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One of the basic commandments concerning horse ownership is that horses cannot be maintained in good health just on any old block of vacant land.
As explained more fully under Horse welfare and feeding paddock horses must have adequate grass to maintain condition. If pasture is inadequate, they should be fed at least once daily or moved to a larger area with better grazing. In a good season and where stocking rates are appropriate, horses will do as well on grass as on handfeeding. However, in many parts of the world there is a vast difference between the quality of summer versus winter grazing and stocking rates must be adjusted accordingly. In southeast Queensland for example, the abundance and quality of native grasses can decrease to almost zero during winter, and the recommended stocking rate is no more than one horse per hectare (two and a half acres) for maintenance on natural pastures all year round without handfeeding and under normal rainfall conditions. A hectare is a large area of land in comparison with the average house block and not always bargained for by people either seeking agistment or offering it. Consequently the weed-infested agistment paddock overrun with too many half-starved horses is an all too common sight, especially in near-city areas. Adding to the problem has been the real estate marketing ploy of advertising semi-rural “acreage” blocks (which may not even be half an acre) as having “room for a pony”. Provided it rains, the pony might survive the summer without handfeeding, but never the winter.
Everyone is familiar with the way grass grows so rampantly in the “long paddock” (the side of roads). The main reason is that it is never grazed, and this serves to reinforce that grazing pressure or stocking density is the main factor that determines how well grass grows. Grass can be fertilized and irrigated until you are blue in the face but it cannot grow if it immediately bitten off by animals or trampled underfoot by too many punishing hooves, or never allowed to go to seed. Without the competition of grass, weeds compound the problem by rapidly moving into overgrazed areas. Yet driving around some rural areas, one can only wonder sometimes if any advances have been made at all in grazing practices. Even in non-drought conditions, too many skinny animals in virtually bare paddocks is still an all-too-common sight even on quite large properties.
Many native pastures have been improved by the introduction of imported grasses. Paspalum and rhodes grass are common in southeast Queensland and there are other suitable species. Information about pastures suited to specific regions or climatic zones is best obtained from the Department of Primary Industries or equivalent. One of the best ways to improve any pasture is to introduce legumes such as the clovers and lucerne. These provide more soil nitrogen which makes the grasses grow better, also they are higher in calcium and protein than the grasses. However, they are not suited to all areas, often having strict seasonal and rainfall requirements.
Horses are notorious for being selective grazers, also they prefer shorter species, meaning they will eat out a patch of grass while ignoring an adjacent section. Using cattle to follow horses on a rotational basis makes better use of a pasture and assists in parasite control. Mowing and slashing are alternatives and help with weed control as well. Weeds can also be sprayed but, at least in smaller areas, there is nothing like a hoe and a bit of elbow grease.
Paddock horses should be checked regularly, preferably daily. They have been known to die of thirst from being caught in paddock hazards or fences. Also water troughs frequently malfunction and dams and creeks can dry up, or the water become non-potable. In cold areas, troughs, small dams and other water sources can freeze over for extended periods of time.
Horses must have access to shade (trees or a shelter shed) and not be kept in paddocks with no windbreak protection. Paddocks should not be entirely on the side of steep hills with no flat areas where the horse can lie down.
A paddock that is safely fenced and has good quality grazing and windbreak protection is adequate for the average horse just used for pleasure riding. Left to their own devices in a paddock, horses do stand under trees at times seeking shade and respite from insects, but if given free access to a stable will use it as little as possible. Two or three-sided shelter sheds (roofed) are more acceptable, particularly as a windbreak, though a belt of trees serves the same purpose. Trees can be slow to grow but they will never grow if they are never planted, and planting trees as windbreaks is as important as planting them for shade.
The type of fencing to use depends on the sex, age and number of horses, also size and perhaps topography of the area. Horses, especially young ones, are notorious for getting hurt in fences. They gallop into them because they do not see them or are unable to stop in time, or they get down beside them and roll, or they paw at the wire and get their legs caught. Potential injuries are not helped by the appalling state of some fencing, which may be just a jumble of rusted barbed wire and bent steel posts held together in places by hay band. Some horses that have tangled with fences and survived to tell the tale will stand stock still and wait for help if a loose wire so much as touches them.
