Field and Pasture Management
The basic principles of field and pasture management are no different for the heavy horse owner than for owners of other breeds, but in some respects the demands are accentuated. For example, heavy horses will eat more grass and poach the ground more than lighter breeds, and their weight and strength will find out any deficiencies in fencing and other field structures.
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It is self-evident that horses injured by wire or nails, or whilst straying, or sickened by ingesting poisonous plants, will not enhance their chances in the show ring. It is therefore recommended that newcomers to keeping heavy horses study the comprehensive works available on equestrian field and pasture management. This category of ‘newcomers’ includes those who have experience of livestock other than horses since, in certain aspects, equine requirements may differ substantially from those of sheep and cattle. In the meantime, the following pointers may be helpful.
Ideal and Less Than Ideal Conditions
While, in many cases, ideal grazing conditions may be unobtainable, a knowledge of the ideal will help the horse owner work towards the best conditions achievable.
The ideal pasture, whether for rearing young horses or maintaining adults, contains a mixture of grasses. It should be spacious (two acres is a standard minimum for a single heavy horse) and preferably extensive enough to allow for grazing rotation, well drained, well sheltered and safely fenced. There should be ample lime in the soil, since this provides calcium, essential for bone growth. (Certain limestone districts are renowned for the livestock they produce, whether cattle, sheep or horses -for example, horses from Ireland’s limestone districts are noted for their good quality of bone.) This is an especially important consideration for the heavy horse breeder, since big, heavy horses with poor bone are not a recipe for success.
Such ideal conditions seldom occur. You may have access to only one small paddock, without the chance of a change in summer or winter. Proper management, including periods of resting, then becomes even more important, as there is less room for error. A paddock over-grazed by horses for too long becomes horse-sick. The ground becomes badly poached, there is an increased risk of heavy worm infestation, and useless types of vegetation take over among the many bare patches. With little of nutritional value available, the horse’s rations need to be supplemented throughout most of the year, and the paddock becomes nothing more than a turnout area.
If circumstances are really dire, remember that it is perfectly possible to keep a heavy horse and yet have no grazing at all. Historically, many heavy horses, especially in urban environments, were kept in this manner. W. J. Gordon’s marvellous book The Horse World of London describes how omnibus, cab, delivery and draught horses were stabled, perhaps on more than one level, and all their feed was brought to them. It is also the case that farmers have, on occasion, plumped for a stabled regime in times of low cereal prices, when it paid them to feed a high cereal diet rather than use up grassland. When Billy Cammidge had his fascinating Open Farm at Flower Hill, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, he found it better to feed hay and corn rather than take up potential arable land for grazing horses. Of course, if a horse is permanently stabled, it must be regularly exercised. With the town horses kept for Work, that was not a problem. However, if you cannot be sure of being able to exercise your stabled horse daily, the project should not be attempted. Also, it is much more fun for the horse to have access to even a small paddock, and nowadays most heavy horses are kept essentially for fun.
Fencing and Facilities
Horses are difficult to fence against. When cattle are full, they lie down and cud. When horses have finished grazing, they tend to look around for mischief, which often entails a breakout. The first consideration in this respect is that horses must be able to see a fence, otherwise they might career into it with calamitous results. The second consideration is that it must be high enough to dissuade them from jumping it and if you think that heavy horses can’t jump, think again! They will also paw, rub or push fencing by leaning with their chests, thereby exerting incredible pressure, so a strong, sound, safe fence is the first essential. Pawing in particular precludes the use of any wire fencing with low strands, in which the horse might catch a foot or shoe. Rubbing, which occurs particularly when horses are changing their coats, means that sharp protuberances on any field structure should be avoided. For this reason, all fencing rails should be nailed to the inside of the supporting posts, a practice which also provides extra strength to counter the effects of pushing or leaning. One ploy to entice horses away from rubbing on perimeter fencing is to supply an actual rubbing post. In bygone days, rough tree trunks of eighteen inches or so diameter were sometimes planted deep into the soil for this purpose, and I know of one such rubbing post that must have been in place for fifty years.
