Since welcoming Dax into my life back in May, I’ve been on quite a learning journey. It’s been a fascinating process seeing how the theory that I’ve picked up over the years translates into applied practice – and how it doesn’t always fit the individual as neatly as the books and training might suggest! This was one of my reasons for getting a horse ‘of my own’: to build a relationship and to learn more about the practicalities of caring for an equine.
I’ve also had the opportunity to see what life on a yard is like – when your horse lives there – compared to the yards that I’d visited through work. I was very fortunate to be on a lovely yard with fairly like-minded people. It was a small establishment with only 2 other people and a total of 5 horses, while I was there. We worked pretty well together, sharing poo picking and happily stepping in when one or other of us went away for a few days. It was lovely to have others to share and consult or even just chat with, back in those long warm summer evenings.
Now that we’ve moved to Wales and have 2 horses, things are different in many ways. There’s a lot more poo picking for a start!! Thankfully my husband often steps in to help. (He nicknamed himself ‘Professor Poo’ back in our yard days, so he has to keep his hand in, so to speak!)
On the plus side, it’s lovely to have the horses here on site with us. We can’t quite see them from the house, due to the trees and the fact that the fields are further up the hill, but it’s wonderful to be able to just pop up and see them. It’s also easier to organise my day, now that I don’t have to think about making a trip to the yard. I just go up first thing every morning to check on them after the night (and at the moment, I’m checking that they’re warm enough), deliver some hay and do the first round of poo picking. I then go up again in the evening for more of the same. We’ll soon be getting a field shelter with a hay store which will mean I don’t have to push the barrow up the hill so often, which will be nice – though it has been a good way to build up my core strength!
Sometimes work commitments mean that it’s still dark when I go up in the morning, or the sun has set by the time I get home. A head-torch is great on these occasions – though I’ve been surprised at how much I can actually see, even in the dark – but I often leave the poo picking until the next day as it’s difficult to spot, even with the beam of the torch. On these mornings and evenings it’s wonderful to hear the birds and owls calling to each other! One of the many perks of moving out of the city.
At the moment the main issues I’m dealing with are the weather, whether or not to rug, and managing the grass. We’re higher up than we were used to, here on the Blorenge, which has meant that we’ve had some very cold nights and frosty starts. I can sometimes be a cold bod and I like to feel warm, so it can be very tempting to wrap the horses up in a big snuggly rug, however I know that horses are great at making their own inner heat, due to their hind gut fermentation processes.
Dax is a hardy fella, having lived out, without a field shelter, even in the snows earlier this year, but Rika was used to being rugged and stabled, so I was unsure how she would adapt. She came with 2 rugs – a waterproof and a quilted one – so I kept a close eye on her, and the forecast, in case I would need to use them. So far, I’ve used each one once but, on reflection, I think it was unnecessary. It was more a case of me being overly worried for her, particularly as we don’t yet have a field shelter, than of any real need for extra protection for her. I also ended up just worrying that I was interfering with her body’s natural mechanisms for keeping warm. A rug can keep the hair from being able to fluff up to trap air, and also mean that they are too warm in some areas, while in contrast other parts of their body are relatively cool / cold. In fact that the weather wasn’t as wet as predicted, and even on the really frosty mornings, she has been lovely and warm and hasn’t shown any signs of shivering, or looking miserable or ‘tucked up’.
A big factor is that they have plenty of hay and ad lib access to forage in the fields. There is grass, hedging and lots of herby things for them to browse on throughout the day and night. Digesting this, helps to keep their inner heating system ticking over nicely. They also make good use of the natural shelter provided by the hedges and trees. It will be interesting to see how much they actually use the shelter when it comes! Perhaps they will even prefer to be out in the field where they can see in all directions, which is, after all, how horses in the wild keep themselves safe.
Their coats, too, are wonderfully engineered to keep them warm. The hair forms rivulet patterns when it rains, to help direct the water away from their skin. It has also thickened up and stands on end to trap air, which forms an extra layer of insulation. Dax, in particular, often looks very fluffy and has been affectionately nicknamed our Woolly Bear. Rika’s coat seems to be working differently in that it has become oily and dense, though it too looks fluffier than before.
Rika’s fluffy, dense winter coat
The ‘hole’ is due to a love-bite from Dax when Rika was in season
Rain patterns in Dax’s coat forming channels to allow the water to run off
Our muddy, woolly bear!
They’re also both decidedly muddy! I fondly and amusedly despaired at Dax one morning when I saw just how dirty he was. At least, I thought, he can’t be cold if he’s rolling in the wet mud. He assured me that it was good to get muddy! Now I know that rolling is good for our horses – it’s kinda like a massage for their back muscles – but I wasn’t entirely convinced about the mud… Dax insisted that it was ‘good’. When I asked him why, he just said:
It just Is… Why do you hoomans always need to know a why?!
Trust him to have the last word!
The other issue is the grass. We’re very fortunate that we have soil that tends towards being sandy, and we’re high up on the side of the hill, so our drainage is good, and we have very little mud. Long may this last! I now just need to work out how to best manage the land so that it doesn’t become poached and so that we keep the grass healthy. The horses currently have access to 2 of the 3 fields. The third field has longer, richer grass, and I’m hoping to use this, alongside the hay, to feed Dax and Rika as the weather gets colder. By then, there should be little risk of laminitis – providing we don’t have too much bright, frosty weather which could still result in high sugar levels!
I hope that this lifestyle that provides them with as natural and varied a diet as I can, fewer stresses, plenty of room to run or just mooch around will help to keep them healthy, happy and well.
I’d love to hear from you and your horses:
- What are your tips for surviving the winter months?
- How do your horses respond to the weather?
Hoping that you can all manage to stay warm, dry and reasonably mud-free – humans anyway!