Good fencing is of the utmost importance in rearing blemish-free horses and preventing the terrible disfiguring injuries that can occur in any age group. Undoubtedly, constructing fences so that horses can see them saves many injuries, also preventing them from ever touching a fence in the first place averts many more. The once much maligned electric fencing satisfies both these requirements and is being used more and more to safely contain horses, particularly the modern type that uses broad electrified tape rather than cord.
Conventional horse fencing includes timber, wire, various types of chainwire or weldmesh, and vinyl or PVC.
1. Timber fencing. Also called post-and-rail fencing and it may be of sawn timber or cheaper but less long-lasting round bush timber. It is used for yards or any other situation where undue pressure may be exerted. It is very safe provided all edges are arrassed and bolt ends or wire twitches are recessed or cut off flush with the timber. Wire fencing with a timber rail on top is satisfactory for larger yards or small paddocks which experience less pressure.
2. Wire fencing. Plain wire, which may be vinyl-coated to improve visibility, is commonly used to fence horse paddocks because it is considered much safer than barbed wire. This is true, but only if the wires are kept tight. Once they start to sag, horses can easily get caught in them and suffer injuries equal to any caused by barbed wire. There are various types of strainers available which can be built into plain wire fencing to keep it tight.
Barbed wire can cause terrible injuries but it does have a place in the fencing of large areas. Horses do respect it if they survive an initial encounter and tend not to go near it unless chased or pushed into it. Combinations of plain and barbed wire may need to be used if cattle are to be contained as well. “A plain wire top and bottom with two barbs in the middle” makes quite a sound fence for this purpose.
3. Chainwire. All fencing materials made of interlocking wire or steel are potentially dangerous for horses, particularly if the holes are of a diameter large enough for a hoof to go through but not be easily withdrawn. Chainwire, sheep fencing, ringlock and K-wire are all examples, although recently a very safe product called Diamond Mesh has been introduced to Australia. Weldmesh-type panelling is extensively used for stable partitions and it has many advantages, including allowing horses to see each other and rub noses, but it can become dangerous if the welding joins are fractured by, e.g., a horse kicking. Much like the chainwire story, hooves can become caught and severe injuries occur.
4. Vinyl/PVC fencing. Whole panels of vinyl fencing can be cut to size in a factory, posts included, and delivered ready for erection. From a distance vinyl fencing looks like post-and-rail and it has many desirable features such as safety and durability. The other type of vinyl fencing material is the previously mentioned vinyl-coated wire or sighter wire.
Posts to support conventional fencing may be of timber or steel. Round posts are the safest but more expensive than split posts. Steel posts (star pickets) are very dangerous for horses, particularly in heavily used areas. They are a major cause of serious and often fatal penetration or stake injuries particularly of the abdomen or high up between the front or back legs.
Gates can cause as many injuries as the worst fencing. Horses can get a leg caught in gaps between gates and their supporting posts, or get their heads trapped between the bars and cross pieces. All gates should be looked at critically for potential danger spots, including when they are open and closed. There should be minimal gaps between them and their supporting posts, and bars should be spaced so that a horse cannot get its head through even sideways, or can easily withdraw it if it does. Gates separating the yards of young horses need particular attention, because colts especially will rear up and play over the top of a gate. Gates and gateways should have no projections like bolts or wire twitches and no sharp edges. Gate posts in high pressure areas should be of round timber and have rubber strips nailed to them to prevent injuries like knocked-down hips.
Horses have been stabled for thousands of years, in fact there is archaeological evidence from long before recorded history that horses were cribbiting, meaning that even back in those days they must have been confined in some way and for quite lengthy periods of time. But horses are plains-dwelling flight animals and, unlike forest-dwelling cattle, the last thing they will do is seek the protection of dense stands of trees if threatened. Under domestication, stabling represents a forested environment and horses can experience real stress when forcibly confined to four walls and a roof. It is little wonder that some horses never feel comfortable in a stable and develop stereotypic behaviours (stable vices) due both to the stress of confinement and as displacement activities for grazing. Horses in nature graze 16 hours or more a day, a far cry from the routine of most stabled horses which are fed two or three set meals a day which lack roughage and are quickly consumed. Absence of roughage (grass, hay) in the diet, which requires a lengthy time to chew and the production of copious quantities of saliva, is a major cause of equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS), which surveys have found to be very prevalent (as high as 87%) in stabled, high-performance horses fed restricted roughage diets. Boredom may have a part to play as well, although boredom is really a human interpretation of the stress of thwarted normal behaviour.
