The majority of the horses in New Zealand are fortunate that they don’t have to deal with the psychological trauma and the associated stresses that being isolated in a stable causes to the herd oriented horse.
Outside of the racing and show scene our horses generally live their lives on pasture and with the company of other horses. A healthier existence but we can enhance this even more.
Horses are an animal that evolution has moulded to roam over vast areas, constantly moving and spending around 16 hours a day eating small amounts of forage while on the go.
Confining them in small paddocks, yards or stables goes completely against 60 million years of evolution!
With the shift towards natural horse keeping gaining momentum many owners are looking for ways to improve the health, soundness and lifespan of their horses.
Creative pasturing, track systems, paddock paradise are all essentially the same thing; giving the horse room to move without the access to extra grass.
Most areas of our country have an abundance of fresh green grass. Not exactly perfect fodder for the horse! Especially with the predominance of ‘improved’ rye and white clover in our pastures, which can be way too rich and often quite toxic for equines.
So getting the balance between grazing without access to too much grass and giving the horse room to move has been more challenging in our hyper fertile country.
Here are some photos taken in August 2005 on a trip through mustang country in the US.
Lots of room to move and bugger all grass!
Improving the life of the domestic horse
A change from conventional horse keeping
Wild horse country, Northern California/Nevada.
Though my horses might enjoy sharing this vast landscape with their wild cousins it wouldn’t be very practical when I wanted to find one of them to go for a ride…. now, where did I last see that horse?
Lone horse, Lassen County Bureau of Land Management (BLM) area
Wild animal track to waterhole, Lassen County California
While exercise may not be the answer to all feed induced health problems in the horse, it can go a long way towards warding off a host of hoof issues that are the result of an unhealthy diet.
In 2006 with my own eight horses, I’d thought long and hard about how to increase the opportunity for movement. Most of my horses are rehab or rescue horses and only having limited time to ride, adding extra movement was becoming a priority.
I had a few ideas in mind but it wasn’t until I’d spent the day with Jaime Jackson and had seen parts of the new book he was writing on the subject that I had the confidence to go home and try re-modelling my paddocks.
I experimented on one of my groups of 4 horses – 2 Kaimanawas and 2 Thoroughbreds.
I ran some electric fence tape using pigtail standards around the inside of perimeter of one of the paddocks then let the 4 horses in onto the new ‘track’. There was a complete circuit of the paddock with a track that was no narrower than 10 metres wide and leaving a couple of larger places so they had room to roll, play or lie down, but also taking in the natural features of the paddock-water, ditch, trees and hill- to make it interesting.
When we had finished the new track I let the horses in and watched them.
I was surprised at how differently they acted. Normally horses let into a paddock might run around for a bit then start eating or they might just get down to the business of eating straight away. The Kaimanawas-wild capture-went straight to the track and started exploring it. The TBs looked a bit confused and took some time to figure out how the Kaimanawas got over to the far side of the paddock. When the TB’s had figured out how to catch up with the others they all checked the rest of it out having a bite or two on the way. The behaviour of the horses was very different from how they are in a paddock situation. I can only describe it as a ‘track mentality’. More like a herd of horses on the move in the wild. They seem more purposeful and active.
By the next morning the Kaimanawas were treating it like a racetrack, galloping around, jumping the ditch, playing in the water and generally having a great time.
My 2 ex-wild horses playing on part of their track
Racing back up the hill again.
The pure enjoyment that the horses were having lead to us putting in a more permanent fence and including tracks around other paddocks, then making a track for my other herd of 4 horses in the upper area of our property.
We’ve used 2 strands of electric fence string, a lower one to keep the ponies from sneaking under and a higher one to stop our fence jumper from jumping into the middle where the grass has been left to grow. Our dairy goats go underneath the lower tape to eat the grass the horses can’t get to.
Generally the ‘fatties’ get to spend all of their time on the tracks, doing the miles and looking for food. A fantastic way to add movement and keep small amounts of food going into the horses system all the time.
The older horses and the ones that need a bit more to maintain their weight get let into a section of the longer grass in the morning or they get fed extra hay. Spreading hay in various areas of the track keeps them walking around to find food.
It didn’t cost a lot of money to do either. We used electric fence string, tall wooden fence battens with a pointed end to drive into the ground and stapled on alkathene pipe for insulators. Safe, cheap and effective but easy to move if you need too or even remove altogether if you sell the property.
Part of another one of the tracks in the top paddock.
A section where we have added river rocks
One of the biggest benefits so far has been getting the borderline laminitic types out of the smaller paddocks that, while these smaller areas restricted their access to grass, they also restricted their movement. These horses are looking a lot more trim but they don’t have the anxiety that goes with being separated from the rest of the horses and with their new found freedom they are walking their excess weight off.
Another bonus is that the horses can decide which area of our property they want to be in, under the shade of the trees during the heat of the day or sheltering by the hedges when the rain and wind get too much.
Something that really bought home how beneficial this new system is for the horses happened over the holiday season. We were away for only 3 days and I had left our 2 laminitic types in a small section of one of the paddocks. They were locked off their track but had restricted grazing-enough, I thought, to see them through 3 days and 2 nights of us not being here-when we got back Mitchell was lying down. I got him up and he shuffled off in founder mode! 4 hours later after being back on his track again and away from the small amount of extra grass he had been eating for 3 days, he was again moving freely and hasn’t looked back, no lingering lameness and well enough to be ridden.
Movement is the key.
Yes, you will have to muck out the track to minimise possible worm infestations if the track is small and you have a number of horses.
The other option is to have several tracks and rotate the horses through them. This is not the best option though if you have a carbohydrate intolerant horse and live in a rich dairy pasture area!
So you will have to decide whether to regularly pick up any droppings or regularly worm your horse-maybe both.
Winter will generally bring rain and if you live in a high rainfall area like I do parts of your track will turn into a quagmire!
If you can, spend some money on the worst areas of the track during the summer months. Put down a few truckfulls of whatever type of rock you have locally.
Some options that have worked for people in NZ are pumice, rotten rock, crusher dust, crushed concrete, limestone (race rock) river shingle.
Sand and bark shavings have also worked for people with minis or a couple of ponies.
Basically anything that will form a hard, dry surface and help keep the horses out of the mud in the winter is of real benefit. It gives the feet some really important ‘dry time’ during winter.
Donkeys can also benefit hugely from a change of environment. These little guys fare the worst in the more fertile areas of New Zealand. They are hard terrain animals and desperately need dry, hard, rocky areas to live on. Their feet differ quite markedly from a horse hoof. They have a small deep area of concavity very close to the frog and the frog sits right at the rear of the hoof, behind the heel buttresses, excellent for traction in rocky terrain.
Donkeys in the wilds of the US have been seen climbing rock faces like a goat, preferring higher areas than the horses.
Donkey owners in the US are beginning to take this preference on board and building areas for their domestic donkeys that consist of dry sections with hard surfaces and include a variety of large rocks that the donkeys can climb up onto.
These 2 healthy boys thrive on their hay diet and all the climbing they do around the gully pictured below. It’s actually steeper than it looks!
HOOFNZ Trimmer Suzanne Toomey’s track system for her horses-Winton, Southland
Track turns left along shelter belt and heads to sheds featured in next photo
Walk in shelter and storage shed