Regarding the materials of which fences or field boundaries are constructed, natural hedges without reinforcement are rarely stout enough to provide an effective barrier. They do, however, play a useful role in providing shelter and shade. Drystone walls may also afford shelter, especially since the wind tends to filter through the walls, so that they do not create the same turbulence as a solid wall. However, these walls are rarely high enough to fulfil this function adequately for heavy horses, nor are they high enough to ensure containment. Furthermore, it is by no means unknown for horses to lower them, whether by accident or design, by rubbing or pushing off the top stones with their chins.
The best fencing is correctly constructed post-and-rail, using three rails, with each rail twice as long as the gap between the posts and placed alternately so that there is a joint above a solid rail the length of the fence. As mentioned earlier, the rails should be nailed to the insides of the posts, from the field side. The life of the fencing will be greatly extended if, prior to sinking, the posts are treated with preservative and if the tops of the posts are cut at a slant to encourage rainwater to run off, and discourage chin-rubbing.
A modern alternative to wooden post-and-rail is a plastic version, now available in several forms. The advantages of plastic are that it is highly visible (usually white in colour) and solid looking, and it is also flexible yet strong. Thus horses can see it even if they are careering about, yet even if one does crash into it, it does not splinter dangerously like some timbers. It also needs very little maintenance, and does not rust or rot, crack or peel.
A cheaper alternative to full post-and-rail is a top rail with two strands of plain wire beneath. A plain wire fence with no top rail is no good, as the horses may not see it from a distance, and they will also rub it with their necks and slacken it. Even when combined with a top rail, it is a good idea to ensure that tension is maintained in the wires at all time. Also, the lower strand should be at least 18 inches (45 cm) above the ground, to guard against a horse getting a foot over it. This can be particularly dangerous if a shod horse gets the wire caught between foot and shoe, especially if the horse panics and the wire holds. For the same reasons of safety, pig netting, often used to fence against sheep, is unsafe around horses. However, the very worst fencing for horses is undoubtedly barbed wire, which has caused horrific injuries, especially when badly set and loose. Even when correctly set and kept taut, it does not fulfil the criterion of visibility, and its very nature invites injury
In contrast to most other forms of wire, electric fencing can be a boon to horse owners, if used sensibly. It is commonly used to partition off parts of a field for grazing by rotation, for a schooling area, or for taking a hay crop. The modern type is available in the form of brightly coloured tape, which is highly visible and gives the horse every chance of seeing it before touching. If, for any reason, it is necessary to join such types with a length of plain wire, this should be adequately tensioned and preferably decorated with strips of old fertilizer sack, or something similar, to aid visibility. If a single electrified wire is run the length of the fence to prevent animals rubbing on it, this should be well tensioned and secured, and checked on a regular basis.
When electric fencing is introduced, is does no harm to engender circumstances whereby the animals receive an initial shock, in order that they learn to respect it and do not unwittingly try to charge through it. You can lay some damp grass on the live fence, and lead the horse up to it to sample, but do stand well clear. However, there is another side to this coin. Having more brains than cattle, horses may remember an electric fence in a certain place after it has been moved, and they have been known to refuse to leave a paddock long after the electric fence has gone, so be sure that they know that the exit gate is safe.
Further to this, no fencing is complete without a neat gate, functioning properly, that is both secure and safe. Gateways can be dangerous places, through which horses may tend to barge to their own and their handler’s detriment so, even for hand gates, 4 ft (1.2 m) should be the minimum width. Gates that swing properly and latch smoothly are a perpetual boon, both in terms of time saving and safety. These attributes are products of correct construction, especially ensuring that the hanging post, on which the hinges are hung, is perpendicular and, particularly with regard to wooden, gates proper maintenance and freedom from abuse. It is a great advantage if the gate is not set in the lowest, least well drained part of the field, since gateways churn up readily enough in wet weather without the burden of additional run-off.
In these days of increasing crime, gates especially those close to roadways may need to be secured with stout padlocks and chains, and with perhaps an iron bar driven in just above each crook to prevent the gate from being readily lifted clear.