Stabling is not all negatives, many horses adapt quite happily to being stabled, and of course there are times when it has to be done, but it must be in accordance with the welfare guidelines. Stables should be a minimum 12 square metres in floor area (nine for ponies) and 2.4 metres high. They must be kept clean and dry and have adequate bedding or equivalent. Floors should be of antislip material or have a roughened finish if concrete is used. All fittings for feed and water should be installed so that injuries cannot occur and they can be easily cleaned. Stables may be constructed of brick, concrete blocks or various types of cladding, but preferably should be lined so far up with a non-abrasive material such as dressed timber. Ledges can be covered with metal capping to discourage woodchewing.
Stables are not meant to be solitary confinement cells. They should have plenty of natural light and ventilation and the inmates should be able to see each other. Horses are herd animals and should not be kept for hours in a stable without the company of some other living thing, preferably another horse in an adjoining stall with which they can communicate at least by sight, if not by touch as well. Stabled horses must be fed, watered and exercised at least twice a day, with hay being available most if not all of the time.
Although it has long been recognised that horses are more relaxed and often perform better if not confined to a stable 23 hours out of 24, it is only of fairly recent years that the advantages of giving horses in work more freedom are really starting to be universally accepted. Unless climatic conditions are severe or shortage/cost of land is a problem as in near-city stables, even show horses can be let out into safe yards especially at night when the sun will not damage coats. Working horses should be confined to stables as little as possible, though all horses need windbreak protection and access to shade.
As already explained, a stable is an unnatural environment for a horse. Some horses develop abnormal behaviours as a result and these are known as stable vices. They are equivalent to the stereotypic behaviours shown by animals of any species unnaturally confined - cage pacing, bar biting etc, even self-mutilation, which is not unknown in excessively stabled horses.
Cribbiting (cribbing) is a stable vice that can lead on to the more serious condition of windsucking. A cribbiter is also called a woodchewer, which sums up what these horses do. They become obsessed with chewing at any wood they can get their teeth into in the stable or yard and will in time chew through quite solid rails. It seems cribbiting is mainly a displacement activity for grazing. It is an attempt by horses to replace the many hours they would normally spend in nature working the jaws and biting off grass.
Weaving. Weavers stand with head over a stable door and constantly move (weave) from side to side with alternate lifting of the forelimbs, which can be quite forceful. This stable vice is probably mainly caused by the stress of confinement, also horses in nature constantly move and graze for a good part of their day, so weaving may be a displacement activity that replicates the constant movement associated with grazing. Some authorities say that the vice satisfies the need to have a continual side-to-side movement of images across the retina, as occurs when grazing. Also one research project showed that weaving behaviour decreased in proportion to the number of sides of stables that had windows, presumably because it gave better visual contact with other horses. Some horses will continue to weave in a yard but usually cease the activity if turned out in a paddock.
Windsucking. Oral windsucking is a vice caused by the stress of confinement and/or is a displacement activity to replace grazing. Windsuckers usually start out as woodchewers then advance to hooking their top teeth over a ledge or rail, arching their necks and gulping down great mouthfuls of air, though there is evidence to suggest this air does not reach the stomach, that it goes no further than the pharynyx and oesophagus. Unfortunately most windsuckers continue the habit on fence posts or stumps in the paddock. Some even manage it without gripping anything, though this is rare. It is accompanied by a lot of grunting so it is not a good idea to have a windsucker in a paddock adjacent to your bedroom window. Paddock windsuckers are seldom in good condition and a personal observation is that they are a bit dim-witted, though whether this is cause or effect is not known. There is a surgical operation for windsucking, also neck straps are available that help prevent it. Increasing the roughage component of the diet helps, as it does for other stable vices. It is a condition of some breed auction sales that windsuckers be notified.
Yet another possible trigger to the development of stable vices is if the horse never relaxes sufficiently to lie right out in a stable. Horses are very vulnerable lying on the ground and no doubt as a protective mechanism handed down by their wild ancestors, they have the ability to doze for long periods standing up, alternately resting one back leg while locking the others, ready for instant flight if necessary. However, they do spend brief periods resting on their sternums and occasionally will lie right out on their sides, and research indicates they probably need to do this for a short time each day, otherwise they can develop behavioural problems such as stable vices.
Aside from the recognised stable vices, unpredictable behaviour and changes in temperament may also be caused by overstabling. Untrustworthiness, tail jamming, constantly laid back ears, general crankiness and sourness, biting, kicking and even viciousness are all examples.
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