Friday, 30 January 2015

Essential Paddock Knowledge

As I have said MANY times, grass is the horse's natural food so allowing them to spend time in the field or paddock is important.  Whether grass kept or turned out for a few hours a day this allows horses and ponies to relax and behave more naturally.  It gives them time to socialise, play, roll and eat - things that will help keep them happy.

It is obvious then that the field should be SAFE.  There are several things to check before using a field for horse or pony turnout.

  • The field needs to be large enough for the number of horses turned out.  If a field is too small it will quickly become over grazed and horse-sick.  The general guide for grass kept horses or ponies is between one and one and a half acres per horse. 
  • The grazing quality is also important.  A field with too little grass will not offer enough food and the horse may start to eat unsuitable vegetation (eg: poisonous plants) and become thin and potentially ill.  If the grass is too rich the horse will become too fat.  Ideally the grazing will contain a variety of grasses and a little clover. 
  • The type of land should be considered.  Flat land that is liable to flooding will encourage the wrong types of grass to grow.  Also a horse standing in wet and muddy conditions could develop Mud Fever.  Land with gentle hills and slopes is ideal as it allows free drainage.  A field with a steep slope can put a strain on limbs. 
  • Check for hazards before turning a horse out into a field.  Hazards should be removed, or if this is not possible, fenced off safely.  Hazards can be low overhanging branches, rabbit holes, ditches, stagnant pools, stakes, rubbish tips etc. 
  • Check for poisonous plants.  There are lots of plants that are poisonous to horses and ponies (I will do a separate blog on these).  Poisonous plants, shrubs or trees should be removed or fenced off.  NB: grass cuttings are not suitable for horses or ponies they will cause severe colic.

Good Fencing Options
There are different types of fencing available but the most important points are that the fencing will not cause injury but will prevent the horse from escaping.  Maintenance of the fencing is vital; to ensure it is safe and secure.

Post and Rail
Probably the most expensive type of fencing it is also one of the safest boundaries to a field.  Wooden posts, placed at regular intervals support 2 or 3 wooden rails.

It is important to replace any rotted posts or broken rails to ensure the fence continues to be safe and secure.  In addition, untreated posts and rails should be treated with creosote regularly to protect against the weather but also to prevent horses from chewing the wood.
This fencing looks really smart but Basil and Chesney chewed the rails where they were kept previously, even with the creosote!

Post and Wire
This is less expensive but still utilises wooden posts at regular intervals.  The posts however, have 4 or 5 strands of wire stretched between them.  Sometimes there is a wooden rail at the top.  The wire must be taught and the bottom strand should be at least  one and a half feet from the ground.  Otherwise a horse may get his foot caught.

Electric Fencing
There are 2 types available:

  • Temporary electric fencing is used to divide fields and is efficient as long as horses know where it is and respect it.  Usually powered by a battery or sometimes attached to the mains it is easy to move and erect.  However, this type of fencing does not look as substantial as post and rail and horses can run through it.  Chesney jumps it or goes under, whichever is easiest!

  • Permanent electric fencing uses wooden posts in the same way as the post and wire fence mentioned above.  Instead of the wire special plastic 'rails' are attached which have a wire running through which is then electrified.  This fencing looks more like post and rail and is more substantial, preventing a horse from attempting escape!

These are natural boundaries and if well maintained are also one of the safest field boundaries.  The hedge needs to be dense to prevent escape.  It needs to be well maintained with regular trimming and checked for poisonous shrubs or plants.  The advantage of a hedge over any fencing is that it also provides shelter from the wind and rain.

These need to be high enough to prevent a horse from jumping out and well maintained.  As with the hedge these can provide shelter from wind and rain.

Poor Fencing Options

Pig or Sheep Netting
This netting is made of wire which is crossed to make squares.  It is a dangerous type of fencing for horses, ponies or donkeys as they can put their feet through the holes and become caught.  This can result in the most horrific injuries to their hooves and/or legs.

Sheep Posts or Stakes
These thin wooden stakes have pointed ends which will again cause horrible injuries to a horse or pony.  These should never be used!

Barbed Wire
Used extensively as a field boundary this is perhaps one of the worst types.  It causes dreadful injuries to horses if they manage to get caught in it.  However, they also can injure themselves if they lean over or try to scratch on it.  The wire goes deep into the horses flesh and causes severe damage.

The size of the gate is important.  It should be wide enough for you and your horse to walk through side by side safely.  It also needs to be wide enough for machinery to access to keep the field in good condition.  Gates should be sturdy and substantial.  There are a variety of latches available and everyone has their preference.  Where possible the gate should be hung so that it cannot be lifted from its hinges.  If this is not possible then a padlock on both ends will ensure the gate cannot give access to thieves.  When positioning the gate think about convenience and safety.

A constant supply of clean water is vital.  I wrote about this in my Watering blog a few weeks ago.

