We have already talked about the motivations of a horse, which have to do with his herd behaviour and the fact that he is a prey animal. This is closely related to his three main needs which are social contact with other horses, almost unlimited availability of roughage and free movement. Of course, fresh drinking water is also part of that, but I take it for granted that this is supplied, so I usually don’t even mention it.
What do these things have to do with riding problems? I think a lot.
I myself live in a rural area where it is common for horses to live in a field for most of the day and all year round. To me that is normal. Unfortunately, it is far from this in different parts of the world. In some places it is simply not possible because there is no room or it is too wet. In my point of view if you can’t offer a horse a field, you should make other arrangements. There are enough technological solutions to at least make a dry paddock in which horses can roam.
Keeping a horse in the stable 24 hours a day is like locking you in your bedroom. With some luck you are allowed out once a day and then you have to train very hard. Can you imagine what it does to your body, let alone your head? Not to mention that such peak loads can cause terrible injuries?
Meet the 3 most important needs of a horse
If you meet the three most important necessities of life for a horse there is a good chance that he will be mentally stable and physically healthier. He will be more inclined to willingly follow your instructions for that one hour a day than to try to get the most out of the little freedom he gets as a kind of time bomb.
If your horse is only allowed to go outside occasionally, he will show compensation behaviour. If you release him then he’s going to be an idiot, who increases the chances of injuring himself and making you less eager to release him.
My horses go out every day from eight to five in rain or shine. If the weather is terrible I just rug them up. Only in extremely bad weather they sometimes go in an hour earlier and in very nice weather stay out a little later. They are in a field all together young and old, competition horses and pensioners. For a while I only had geldings and was a bit hesitant to put mares in their field. More females came to the stable so I tried them all together and now everything is mixed up and living in peace. They have a large field so there is enough space to avoid each other if they want to. In the summer there is grass in moderation, because we limit the grazing. Otherwise they will become too fat. In winter I feed hay or silage on the field. They sometimes run but that never lasts long. Sometimes one has a scratch or one loses a shoe, but when I look them in the eye I see calm peace of mind and satisfaction. When I walk into the field to pick up manure, they take turns saying hello and want to be tickled on their withers.
Of course it doesn’t always go well everywhere. In nature a horse chooses its friends by itself. This is not possible the way we keep them, so we put the groups together in a limited space. The risk of injury is sometimes used as an excuse for your own peace of mind. I think we should do everything we can to give horses the most natural life possible, with a lot of free movement and friends around them.
There is a video by the English top trainer Carl Hester in which he explains that all his horses live out in the field and that some of his competition horses even stay outside day and night. Have a look. It is possible to be Olympic and World Champion and put your horses in a field together. I see it now with many more top riders and I hope that partly due to their example this will become the normal situation.
I have written a lot of articles on creative solutions if the three main necessities of welfare for horses cannot be provided. Some examples of this are to take your horse out of the stable as often as possible or to prevent boredom by offering roughage in different places, but actually I don’t believe in it. These remain emergency solutions which should only be used temporarily. You just have to arrange it well or don’t keep horses.
A chapter on management has to include something about nutrition. I regularly attend scientific congresses, veterinary seminars and I read everything I can in this area. We never stop talking about horse nutrition. New discoveries are made over and over but a lot still goes wrong even among people who have kept horses for a long time.
How do I do it with my horses? Well, luckily we live on a large sandy island. As a result the horses can go into a field all year round. I have five stables and I don’t want any more because of the amount of grazing I can offer. I choose to keep our horses in the field during the day and in the stable at night. That is because they are used in sports. Day and night outside would be possible, especially in the summer, because this is normal to horses, but by bringing them in at night I prevent them from eating grass all the time, which helps to keep them a bit more in shape. Moreover, I do not have to get out of bed at night and bring them in when there is a thunderstorm. They say lightning strikes more often here on the island because of the ferrous soil.
A field needs maintenance
With us, every day in the field literally means every day. Even when it rains or snows terribly they go outside. It may seem brutal in bad weather but because they are used to it they are relaxed outside. Cold is not a criteria. A horse experiences this differently.
I have two fields at my disposal. My horses can walk from one to the other through an opening in the fence. At the beginning of the New Year one pasture is closed and it is fertilized. Bare patches are sown if necessary and for this I use special horse grass seed. It is expensive but much better for horses than the standard cow grass. Horses don’t tolerate sugar. Fast growing cow grass produces a lot of sugars, so you don’t want that. In addition, the grasses in the special seed mixture are more resistant to the destructive effect of the horse teeth and hooves.
