Grazing: It's Time to Change the Status Quo!
As horse owners, we all understand the importance of having a really nice field to keep our horses on. But could this seemingly normal grazing environment actually be doing more harm than good?
For the majority of us in the UK, definitely! I'm not sure about the USA, but here in the UK, the majority of our grazing land has been sown for beef and dairy cattle. The grass is high in energy, fast growing and is full of sugar.
This makes perfect sense if you want to increase the milk yield or quality (and quantity) of beef in cattle, but for horses, it can have devastating consequences. Horses are natural foragers and tend to graze on a variety of different grasses, herbs, trees and other vegetation.
However, when confined to a paddock full of lush grass, many of them over-indulge leading to an increased risk of colic, uncontrolled weight gain and an increased susceptibility to developing laminitis.
I always used to worry that Skye might not have enough grass, and it was exactly the same when I moved to our new yard. We moved from a place where there was always grass available throughout the year as the ground was wet and peaty to a much drier area where grass is sparse.
I never realised, that by allowing Skye to have unrestricted access to that amount of grass, I was potentially putting her health at risk. There have been times when she has been a little overweight, and as a young horse, this could be putting a much greater strain on her joints.
But here in the UK, we are almost conditioned to believe that that is what's best for our horses. Grass is what they eat, and that's fine. Well, I don't think that way anymore, and I'm actually relieved that there isn't as much grass in our new yard!
Unfortunately I have very little say in how the field is managed at our yard, but if I had my own land, I would most definitely set up a track system.
A track system is basically a way of creating a more natural grazing environment, which encourages the horses to move around more rather than standing in one place and eating constantly.
The idea is to limit access to grass by creating tracks that split the paddock up into different areas to mimic a more natural foraging lifestyle.
This could include:
- A wooded area for shade and scratching
- Sand pits for rolling
- Hills to increase movement
- Herb planters
- Brushes for rubbing and scratching
- Stoney areas to encourage natural wear of the hooves
- Shelter from the weather
- Natural or man-made rivers/ponds, and much, much more!
The aim is to create a track system that is as stimulating as possible, and ultimately this will reduce illness and injury as well as keeping the horses relaxed and happy.
Here's a great example of a track system, taken from http://www.horsehavenuk.co.uk/
Unfortunately, it's going to take a long time for old habits to change, but I'm remaining optimistic! There are already a few livery yards in the UK that offer track systems instead of paddock grazing, but there should be so many more.
Being such a small island, space is always an issue, but there has to be a better way, and there already seems to be a bit of shift in thinking. I'm not sure that it will ever be possible to keep every horse on a track system in the UK, but if we continue to raise awareness of the dangers of keeping horses on land more suited to cattle, we might be able to make greater steps in changing the status quo!