Green as grass.

From the moment we bought our little farm, we’ve been puzzling over one of the toughest challenges horsekeepers face – how to ensure that our charges would have delicious, nutritious grass to eat all throughout the summer and fall. There are a few reasons, of course, for working so hard to make this happen. One is Sunny’s weight (or lack thereof). Since I’ve owned her, she’s tended toward the skinnie-minnie side, and I knew that the longer she could have good grass, the better chance we’d have of starting off next winter with her in good condition. The other driving force behind our ambitious pasture-management plan was that we did not want to feed (and therefore pay for) hay all summer if we didn’t have to.

We started out with about six acres of hay fields on the property, pre-barn-building. We wanted to try to get some of our own hay off the fields this year, so we’ve left the three-acre back field and the one-acre side field alone. Our next door neighbour/farmer-extraordinaire fertilized those fields for us in the spring, and he’ll hay them this month.

The two and a half acre front field has become a little horsey haven for Sunny and Stella. It houses their shedrow barn with in/out stalls, the winter (sacrifice) paddock with mud-proof pad, the riding ring, and the septic field. The rest of it we divided into five grass paddocks, with permanent fencing all around the outside, a corridor down the middle, and step-in temporary fencing for divisions. In the fall, once the grass has stopped growing, we’ll take out the step-ins to make one large pasture for them to play in until the snow flies. Thanks to the corridor, and strategically placed gates, the horses can get from any paddock back to their shelter whenever they like.

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We started turning Sunny and Stella out on grass mid-May. We began with just fifteen minutes, and added an additional fifteen minutes a day to ensure we gave their digestive systems plenty of time to accustom themselves to their new food source. Then, at the end of May, the big day arrived. The horses began full time turnout on grass.

Since then, they’ve been spending anywhere from four to ten days on each paddock (depending on the size of the paddock as well as their grazing habits and how much rain we’re having). As soon as we notice that they’re eating the grass down below three inches, or when the paddock starts to look “weedy”, we close it off and move them to the next. Then we mow the recently-vacated paddock down to an even level. This keeps the weeds under control and allows the grass to grow in a little thicker and more lush for next time. Each paddock ends up getting about 4 weeks of growing time between uses, so unless we have an unusually dry summer, we should have lovely grass right through to the fall.

What surprised us the most was how the horses (under) utilized the paddocks. They are very fussy about what they’ll eat and what they won’t, which is why allowing them to graze on the whole field at once wouldn’t have worked for us. Left to their own devices, they will eat the good grass right down to the roots, and studiously avoid the grass they don’t like. Our entire field would have ended up an ugly mix of overgrazed wasteland and patches of tall weeds. Containing them in smaller areas, and moving them frequently, is what allows the grass time to grow back up, since once it’s grazed down to the ground, it won’t grow again this season.

We have just completed our first full rotation of all paddocks. Yesterday, the horses went back into Paddock 1, which has grown right back up to where it was their first time out on it. Paddock 2 looks even better (we actually didn’t mow paddock 1 after its first round, and the difference between it and paddock 2, which did get mown after use, is quite remarkable). Paddock 3 is growing up nice and lush, with very few weeds, and paddock 4 is coming along nicely as well. And the added bonus? We haven’t had to feed a stitch of hay since the end of May, and skinnie-minnie-Sunny has been gaining weight, to the point that we’ve been able to eliminate almost all of her grain. Looks like our plan is working!

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Peat moss for the win.

So it just occurred to me that I never updated you on Sunny’s problematic knee rubs. The solution was actually pretty simple – we switched her bedding to peat moss.

Now, I know some of you are wrinkling your nose and saying “Ewwww. I hate peat moss. It never looks clean”. Well, that’s how I used to feel about peat moss too, until I used it. Peat moss makes the softest, most cushion-y bed your horse will ever sleep on. Its dust particles are too big to cause any kind of respiratory problem for horses (and it is also the most absorbent of the beddings, so it virtually eliminates any ammonia smell). Once you get used to mucking it out, it’s actually easier than shavings or straw, and if you put aside your feelings about how “dark” it looks, there’s really no reason not to use it, especially for a horse like Sunny.

The first morning after bedding her stall in with peat moss, she woke up covered in peat from head to toe – which brought tears of joy to my eyes, because it meant that for the first time in who knows how long, she had a good night’s sleep. Since that day, there have been no more rubs on her knees or fetlocks… so I’m calling it a win.

Now that Sunny feels comfortable lying down (and being able to get back up), she has become a different horse. She’s more relaxed, she spends more time wandering happily around her paddock, and she’s even started putting some weight back on. I snapped this picture of her yesterday, one month before her 24th birthday. I think she’s looking good, for an old girl. Don’t you think?

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Duct Tape for the Win.

Sunny is what I would call accident-prone. If there is any possible way that she can hurt herself, she will do it. It’s not usually life-threatening, or even very serious, but she’s the kind of horse that could cut herself in a padded stall.

So the first time I noticed an odd little nick on her front left fetlock, I wasn’t overly concerned. I did what I always do – cleaned it out, put on a little purple spray, and forgot about it. The next day, she came in with two of these nicks – one on each fetlock. Same routine. By the third day, they had become full-blown open sores, and I started to get worried. I just couldn’t figure out what was happening. She lives in a very safe stall, with a very safe paddock, and there was nothing I could find that would be causing these injuries.

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So, I did what any responsible horse owner would do – I took to the internet in search of “what causes sores on fronts of fetlocks”.