While one field gets a few months rest, they completely destroy the other. That is why I feed silage or hay every morning in the winter months, depending on the wind and their waist size. Usually around May the grass in the resting field has grown sufficiently. I fence off a small strip where they can first graze for only half an hour. The next day the passage is closed again and I stand with my hands in front of my eyes hoping that they don’t crash through the electric fencing. Believe me, if looks could kill I wouldn’t be writing this here now, because then I have five very angry horses. From then on they can go in for an hour longer every day.
This may seem overly cautious, but the first spring grass is vicious stuff. Despite the special grasses it still contains quite a lot of sugar. The nights are still cold during that period, so that the grass metabolism stops, to get going at an increased pace during the day when it warms up. Such a stress response causes huge sugar production in a plant. You also get that after a mowing. It is a misunderstanding that it is better to put horses on a freshly trimmed field and while we are at it, to not fertilize is unwise. Grass needs nutrition. Let an expert advise you of what is needed. I also love nature and I am against unnecessary chemical usage, but doing nothing to maintain your field can cause problems for a horse. We use cow manure once a year and have a lovely field full of butterflies and birds. That is mainly due to the different grass types and because we let it grow longer. It is also nice for the hares and meadow birds who can breed undisturbed and raise young.
Spring grass is always scary. Horses love that fresh green pick and eat it greedily. They get fat, very jolly and if you are unlucky windy, colicky or even develop laminitis. That is why I prefer to let them get used to it gradually and in the meantime let the grass grow longer, making it less sugar-rich and slightly less tasty for them. If they are on it all day and the field gets eaten out then I move the fencing a little bit every morning. If they have grazed half the field I close the winter meadow for a makeover. This strip grazing system gives me grass until the end of December.
As long as there is grass to eat outside, they are fed hay in the stables at night. I buy some small bales of silage for my Socrates. Unfortunately he is asthmatic and cannot tolerate dust in hay. Opening a large bale is not useful in the warm time of the year. As soon as the plastic opens, the decay starts and with so few horses I don’t get it all fed on time. I only use the large bales during the winter time when they are all on silage.
Our stables are large (4 x 4 metres), with windows facing outwards and bars on the top half, so they can see and smell each other. I just use traditional straw as bedding, because they can nibble on that and because a local farmer is willing to collect my manure heap for his crops. Straw caused a problem for my allergy horse because it also contains a lot of dust. I solve this dilemma by always giving Socrates secondhand straw. I give my Dutch Design extra thick bedding and extract clean straw after a day to be used for Socrates. That works perfectly.
Every year I buy hay and silage from farmers in the area who know about grass and know what I am looking for, namely high fibre, low sugar roughage which is suitable for horses. I usually go and have a look before mowing. The large bales of wheat straw also come from the island, so that minimal transport is required.
I sometimes get the question whether my roughage is low in protein. The fear of protein is ingrained in many horse owners. This is because in the past protein was blamed for everything from bumps, diarrhea, laminitis and many other complaints. However, research has shown that in almost all of these cases sugar was the culprit. In fact, there are more and more horses with a protein deficiency. They need protein for muscle building. Horses that lack muscle benefit from extra protein. Don’t run to the store for a supplement. It is much wiser to offer this through better roughage. Fortunately, these days there are simple roughage checks for an adequate analysis. So this is definitely recommended.
People eat three times a day (I do not count snacking in between) and that is also what many have implemented for their horse. We find it normal to feed horses several servings of hard feed per day. From a horse’s point of view it is not at all logical. Apart from the fact that this food is usually based on grains, which is an energy source for people. A horse naturally eats fibre rich, energy poor food all day long. We prevent them by putting them in the stable and then give them an energy bomb a few times a day which they hardly have to chew unlike those tough stems. We are then surprised when they get colic, stomach ulcers or at least start becoming wind suckers, because we have bought them such good, expensive food.
Where does the whole principle of feeding hard feed come from? From the moment we disrupted the peaceful existence of horses by using them, we hindered them from looking for food all day long. It had to be replaced by something that offered the same amount of energy in a shorter period of time. Horses are herbivores so it had to be something plant-based. Preferably something that we could take with us on long trips and preferably a product that we as humans had less need for. Cakes made from oats were found to be most effective, because we didn’t do much with them ourselves.
Be careful with hard feed
If you put a horse in a field with grain he will eat it, but it is not his preference. Horses like grass. He is not very good at digesting most cereals. In that respect, oats are best and corn the worst. In recent times feed producers have solved this by processing the grains so that they are more accessible for digestion by the horse, but grains and horses are actually not such a natural combination at all. If you let a horse use more energy than he consumes, you need to do something. In addition, nowadays horses no longer freely roam for their food and they have to make do with the roughage that we serve them. This does not contain all minerals, vitamins and trace elements in the correct proportions. So yes, my horses also get some hard feed and I’m not against giving it at all. Always take into account the how and what you feed and especially the quantities.