Shelter, Water and Provision of Winter Feed
Even if turned away in New Zealand rugs (see Chapter 4), there are times when horses will benefit from shelter. This may be especially the case if they are turned out periodically during the time when they are being prepared for the showing season, and grooming has thus begun. If a purpose-built shelter is provided, a concrete base will prevent the floor from becoming poached. Entrances should be wide enough to ensure that no inmate can be trapped and bullied by other horses, and the open (entrance) side should usually face southwest, on the basis that the coldest winds usually emanate from the north or east. Any existing structures pressed into service as shelters should preferably comply with these criteria, and it is certainly the case that a tall, bushy hedge provides better shelter than an inadequate shed.
Whilst discussing shelter, it should be added that actual stables for heavy horses should be both large and robust. The standard size often quoted for a loose box, 14 x 12 feet (4.34 x 3.72 m) is the minimum for a heavy horse, but recent structures measuring 20 x 20 feet (6.4 x 6.4 m) are wonderful, giving a great sense of space and freedom. Doorways should be at least 4 feet (1.2 m) wide and 7 feet six inches (2.32m) high. The propensity of certain horses to lean on things, mentioned in the context of field boundaries, may extend to stable structures, and this should be taken into account when assessing existing stabling, or planning new constructions.
Clean, fresh water is essential for all horses, whether housed or at pasture. In the field, this is usually provided by a ball-valve trough. This should be situated on a well-drained part of the field, preferably on a concrete base, and preferably away from trees and hedges to prevent falling leaves from fouling the water. It should be free from any sharp edges or projections, with any taps or fittings boxed in and the supply pipe well lagged. In severe weather, it should be checked for ice, and for continued functioning, at least daily.
If water is supplied in buckets, these should be large, robust and preferably stood in old tyres to aid stability. Very regular checking and refilling is essential at all times.
In most cases, natural sources will be unsatisfactory for watering horses, particularly as this means that the horses will soil their feather when going down to drink. Certainly, stagnant ponds and streams with sand or clay beds are unsuitable, and should be securely fenced off.
If it is necessary to feed horses at grass (for example, to provide supplementary hay during harsh winter conditions), it is best to do so in a relatively well-drained area. Where groups of horses are involved, provide more piles of hay than there are horses, and place them some Way apart, to avoid any problems of fighting or bullying.
In addition to using the appropriate materials for fencing, fences and boundaries should be checked on a regular basis, and any defects made good immediately. This applies particularly to slackened wire, loose or protruding nails and broken rails. Areas where horses congregate in close proximity to field boundaries, such as beneath hedgerow trees, often require extra attention. Remember that straying horses are a danger to themselves and other road users. Furthermore, so far as English law is concerned, the owner or keeper of an animal found straying on the highway commits an offence under the Highways Act 1980 and, if an animal strays onto and damages another’s property, there may be repercussions under the Animals Act 1971. Therefore, in addition to making every effort to ensure secure fencing, it makes sense for horse owners to be covered against third party liability.
Apart from ragwort (dealt with under Weed Control), the plants most likely to concern the horse owner are those associated with the hedges and gardens of human habitation. These include laurel, privet, laburnum, box, rhododendron and yew. Although the first two mentioned would not normally prove fatal to a healthy horse, the others must be considered extremely dangerous. Therefore, be especially careful if your pasture adjoins gardens or hedged walkways, and make very sure that neighbours do not deposit clippings into your pasture under the mistaken impression that they are ‘giving the horses a treat’. (Even if the clippings do not contain any poisonous plants, the short-cut grass can cause compaction in the horse’s digestive system.) Remember, also, that heavy horses have enormously long and strong necks and a capacity for leaning on apparently safe barriers, and can reach forbidden fruits many feet away, This must be taken into account when fencing close to human habitation.
Yew, of course, is not simply confined to gardens, and it goes without saying that horses cannot be kept in fields containing, or adjacent to, yew trees. It is, however, the case that many horses are kept in fields containing oak, and caution is needed here. Some horses develop a liking for acorns and, particularly in certain seasons, these can cause poisoning if eaten in quantity. In most cases, this is relatively mild, but still undesirable. It is, therefore, good policy to collect fallen acorns. An alternative, if it fits your regime and you have suitable temporary fencing available, is to use pigs to eat the acorns, since they are not affected by them.
