Apr 18

Last month we looked at the benefits of environmental enrichment for the stabled horse, or one on box rest. This month’s article focuses on the horse at pasture.

When we turn out a horse in a field we, quite rightly, think that we are improving his welfare by providing the opportunity for him to move around freely, get some sun on his back (hopefully!) and generally ‘be a horse’. And there is no doubt that being turned out, for a horse, is extremely important, and nearly always preferable to being stabled. But turnout is not always the bed of roses we might hope for: how many of us have had horses, or seen horses, who fence-walk, wait at the gate for hours to be brought back in, chew fences or bomb about wrecking the ground, pulling their shoes off and injuring themselves? And how many times have we concluded that, in fact, the horse doesn’t really like being turned out – he would rather be in his stable?

But is this really the case, or is there another reason?

The trouble is that, in many cases, for the horse his field is no more a natural environment than his stable is. Increasingly, pressure on land and costs and the easy availability of cheap and convenient electric fencing have led to a situation in which many horses are turned out or kept 24/7 in fields that offer them no stimulation at all – and, to compound this problem, they are frequently turned out in them alone. We might hope that turnout allows our horses an opportunity to carry out natural behaviours, but all too often the reverse is the case – and what we see are the dysfunctional behaviours mentioned above.

How can we as owners and keepers make things better for the turned-out horse?

Natural behaviours

The first thing to do is to consider how the horse would like to behave if given the chance. Many studies on ‘wild’ or feral horses have established ‘time budgets’ which define how long horses tend to carry out certain behaviours depending on their environment (how much food is available, how far apart water sources are, the make-up of the group and so on), and have how they carry out these activities. Differences mainly depend on the environment, but in general horses will spent 12–20 hours a day eating and the rest of the time is divided between sleeping, resting and socialising – mutually grooming, playing and otherwise interacting. Bands of horses may come together into a larger group to drink and rest, before returning to foraging in their smaller herds. Sustained aggression is rarely seen. Movement tends to be purposeful, but most of it is carried out at a walk – that is, horses move slowly from one food source to another. Between grazing bouts, when they have filled their stomachs, they will carry out the other behaviours. As can be easily seen, these things are not always mirrored in any significant way in the keeping of domestic horses. So how can we improve things?

Pasture 4

Forage

It seems self-evident that horses in fields should be able to eat, but in the winter, or where pastures are used continuously (set stocking) and overgrazed, there is often less grass available than will provide a horse’s maintenance needs, and additional forage must be supplied. On livery yards that don’t allow the feeding of hay in the fields this means that the owner may have to chose between letting the horse have some freedom or allowing him to eat. Horses have a psychological and physical need to eat for large portions of the day – they produce stomach acid continuously, for example, which is why horses fed a diet low in fibre often suffer from gastric ulcers. In bare or muddy fields they will have no reason to move – as their main reason for moving is to look for food – and will tend to hang around at the gate or, if a ‘buzzier’ type, fence-walk in frustration, putting pressure on both their joints and the ground they compact or poach in the process. They may chew fences or trees to satisfy their need for fibre, particularly if the rest of their diet is low in essential minerals.

Even horses kept on a bare field to encourage them to lose weight require forage for the proper functioning of their gut and to give them sufficient protein, and forage must thus be supplied at a minimum of 1.5% of bodyweight; it may be necessary to source low-sugar hay or haylage or to soak the forage and to provide a good-quality mineral supplement so that the horse’s nutritional needs are met. It must be remembered, too, that horses can eat down to ground level, and when forced by hunger and boredom to graze over-short pasture will take in soil and grit, possibly resulting in sand colic. In contrast, horses that have access to ad lib forage can display natural behaviours, choosing when to eat, when to move and when to rest; they don’t feel they must eat all the time because they know that food will always be available, and are at less risk of health problems such as colic. If forage is dotted or scattered about the field, if necessary in a number of slow feeders, the horse will be further encouraged to move naturally to find his food.

Pasture2

Friends

Horses are social prey animals, and all facets of their lives are affected by this fact. Being part of a herd means safety, comfort, social relationships and the ability to find food and shelter. Although humans have largely replaced many of the functions of a herd for domesticated horses this does not mean that horses’ need to be part of a herd has diminished. For example, particularly when turned out 24/7, horses require companions in order to get sufficient good-quality sleep, which can only be achieved by lying down. Mutual grooming, playing and mutual protection from flies are natural behaviours that can only be properly displayed among horses turned out together, and are behaviours increasingly less often seen; indeed, some horses do not appear to know how to carry them out in a socially ‘acceptable’ manner, and the ensuing trouble between fieldmates often discourages owners from allowing their horse the time to learn, in case they are injured. Solitary horses, however, are naturally more anxious and more likely as a consequence to fence-walk, interact over fences with other horses (sometimes with disastrous results), or charge about, with the potential of a slip or a tweak. Life in a well-integrated group, by contrast, reduces horses’ stress levels – understandably – and makes them more relaxed, productive and easier to train for their human partners.

Pasture 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freedom

As owners we are all understandably protective of our horses, but we shouldn’t let this blind us to their essential nature. We spent time and effort in making their fields safe places to be, removing every poisonous plant, checking fences and looking after the ground. We spend less time, however, making them interesting places for horses. Horses are well adapted to cope with very varying terrain, with woodland, with water, and these things are also helpful for their health and comfort – increasing agility and fitness, providing shade and scratching places, and giving them muddy patches to roll in and another way to cool down on a hot day. They also, in general, know – through millions of years of successful evolution – what to eat and what not to eat: blanket spraying to remove unwanted weeds such as ragwort will also remove many useful, health-giving herbs and reduce the quality of the horse’s diet, but the vast majority of horses will not touch toxic weeds if they have plenty of safe forage. While we might still want to remove such plants it can often be done selectively, by spot spraying or pulling, and other plants thus preserved.

While we may not be able to provide a full range of terrain in our fields, we can still improve them beyond being mere places to mooch and eat. Scratching posts and field toys such as large gym balls are among the simplest and easiest options, and provide sensory stimulation and choice for the horse. Management systems such as perimeter tracks can serve a variety of purposes, such as restricting access to grass and encouraging more movement, and can also be used to increase interest by, for example, providing obstacles such as telegraph poles for the horses to negotiate, or multiple loops of track to give the horse more choice. For those in suitable situations, long-term plans could include the planting of suitable native trees and shrubs – with protection until they’re established – to offer both shelter and browsing options that will add interest and variety to the diet.

Next month’s article will focus on some increasingly popular management systems for field-kept horses that can be used to help improve both horse welfare and behaviour and soil health.

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