I feed hard feed three times a day. My huge giant gets only half a scoop per feed of a grain free product that provides energy based on natural fats. Initially I gave him cubes. There are two reasons why I stopped doing that. He gets fat easily and I had the feeling that despite the horse friendly management here he still had a bit of a touchy stomach. He always reacted to the girth, even though he has the most supersonic fitting girths and three saddlers independently confirmed that his saddle fits perfectly. In addition to this stomach friendly, grain free muesli he also gets a mineral and vitamin supplement once a day. Do I think he’s short on something? No, I am just like all of you and do it as a precaution, so he does not lack in anything. To be honest I very much doubt whether he really needs this and it is definitely not cheap, so I suppose it is actually a bit crazy. But I love him so I give it anyway.
The reality is I probably keep an entire industry afloat, with the help of most of you.
Are all supplements nonsense? No definitely not. There are plenty of studies available about the usefulness of some, but there are a lot of “emotional” additions that we give because we think we are doing the right thing. Or maybe because others give it and we want to show how well we take care of our horse. It shouldn’t harm him unless you don’t pay attention to the recommended doses. I once visited a stable where the horses were given so many supplements that poisoning symptoms actually occurred due to overdosing.
In my opinion there are very illogical supplements. For example, I never understood why someone gives garlic to a horse. Even if you lock him up for a week, he never takes a bite of a garlic bulb. Flies have been shown to fly towards the smell rather than chasing them away with the use of it. Anyway, with the dosages used for horses they don’t die either, so I suppose if it makes you happy, go ahead. If you give something then my suggestion is to think about it beforehand and preferably do it in consultation with your Vet. Always stick to the prescribed dose, because more is certainly not better.
What I regret is that supplements are often used when the riding fails. The riding is not good enough, so we give the horse something. You can only spend your money once, so rather spend it on a good instructor. Then you are more likely to get lasting results.
A powder is not giving you a better shoulder in
The other horses that live here also receive only small amounts of hard feed. They really do not need anymore and because a horse’s stomach is small it can only process very little at a time. This is not a problem with roughage. They have to chew on it longer so it slowly goes into their system.
Socrates is an older horse, so he gets senior food. With older horses the intestines absorb nutrients less efficiently. In addition, the teeth get worse because of wear. The special nutrition for seniors is especially developed to give them all the extras they need. Apart from that my horses are checked twice a year and if necessary treated by a horse dentist.
With each portion of food they get two large carrots purely for my own feeling and because they have to chew more. Carrots are largely made up of water, so it doesn’t affect anything in these small amounts. It is important that they chew on their hard feed as long as possible, because that way they produce more saliva, which neutralizes the stomach acid and thus the risk of stomach ulcers. There are special products that you can mix with the feed so that your horse has to chew for longer. I don’t do that because they get little feed and they always have hay or silage in their stables. But I think it’s a good idea.
If you are ever in the Netherlands and you want to learn more about good feed management go to ‘De Paardenkamp’ in Soest in the centre of Holland. It is fun to visit this “retirement home” for horses. Have a chat with the people there. I think this place is an example of how it should be done. There is a lot of knowledge about keeping horses healthy and happy and about feeding in general. Visit the website if you have a question. www.paardenkamp.nl
Four times a year I have the manure of our horses checked for the presence of parasite eggs. In the past, many horse owners just gave their horses a worm treatment every few weeks as a precaution. Recent scientific evidence has taught us that this is stimulating resistance of the damaging organisms against the treatments. A Vet friend who’s very much into parasites checks the manure of our horses, so I can be sure that it is done properly. I don’t really believe in hobbyists with a home test and a microscope from the discount store or assistants who have to do it in between other work.
Our horses live in a fixed group and the parasite egg count is almost always so low that there is no immediate reason for treatment. Healthy adult horses have a certain defense against parasites and to maintain this it is not a problem that they have a few worms. It just shouldn’t be too much. The tricky part is that with such a manure control system you cannot be completely sure that nothing is wrong. Encapsulated larvae do not lead to excretion of eggs, but they can cause health problems. That is why we deworm once every other year in consultation with the Vet. Usually, treatments containing ivermectin or moxidectin are used as the active constituent. Roundworms are often insensitive to this so it can be useful to deworm once with a pyrantel based treatment. I leave the advice to an expert Vet, because the amount of active pesticides is limited and researchers worldwide are trying to find solutions. Promising sounds come from abroad about a worm eating fungi. I never lead the way with new discoveries, because I always like to be sure before I start experiments with my precious horses, but the information sounds good. So who knows this might help. It only works against the eggs in the field, not against the worms or larvae in a horse.