Poisonous plants more associated with meadows and hedgerows than with gardens include deadly nightshade, foxglove, hard rush, hemlock, horsetails and meadow saffron. Found in wet soils, hard rush is very tough and would usually be eaten only if the rest of the pasture was bare. Much the same applies to horsetails, although large amounts eaten in hay would be very dangerous. Deadly nightshade is usually not deadly to horses, but its consumption is highly undesirable, while foxgloves, although rarely eaten, can prove fatal in small quantities. Hemlock would need to be eaten in some quantity to cause death, but lesser quantities can cause levels of narcosis and paralysis, while meadow saffron has a markedly toxic effect, which usually becomes evident too late to save the horse.
It should be evident from this brief summary that all horse owners should familiarize themselves with the full range of plants that are poisonous to horses, and take measures to ensure that these are eradicated from the vicinity of their charges.
Seed Mixtures for Planted Pasture
A hard-wearing sward is necessary for horses, which are bad grazers at the best of times, selecting certain areas and refusing others used as a latrine area, while youngstock in particular are apt to go careering around, cutting up the ground in wet times. If you are in a position to seed your own pasture, pre-planning and planting an appropriate mix of grasses can help minimize the effects of supporting a heavy horse population.
Modern grass mixtures hold many advantages over some of the older types, but the basic principle remains that a range of species is an insurance against any one succumbing to adverse circumstances such as drought, and is more palatable to the stock. Perennial ryegrass and turf-type perennial ryegrass form the basis of production for a modern sward. These are augmented by strong creeping red fescue, smooth-stalked meadow grass and crested dogstail. For still harder wear, for example if the field is to be used in part as a schooling area, the smooth-stalked meadow grass is omitted and slender creeping red fescue added. This latter mixture is designed to produce a very dense, Springy sward, capable of withstanding very heavy wear. However, if used regularly for schooling, it cannot be expected to provide so much in the way of grazing.
The addition of mixed deep-rooted herbs such as burnet, chicory, wild garlic and yarrow will enhance the horses’ intake of minerals and assist with the calcium and phosphorous levels. However, if you intend to use weedkiller (herbicide) on the field, then the herbs should not be mixed in with other grasses. In fact, since herbs generally flourish in infertile conditions, the same applies if you intend to use fertilizer, so the best place for herbs is usually in a strip along a particular fence line.
With sufficient pasture the grazing may be rotated. Sub-dividing existing areas facilitates pasture management, helps worm control and allows the necessary resting period. While the paddock is being rested, it may be topped with a mower or, better still, grazed down by cattle. Strong store cattle about eighteen months old are ideal. By all means get some agistment (grazing fee) money for them if you can, but even if not they will level off the pasture, wrapping their rough tongues round herbage left by the more fastidious horses.
Heavily grazed areas tend to become lime-deficient, so they should be soil-tested, and the necessary lime applied. The soil may also become impoverished, resulting in thin swards and bare patches, which encourage weeds. In this case, fertilizers may be needed, but the horse keeper must avoid that over-lush growth of pasture that encourages laminitis (see Chapter 6). If nitrogen is used on the horse pasture, it should only be applied when really needed. While shepherd and cowman seek maximum production, the horse keeper requires a level growth throughout the grazing season. Remember, also, that it is pointless boosting a pasture in late spring when there is already an abundance of growth. However, small, frequent doses of nitrogen to encourage early spring, late summer and autumn growth may be invaluable. Ideally, horses should be kept off the pasture until rain has washed in the fertilizer, but in dry weather, some time can be allowed for the dews to do their work
Ideally, horse droppings should be picked up daily. Where this is not possible, harrowing with grass, chain or parmiter harrows spreads the droppings. An old method if no suitable barrow is available is to tie hawthorn branches to a horizontal five-barred gate, turn it over so that the gate adds weight, and pull it by ropes attached to the traces. Remember that harrowing is an ideal means of training and exercising young horses. When horse power is available, use it. To do otherwise is as silly as the practice once used in sheep dog trials, of having a team of men to bring off the sheep at the end of each run, instead of using a dog.
If an area of grazing is to be shut up for haymaking, it should first be harrowed and then rolled. The object of rolling is to press any stones into the soil so that they are not caught by the grass reaper blades. Molehills, which soon blunt a sharp knife, are similarly dealt with.
Again, the roller is a good means of training a young horse alongside an old stager.