Providing a shelter for grass kept horses and ponies is important.  This may be a hedge or trees but ideally a field shelter.  This gives them somewhere to escape the wind and rain or the heat and flies in the summer.  In fact, horses are more likely to use the shelter to escape the flies than to get out of the rain!
The shelter needs to be large enough for the number of horses who have access.  The entrance needs to be wide enough to ensure a horse does not get bullied into the shelter with no exit.  Ideally there will be a hard surface in front of the entrance to prevent the area becoming poached.

Field Maintenance

  • Inspect the field daily for hazards or poisonous plants.  Check that the fencing is safe and in good order.  Check that the water supply is clean and working. 
  • Remove droppings, this should be done as often as possible to control worms.  Worm eggs are passed out in the dung and they will then hatch and migrate into the pasture.  Removing the droppings will reduce the number of larvae.  
  • Worming - see my separate blog about this topic which will be coming up soon.

Horse Sick Fields
Horses will quickly spoil the pasture if left in a field for too long.  If there are too many horses for the size of the field it will quickly deteriorate!  A horse sick field can be recognised by the following:

  • Bare, overgrazed areas where the horses have stripped the land of any nutritious grass 
  • Rough spots, covered with droppings where the unpalatable grass and weeds grow 
  • 'Poached' areas - which are muddy spots ground up by the horses hooves, usually around the gate and water trough 
  • Trees may be stripped of bark and leaves 
  • Fencing is in bad condition; broken or chewed 
  • Water is dirty with green algae 
  • Horses and ponies look thin, lethargic and ill. They may stand in groups by the gate or fence

Maintaining Good Pasture
Ideally all fields should be given a period free from horses.  During this time it can be allowed to be fallow or grazed by sheep or cows.  They will eat different grasses to the horses and will crop rough and unpalatable areas.  They will also digest and kill off some of the worm larva.

Rotating the field by using a schedule of grazing and resting the pasture will help to maintain the pasture.  A large field can be split into 3 with one area grazed by horses, one being rested and the other grazed by other animals.  These areas are then rotated so that each area has a rest period.

Turning a Horse Out
Some horses become excited when being turned out and so there is a set, safe procedure which if followed should reduce problems.

  1. Ensure the horse is wearing a headcollar and leadrope or a bridle.  
  2. Walk the horse quietly to the gate. 
  3. Open the gate wide enough that you and he can enter safely.  Ensure the horse cannot hurt himself on the gate catch! 
  4. Lead the horse in from whichever side is easiest, turn him around and shut the gate immediately. 
  5. Take the horse a little way into the field and turn him so that he faces the gate.  This is when some horses become excited so ensure you are NOT between the horse and the field. 
  6. Standing by the horses head, quietly remove the headcollar or bridle and step backwards.  Some horses will spin around and gallop off at this point and may kick out so make sure you are out of the way!  DO NOT slap him on his side or hindquarters as this will encourage him to gallop off. 
  7. Ensure you fasten the gate properly when leaving.

When 2 horses are being turned out together they should be released at the same time to ensure that if 1 gallops off the other handler is not left holding an overly excited and difficult horse.

Catching and Bringing In
This can be difficult if there are a large number of horses in the field or if the horse is difficult to catch.  My first pony would just trot around me in a circle and would not allow me to catch him if he wasn't in the mood for coming in!

  1. Ensure you have the headcollar and leadrope ready, untangled, unbuckled and held in one hand behind your back. 
  2. Sometimes it helps to have a carrot or some pony nuts in your pocket! 
  3. Approach the horse from the front to ensure they have seen you and are not frightened and gallop off.  NEVER approach from behind as this is a horse's blind spot. 
  4. Approach the shoulder quietly whilst talking to the horse and pass the leadrope over the neck.  This will give you something to hold if he begins to move off. 
  5. Holding the noseband slip it over his nose and pass the headpiece over his head gently.  Fasten the buckle.  Take the leadrope back over the neck and lead him in. 
  6. If the horse is reluctant to allow you near try offering the carrot or pony nuts.  This is often not possible in a field with many other horses as they may come over for the treats!  
  7. Avoid taking a bucket of feed into a field to entice a horse as this will most certainly encourage the other horses to come over and is likely to cause a dangerous situation. 
  8. If a horse is really difficult it might be necessary to bring all the others in first.  Building a routine will help, if he learns to associate coming in with food or treats he will be more likely to allow you to catch him. 
  9. Horses can be turned out with their headcollars on to help.  This means that you only have to get close enough for long enough to clip the leadrope on.  However, headcollars can get caught on branches, fence posts and anything else the horse might find and may cause injury.

I posted a vlog about catching a pony in October last year see that here.

Do you have any good tips for catching a difficult horse or pony?

Have you seen Wednesday's vlog 'One Weekend in January'
Please check it out and SUBSCRIBE.

You can also follow me on Facebook for updates on Chesney, Basil, Fidget and Daisy.

Until next time!

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