To keep the worm count low, we clear the manure from the field every day. In addition our fields are used in shifts, so parts can rest for a few months.
With five horses the farrier is regularly in our yard. In the Netherlands quite a few competitions are held on grass surface, so the ones that go there have holes for studs in their shoes during the summer months. As a judge I regularly see horses and ponies in the ring without shoes during the outdoor season. If you expose them to a potentially slippery surface I think you have an obligation to keep them from slipping. It can make a horse quite insecure and cause nasty injuries. Barefoot gives more grip than shoes without studs, but if you want to be competitive and especially if you also jump, I think studs are necessary. Especially this is so at the lower levels if your horse is not yet collected and in balance.
In winter my horses only wear front shoes. The pensioners are barefoot, but are regularly trimmed. I cherish my farrier who has had proper and certified training and comes from a family of farriers. Moreover, he also has horses himself. Even my DD, who is a real “Mummy’s Boy” does not like men very much, but loves him.
I have written a lot about alternative forms of hoof care like “natural” trimming, the “Strasser method” and more. I even attended a course which after only a few days of training allowed people to tackle their own horses and that of acquaintances with hoof knives. I have also been to a lot of veterinary clinics where farriers and vets have tried to fix the results after events like these. The stories are usually great, the websites even more beautiful and if you make objections, they will not take them favorably.
There are really skilled hoof trimmers and horses can almost always do without shoes. Everyone has to do what he or she wants, but my horses go to an experienced and thoroughly trained farrier, who is a member of the farrier association and follows regular training courses. He was the first to propose to try Socrates barefoot, so it’s not like he slaps shoes on everywhere. In case of problems he is open to new developments, shoes of other materials or models. He has an incredible understanding of horse legs because he looks at them all day. It is in his genes. Moreover, it is also in his interest if a horse moves well, so he does everything he can to make that possible. I tell him how my horse feels but I don’t interfere with his work. He knows about horse feet while I write articles and books. In short, it is best to ask around and find a professional. Give them the opportunity to do a good job.
I realize that it costs money because such a person has to buy things, invest in a car, travel many kilometres and pay about half of what they earn in taxes and insurance. So this cannot be done cheaply. Good farriers are worth gold, so be careful with yours.
I’m boring when it comes to tack. I use simple double jointed snaffles that are not too thick. I use an ordinary bridle with a combined noseband so that the bit is quiet in the mouth. Nowadays, there are also all kinds of ergonomic bridles. If you are ready for a new one, then do it. Anything more horse friendly I’m in favor of. The fact that I don’t have one myself has more to do with the contents of my wallet. My old leather bridles are fine. I am not very much into tack cleaning, but once a year I take everything apart and clean it thoroughly with saddle soap. In between I sometimes use a greasy piece of cloth for a little shine. As long as everything functions and fits well I will continue to use them.
Tack is subject to fashion
New is not always better. Nosebands are also subject to fashion nowadays. When judging I suddenly saw a drop noseband from my youth reappear, but back then we had nothing else. In itself there is nothing wrong with them, provided it is fastened in the right place and not too tightly. The latter also applies to all nose straps. They are not intended to strap a horse’s jaws together. A horse must be able to move his mouth slightly to be able to relax properly. If the tongue comes out while riding it often says something about the rider. You should not want to solve that with a symptom control. Do not just get on with it expecting it to pass. Your horse does this for a reason. Listen to him. Look for the cause. Do his teeth bother him? Are you too heavy with your hands? Are you bumping on his back too much? Does the bit or bridle not fit properly? Does he suffer from back, neck or other physical problems? Is he crooked?
There are rules nowadays how tight the noseband can be done up in competitions. I think that’s crazy. You don’t want your dearest friend to be in pain, do you? Didn’t we all learn that we need to be able to put two fingers in between?
I could write a whole chapter about bits, but there are so many types. In England there is the “bit bank”, a company where you can rent any kind of bit you can think of. If you like it and you decide to buy then the rent will be deducted from the price it costs. Lately, there are more bit fitters. It is nice if you can try out several bits. I have been to such a session once and indeed horses can move better with one model over another, so it is definitely worthwhile. Try to find someone who is independent and does not try to talk you to a specific brand or type because that is where the most commission lies.
Incidentally, I ride all horses on a simple double jointed snaffle, regardless of the level. Nowadays you can even use it in the Grand Prix in the Netherlands. Of course I also used double bridle because that was mandatory Internationally, but frankly I think it is an outdated phenomenon. We are past knighthood, right? All those stories about refinement. You can do that in a snaffle too. If you need a curb to collect your horse, you are not able to ride properly. If you can do that without, you don’t really need it.