When horses are grazed alongside cattle and sheep, pasture management and weed control are that much easier. However, nowadays more and more horses are kept as the sole grazers.
Horse pastures present special problems for weed management, and weedy swards on frequently overstocked horse paddocks are a common sight on the fringes of many towns and cities. The highly selective grazing behaviour of horses and their preference for separate grazing and latrine areas in the same paddock encourage infestations of weeds, none of which are beneficial and some of which are injurious.
Where infestation becomes a problem, it may be necessary to employ herbicides. This should be done out of necessity rather than as a general measure and, where possible, knapsack spraying of weed ‘blackspots’ is to be preferred to blanket spraying. If spraying becomes necessary, it is important to bear the following points in mind:
- Herbicides are toxic some dangerously so. Manufacturers’ instructions should be followed implicitly in all respects. including the use of protective clothing.
- Horses should not be allowed to graze the sprayed pasture until heavy rainfall has washed all the weedkiller off the herbage. Again, this general rule should be supplemented with specific advice given by the manufacturer.
- If it is necessary to spray a large area, it may be best to engage an expert contractor.
- Spraying should never be done on a windy day.
- Generally, the best time to spray pasture is when the grass is still young. This gives the grass the best opportunity to grow strongly and smother the wilted weeds.
It should be noted that, under two existing Acts, landowners in England are legally obliged to eradicate specific weeds from their land. If you rent, rather than own, your grazing, you may need to ascertain whether this obligation is yours or your landlord’s, but the weeds in question are ragwort, dock and creeping and spear thistles.
Of these, ragwort is the most pernicious, causing dysfunction of the liver in horses, which can prove fatal. Although local authorities have a legal obligation to control its growth in public areas, they seldom seem to bother and roadside verges are often a prime source of ragwort seed. Since this seed can blow into your pasture every year, you are never free of the risk. It is also the case that many landowners fail singularly to fulfil their obligations, and it is devastating to see horses grazing bare pasture on the edge of towns, picking among a forest of the ‘yellow peril’. Although horses do not generally eat ragwort as it grows, this is little comfort, since they apparently find it more palatable in its wilted state, when it is at its most poisonous. It is particularly lethal when eaten in hay.
The simplest and best way to eradicate ragwort is to uproot it by hand, which can be done readily enough, especially after rain. Since the stems are quite woody, it helps to wear a stout pair of gloves. All of the uprooted material should then be removed from the pasture and burnt. Because of the biennial nature of the weed, and its wind-borne seeds, this process will have to be repeated annually.
Sheep seem to be able to graze ragwort with no ill effects. They may be a supplementary means of control, if it suits you to have them on your pasture while the ragwort is growing. As mentioned earlier, fencing requirements for sheep differ from those of horses, so modifications -perhaps temporary netting, removed along with the sheep may be necessary. If you have no sheep of your own, a local farmer may be persuaded to put a small flock onto the pasture free of charge.
We are all familiar with the bright green, oval-leafed weed that is dock. This is a particularly robust and hardy plant, which develops a deep taproot that expands by a phalanx growth system. As a mature dock may produce up to 60,000 seeds a year, and as these may lie buried in the soil for several years before germinating, the problems are obvious.
Dock is, in fact, fairly easily controlled by approved sprays, but for reasons previously mentioned, the horse owner may dislike spraying. If spraying is not to be the means of control, then regular cutting will eventually weaken the plant, but if you inherit a mature and thriving stand, digging up each individual plant may be possible. One Worcestershire horse owner who took over a dock-infested paddock dug up the bigger specimens with a special inverted-V shaped spade, and pulled up the smaller ones by hand right down to earth level. This, combined with liming, over-sowing with a grass/white clover mixture, and daily removal of droppings, resulted in a much-improved pasture within three years.
Like dock, thistles are readily controllable by spraying late spring, prior to flowering being the best time. Whatever one’s reservations about the method, spraying is almost certainly the most effective means of dealing with creeping thistles, which spread through subterranean systems, their seeds being mainly infertile. Where sprays are unwelcome, constant cutting and mowing will eventually weaken them, and this method is fairly effective in dealing with the large Scotch thistles, which spread by seed alone. However, so far as cutting is concerned, the old rhyme that tells us:
Cut them in June and they’ll come again soon;
Cut them in July and they’ll soon die;
Cut them in August and die they must.
can be considered wildly optimistic. This principle was followed in pre-spraying days, yet thistles flourished year after year!
