BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
I understand the reasons why people stable their horses, especially over winter. I have done it myself. It’s actually very convenient to roll up to the yard and have a horse all ready to tack up. It saves time on hiking out to the paddock, washing muddy legs and slipping off filthy rugs. Grooming can be completed relatively quickly also, especially if you have picked out the Plasticine-like strands of mud from the mane and tail the night before and returned home leaving the horse clean.
The less time spent moving through 12 inches of sticky mud also means the horse is less likely to lose a shoe. Mud fever is another issue, but one I believe can be managed if owners have the time. Other reasons for stabling could include managing laminitis and weight, reducing the risk of injury, and on occasion if a yard has more horses than land, minimising the risk of paddocks becoming depleted of grass and turning into a quagmire.
But most of the reasons I have listed benefit just one type of mammal…the human.
I have yet to observe a horse that displays discomfort or displeasure from being caked in mud. In fact what I have observed are horses displaying discomfort or displeasure from being stabled. Horses that wait at the gate, or come galloping over when called only do so because the stable has become the equine equivalent of the dinner table. I can certainly recall the thunderous steps of my family bolting down the stairs when I let out those immortal words Dinner is ready!
It should be taken into account that horses do not naturally stand still for long when eating either. From my observations it appears they graze off grass in two, sometimes three, mouthfuls then take a step forward. They continually move, and they would naturally roam in the wild from doing this. It’s a nice design of nature as manure is left far behind as they move onto pastures new. We have all heard owners say My horse always wants the grass on the other side of the fence, when actually they just want to move forward. They do not want to eat around their own manure.
This is the movement in my view that keeps them fit, as opposed to 18 + hours (23 even 24 hours in some cases) in a stable, standing still and eating a hay net in just one location. Numerous problems arise every single year during and after winter. Usually the same problems as last year, yet too numerous to include here in just one article. The most obvious and the most common is colic. Come spring, people expect the gut of the horse to switch from being fed haylage all winter to lush green grass without issue. A problem mostly seen in the UK at least, especially on large yards where turnout has been restricted for 6 months.
Circumstances leading to illness, at least specific to where I live, could easily be avoided if the winter routine could be managed properly. The horse should be turned out but also be taken to grass if the paddock is depleted of it. Still turnout in that quagmire, but also lead or ride your horse to any available grass and let them graze for an hour or two. Hay in the field can be supplied but it should be located in different areas. Horses will at least keep moving as they move from pile to pile. Movement helps the digestive system function properly and minimises the build up of gas in the intestinal tract.
However owners will say they would do all of these things if they had the time. It begs the question, should we be keeping horses then, if we prefer a clean horse with all its shoes, un-poached paddocks, and the convenience of a stable even if it means compromising their health?
Catastrophic injury leading to box rest is obviously necessary at times. However if a stable is not being used for this purpose, then careful consideration should be taken over whether stabling is correct and justifiable in regards to the animal’s mental and physical well being. Using a stable should be hard work and time consuming, especially over winter, and I applaud those people that manage it well. I know of 2 nurses that turn out their horses at the crack of dawn, do a 12 hour shift, and are back at the stables bringing their horses in by torch light. This is on top of running a family home, looking after an ageing relative and everything else they have got going on. Sadly these attentive owners are rare, and it’s more the case that owners refrain from turning out because it’s a long walk to the paddock in the wind and rain.
I understand everyone tries their best, but if the owner has the slightest doubt their best isn’t good enough, either don’t use a stable, or do not own a horse.