circles horses are aged from the 1st of January (1st August in the Southern Hemisphere). This means that a horse’s passport may have their birth date as 12th May 2016. But from the 1st January 2018 they will be considered a two year old. Consequently, breeders often put mares under lights to trick their bodies into thinking that the days have gotten longer so they come into season earlier in the year, which will give their offspring a competitive edge because they are born closer to the official birth date so are physically more mature than foals conceived naturally and born in May.

Fillies are sexually mature by the age of two, but they shouldn’t be bred from until the age of five or six when they are physically mature. Mares can produce foals annually until they’re in their twenties, providing that they’re healthy and well cared for, but most breeders leave them barren every few years.

Some people continue to keep pregnant mares in work, particularly in the early stages, and into the latter stages when new owners don’t realise their mare is pregnant. From my own experience, I’d have thought a mare would cope better with pregnancy if they are of a healthy weight initially and have an active life. So often brood mares, particularly natives, are overweight and I suspect that reduces fertility, which means fewer foals and more time, effort and money invested into covering the mare. However, I think it can be difficult to strike the balance between lightly exercising a pregnant mare and overworking her, especially when you consider that they are carrying the extra weight of a foal as well as the tack and rider. In my humble opinion I’d have thought light hacking in the initial couple of months if they are used to that work load before a combination of long reining, lunging and ground work to keep the pregnant mare fit. I’d also ensure they are on good grazing, but over extensive land, perhaps with an incline, which will help maintain their general fitness and prevent sudden and rapid weight gain when there’s a flush of rich grass.

So how do seasons affect the behaviour of mares? It depends entirely on the mare themselves – just like some women suffer more from PMT than others. But often a mare can become cranky – sensitive when grooming, or reluctant when being exercised. Sometimes they just have more sass. Like Phoenix tossing her head and cantering on the lunge when I sent her away from me instead of her usual walk. They tend to notice geldings more, but some will just sniff or snort at them in passing whilst others will reverse up to some poor unsuspecting gelding and lift their tail flirtatiously.

Some people use herbal supplements or hormone drugs to minimise the hormone fluctuations and seasonal behaviour. I’ve had friends who favour mares over geldings because when they’re on form their performance is superior to that of the non-hormone driven geldings. I like to know what I’m getting each day so like the even keel of geldings and the less mareish mares. I’m also of the belief that ensuring your mare knows where she stands in the human-horse relationship is important in managing her hormones as she will be less likely to behave badly with you, which makes her safer to handle. This comes from consistent expectations, routine and training.

The Number One Rule of Feeding

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.

Spring Grass

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.