Other weeds, not subject to legislation, but potential nuisances, are nettles and bracken. Nettles are harmless to horses if eaten, and some animals seem to relish them. However, they can spread rapidly and take over whole areas of paddock or pasture. Frequent mowing will keep them in check, while applications of common salt will help on small, dense areas. Alternatively, they can be controlled by spraying. Either method should be carried out during their growing season between April and September, before they go to seed.
Bracken is largely a weed of upland and marginal land rather than the fertile lowlands, so it is less likely to be found where heavy horses are kept. However, although horses do not normally eat it in quantity, it is potentially poisonous, having the capacity to cause internal haemorrhage and containing a substance that inhibits the uptake of vitamin B1. Its presence on grazing land is therefore undesirable. Constant bruising will check its growth, but the best method is to plough up the mass of rhizomes that lie beneath the bracken bed. Dried bracken is used in some areas as a form of bedding, and it does not appear poisonous at that stage.
Taking a Hay Crop
‘Good hay, sweet hay hath no fellow’, wrote Shakespeare, and his words remain true today. Hay quality and price differ from year to year, and lucky are those horse owners with enough land to make their own. However, practical considerations of quantity and the demands of the show season must be taken into account. Missing an important event for the sake of a few bales of hay is counterproductive, so do remember that once grass is cut for hay even if a small area it takes over and other activities seem to take second place.
The most satisfying way of making horse hay is to use your own animals to haul a mower, even if it is powered by an auxiliary engine. Finger mowers with cutter bars are out of fashion, and may be relatively cheap to obtain, yet quite suitable for small areas. You need to learn to sharpen knives and to replace blades or sections, but both are basically simple Operations.
The object of haymaking is to reduce the moisture content of the grass to a point when it may be safely stored. Rapid rates of drying are fundamental to this, but so is even drying. Any moist patches inevitably result in the growth of mould, which can affect the horse’s respiratory system. Horses are far more susceptible to such problems than cattle and, when making hay for horses, it is important to remember the physiological differences between them and other livestock Whereas cattle and sheep can digest some 60-70 per cent of the fibre content of hay, horses can digest only about 30 per cent. Thus, while grasses and clovers harvested as the flower heads are fading may be of optimum weight/feed value for cattle, that stage is too late for ideal horse hay. Hay for horses should be cut at the leafy stage, even though that means it will take longer to cure.
The more the sward is shaken out in dry weather, the quicker the drying. There are two schools of thought here. One is to follow the mower immediately or almost immediately with the tedder or turner, and continue the process as often as possible until the requisite dryness is achieved. The snag here is that the more the crop is shaken out and dried, the more damage it takes if the weather breaks. The second, now rather old-fashioned, method is to let the swathe bake on one side, and leave it untouched until the top is thoroughly dry. It is then flipped over and the underside cured. This takes longer, but is safer as the unbroken swathe will shed a lot of rain with little adverse effect.
When dry enough, the hay may be baled. If it is not dry enough the small pick-up baler will not tackle it. For just one or two horses you do not need expensive machinery; some of the best hay is made by cocking as soon as the crop is partly dry, which is well before it can be either baled or stacked. In wet districts like western Scotland and the Lake District, the grass may be put into small hand cocks as some safeguard against the weather, and then into ever bigger ones. Use of tripods, which allow air to circulate through the pike (a higher version of the haycock), is another small-scale technique that can result in excellent hay, if the amount of hand labour is discounted.
Haylage, described more fully in the previous chapter, is a term for herbage halfway between hay and silage, and is becoming more and more popular with horse owners. In recent years, it has enjoyed increasing popularity as a cash crop since, when made correctly, it is less risky than hay, and is readily handled mechanically. However, the requirement for a machine to bale the haylage, and another to bag it, means that small-scale operators will rely on a contractor to make haylage. While the contractor will try to fit in all clients as best he can, he will doubtless be very busy so, in respect of taking the crop at the optimum time, it is important to stress that high quality fodder for horses is the aim.