May 18

Last month’s article focused on the enriched horse at pasture. This month we look at two increasingly popular management systems for field-kept horses that can be used to help improve both horse welfare and behaviour and soil health.

The Paddock Paradise system

This is a form of management popularised by the natural hoofcare advocate Jaime Jackson in his book Paddock Paradise: A Guide to Natural Horse Boarding. The basic premise is simple: instead of being turned out into a field, horses have access to a narrow trackway, be that a simple loop around the perimeter of a field or a more complex network taking in yard areas, other forms of terrain such as woodland, and multiple loops of track. Water, shelter, shade and hay are placed at strategic points to encourage the horses to move about as much as possible, thus improving their health and fitness. In its fullest form, the track contains only bare ground (much easier to achieve in a dry climate!) and horses are fed on ad lib hay, with appropriate supplementation and hard feed as required. Many people, particularly in the UK, put up temporary track systems on grass for the summer months to restrict access to grass while encouraging movement, grazing the central areas over the winter as standing hay.

This type of system arose partly in an attempt to more closely mimic horses’ natural behaviours and partly to restrict access to grass to reduce the likelihood of weight gain, laminitis and metabolic disorders.

In terms of natural behaviours, it is thought that carefully planned track systems mimic the horse’s daily round of moving between resources – the water source, feeding areas and resting areas with shade and shelter. For a track system to work well, all of these aspects must be provided, preferably spaced widely apart, and the horses encouraged to move between them. If a track contains grass, there is less incentive for the horses to move between resources frequently.

Tracks can also be used to restrict horses’ access to grass, particularly in periods where grass is thought to be high in sugar. Horses with disorders such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), insulin resistance (IR) or laminitis may benefit from receiving a low-calorie feed that is also consistent in terms of its sugar and starch content and that can be provided ad lib, thus avoiding the insulin spikes associated with daily feeding ‘events’ and allowing them to eat, rest and so on at times of their choosing, rather than being micro-managed in an attempt to avoid periods when grass is high in sugars. For such horses, the feeding of low-sugar or soaked hay in slow, or ‘trickle’, feeders on a grass-free track can be beneficial to their health and make the management of their conditions easier. A dirt or surfaced track is particularly beneficial in that it prevents the horse from eating very short grass, which is often particularly high in sugar.

Such a system can be enriched in a variety of ways. A greater degree of movement can be encouraged by placing obstacles such as logs or telegraph poles across the track so that the horses must step over them occasionally. Hay and water should, as noted, be placed at a good distance apart so that horses must walk that distance between them. For horses kept barefoot, areas of different types of footing can be provided relatively cheaply (since they only need to span the width of the track) – so surfaces such as gravel, sand or hardcore can be laid to provide more stimulation for the hooves. Where money is no object, entire track systems can be surfaced to eliminate both grass and mud. Areas of water, if the soil type is suitable, or sand pits can be incorporated for cooling down and rolling or sleeping. If available, tracks can be routed through woodland, or trees can be planted alongside, to provide shade and shelter, in addition to manmade shade sails or field shelters. The planting of beneficial herbs and shrubs alongside the track can give additional browsing opportunities.

Joy, available through H4H for permanent rehome (see http://horses4homes.net/portal/en/details/joy-24612).

Joy, available through H4H for permanent rehome (see http://horses4homes.net/portal/en/details/joy-24612).

Track systems, like any other, also have a number of disadvantages. In the UK, it is difficult to run horses on a track year-round without some form of surfacing, as in most areas a bare dirt or grass surface will quickly reduce to mud, which can cause skin problems such as mud fever, muscle strains due to slipping, and so on. Horses need somewhere dry to get out of the mud for some of the day if an unsurfaced track is used over the winter. In this scenario an alternative approach for the winter is to graze the central areas on which grass has been allowed to grow, while the track itself is rested until the following summer.

In addition, when feeding a diet of hay only it must be remembered that appropriate supplementation must be given. Hay, unlike growing grass, is very low in vitamin E, and soaking hay removes valuable minerals as well as sugar, which must be replaced to ensure that deficiences do not occur. Forage testing can help identify major deficiences. Horses that eat only hay may also suffer dental problems. Some of these, such as abnormal wear or damage to the incisors, are caused by eating from slow feeders, especially those with metal grids covering the hay, but it must also be remembered that the role of the incisors is to bite off the food selected before it is passed to the molars for chewing. If the horse does not have to bite off its food, but merely pull it from a net with its lips, insufficient correct wear of the incisors may occur.

It is also unclear what impact track systems have on movement. Little research has been done in this area, although anecdotal evidence suggests that horses on a track do not move further than ones turned out in a field where adequate grass is available, but that they may move faster when they do move. It should not be forgotten that a horse grazing on pasture will move when grazing; while they may not move as much as their feral cousins, GPS tracking showed horses turned out in a paddock moving up to 10km in one day simply in the course of eating. In contrast, horses eating from haynets or slow feeders stand still to eat.

The Equicentral system

This system couldn’t be more different from the Paddock Paradise system, as it focuses entirely on grass. It revolves around improving the health of the soil and the grass, and thus the health of the horses that graze it. It comprises a large central surfaced ‘holding’ or ‘loafing’ area from which a number of fields are directly accessed. In the holding area is the only water source, as well as shade, shelter, hay and comfortable surfaces to encourage the horses to come to drink and then rest, off the grass. Its main aim is to keep the horses off the grass at all times when they are not grazing, and to allow them to graze only when the grass is at a ‘safe’ height – that is, when it is generally lowest in sugar.

Horses may thus be confined to the holding area with ad lib hay when conditions are poor for grazing – when it is very wet or very dry, for example, or there is insufficient grass – so that the land does not become poached, compacted or overgrazed; during horses’ turnout time the holding area is left open so that the horses can come and go as they please. When they are sure that they will have access to food when they want it, they will voluntarily use the loafing area to drink, rest and interact between periods of eating, thus saving the grass from trampling damage. As can be seen in many yards, gateways and edges and corners of field often become bare of grass because horses linger in these areas, compacting the ground and killing the grass. In wet conditions this means mud; in dry conditions dust, subsequent water run-off, and the loss of valuable topsoil via erosion. Horse-keeping is acquiring a poor reputation in some quarters, as bad land management leads to horse-sick, weed-infested paddocks with bare patches which are generally unsightly. This system aims to avoid these problems and thus improve horse-keeping’s image, as well as the land and the horses that graze it.

Tegan, available to share through H4H (see http://horses4homes.net/portal/en/details/tegan-25270)

Tegan, available to share through H4H (see http://horses4homes.net/portal/en/details/tegan-25270)

The key to the system is rotational grazing, rather than ‘set stocking’ (in which all land is used all the time). The aim should be to use no more than a third of the available land at one time, grazing all the horses together as a herd intensively and then moving them on – the speed of the rotation depending on the recovery rate of the grass. Feeding ‘safe’ grass is also a crucial part of the system. This is grass in its ‘elongation’ stage, when it is leafy and between 5 and 20cm in height – this will vary between species. At this stage grass is relatively low in sugar and has a high water content. Moving horses on when the grass has been grazed to around 5cm in height will avoiding stressing the grass, will allow the sward to thicken up, and will ensure that weaker or slower-growing species are not out-competed, thus preserving and improving biodiversity.

Various methods can be used to improve the soil: mulching bare patches with any suitable organic material, including hay and composted manure, increases organic matter in the soil and thus its capacity to hold water and resist erosion; grass seeds can be sown into this mulch to encourage new growth. Muck spreading and topping the pasture if it is getting too long will return essential nutrients and humus to the soil, whereas the typical system of poopicking and chemical fertilising leads in time to worn-out soil that grows grass with a poor mineral balance and low species diversity.

Like the Paddock Paradise system, the Equicentral system aims to allow horses to exhibit natural behaviours. Most important among these are herd living, the option to move about at will and choose when to exhibit various behaviours, and access to ad lib forage. As is well-known, the horse is evolved to trickle-feed – that is, to have a near-constant through-put of fibrous material. As they produce stomach acid at all times but the buffering saliva only when they chew, ad lib fibre is essential to ensure that the digestive system remains in a good balance. Feeding ‘events’, when horses look to humans to provide the majority of their feed and do not have a choice over when food is available, both alter natural behaviour around food by increasing ‘stressy’ behaviours and aggression and cause insulin spikes that may lead to an increased risk of metabolic problems over time. Allowing horses to interact, to act as a herd in moving between resources, and to rest in each others’ company improves their mental wellbeing and lowers stress levels.

While this system has been used successfully with laminitic and metabolically vulnerable horses and ponies, it may seem unnerving to offer such horses unlimited forage, and indeed it is not suitable for every equine. However, the use of the holding area to offer hay, perhaps soaked, can be managed carefully so that horses can be kept off the grass in the more ‘dangerous’ periods, and to slowly increase their tolerance to grass exposure; it must be ad lib hay, however, so that the horses are not tempted to gorge when let onto the grass. In either case, the improvement of the health of the grass will allow horses to graze it more safely.

Implementing a new system

Both these systems share an ethos of natural horse-keeping revolving around ad lib forage and herd turnout, so are understandably difficult for the one-horse owner on a traditional livery yard to implement. However, slowly, some livery yards are taking up or starting off with such systems, and those owners who rent a field or own their own land are in a position to experiment with management systems to see what best suits them and their horses.

Modern horse-keeping is frequently an unsustainable practice, which appears to be affecting the health of horses and the land. Low biodiversity, poor soil health and unnatural feeding practices may be partly to blame. These systems offer some ways to improve these aspects and give horses a more ‘horsey’ life at the same time.

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