Well, as it turns out, the problem is in the way she’s lying down. Actually, more to the point, in the way she’s getting up. Now, Sunny’s no spring chicken. She’s twenty-three this year, and has a lot of arthritis in her poor old hocks and knees, so it’s not surprising that she has a bit of a hard time getting up and down. We filled her stall up with more bedding (on top of her rubber mat), and hoped that would do the trick. Of course, it didn’t. Sunny’s stall opens up into her paddock, and she is free to come and go as she pleases. Since she wasn’t necessarily lying down inside, filling up her stall might not have any effect at all.

My barn owner, Darlene, and I wracked our brains to try to figure out a way to protect Sunny’s fetlocks. Because we didn’t know if she was doing it at night or in the daytime, and because she spends most of her time outdoors, standing bandages weren’t an option. She was already wearing bell boots almost 24/7 because of some shoeing changes we were in the midst of making, but they didn’t cover the area where Sunny was getting injured…

And then it hit me. Sure, her bell boots didn’t protect her in their proper application. But turned upside down, they provided all the coverage Sunny needed to keep her fetlocks wound-free. An easy fix, as well as a great conversation piece whenever someone visited the barn (interesting side note – people for the most part are oddly apprehensive about pointing out that your horse’s boots have been put on completely upside down).

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Problem solved. Or so we thought. Within a matter of days, the sores began reappearing, this time on her knees. We were back to the old drawing board, except a little worse off than before because, well, have you ever tried finding a way to protect a horse’s knee without bandaging it? Especially a horse who basically lives outside? Not so easy.

Again I took to the internet, and found a few different options. One was these cool “socks for horses”, but it turns out the ones that are good for covering wounds don’t go up over their knees, and the ones that go up over their knees aren’t good for covering wounds. Another idea, which I thought was ridiculous and would never work, was covering the wound with duct tape. And the third option, pricey but appealing, was a pair of Back on Track knee boots.

So I temporarily used the duct tape method, and immediately ordered a pair of Back on Tracks from Amazon. I was very interested in how whether they could pull double duty, protecting her knees while at the same time providing a little heat therapy for her arthritic old legs. Well, I was right one one count.

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The moment I put them on, I could tell Sunny liked them. She got a soft, dreamy look in her eye, and began to lick and chew the same way she does when I’m scratching her favourite itchy spot on her belly. Happy with my new purchase, I turned her out with them on, and asked Darlene to take them off when she came out to do night check. Which she did. Although they weren’t actually covering Sunny’s knees anymore by night check. They had made their way down around her ankles, and were protecting nothing.

Back to Google, to search “how to keep Back on Track knee boots from sliding down”…

Almost every review I read about these boots talked about the fact that they were hard to keep from sliding down, and the preferred method of holding them up seemed to be standing wraps. Which we had already established that we were uncomfortable using. The next day I made a trip to our local Greenhawk store and purchased a nice pair of Stretch & Flex wraps. We then applied the knee boots to her knees, and the Stretch & Flex wraps underneath to hold them up. Which looked great…

 

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But, of course, by the next morning they had slipped down quite a bit. And since it’s been snowing, and they’ve been getting wet, they’ve been slipping down even more, to the point where the knee boots are once again down around her ankles most mornings. We even tried putting the Back on Track boots on upside down, which had been suggested as a possible way to make them stay up, but to no avail.

Then I thought back to that couple of days while I was waiting for the Back on Track boots to arrive. I remembered that the duct tape method, which had sounded so sketchy to me at first, had actually worked. I mean, it wasn’t pretty… but it had worked. So yesterday morning, I got out my duct tape, gauze and scissors, and fashioned Sunny the prettiest little duct tape knee protectors I could. All of the folks in the internet forums had suggestion cutting two long strips and applying them in an X shape over the gauze. So that’s what I did.

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And you know what? It kinda works! Once again proving the following three truths that are known to horse owners the world over:

  1. There aren’t many problems for which duct tape isn’t a viable solution;
  2. Sometimes less really is more;
  3. Make it in pink and mare owners will buy it.

Have you ever had a horse with knee sores? How did you treat them?

 

Mind Over Matter

The Water Trough

It’s been a while since I wrote about Stella, my lovely Connemara with the ulcer issues. So, to put everybody out of their misery, I will tell you that she is absolutely fine. No tummy troubles whatsoever, mainly due to her change in venue and lifestyle. Stella now lives outdoors 24/7, with a nice herd and a cozy run-in shed. She grazes at will, is completely grain-free, and lives a pretty stress-free life. It’s a lifestyle that has kept the ulcers at bay, and now I can’t imagine keeping her any other way.

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But that’s not what this blog post is about. This blog post is about expectations, outcomes, and getting the heck out of your own head.

For anyone who remembers the story, Stella and I didn’t really have much time to get to know one another before she got sick. We did spend an awful lot of time together…

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The Baby Bug

Well, it’s official, and all my fabulous followers get to hear the news first:

I just signed the breeding contact. Stella’s going to be a mommy!

Her baby-daddy? The Westfalen stallion, Freestyle (Florestan X SPS Paloma):

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My vet’s on board, my coach is on board, even my husband’s on board, and I’m beyond excited. Stella’s such a beautiful pony, and I just know she’s going to make a beautiful baby. And better yet, I think she’s going to like being a mom. I think it will make her happy. My vet says she’s a sweet pony, and she’ll pass that on to her baby.

Stella one day old
Stella, 1 Day Old
Sunny one day old
Sunny, 1 Day Old

So, in April, Stella will move to my friend, Holly’s farm. Holly has done a lot of breeding so it’s nice to know that she’ll be there along the way to help. We’ve tentatively chosen May 13th as the breeding date. It’s a Wednesday and my vet says he prefers breeding on a Wednesday. And it’s the closest Wednesday to the 10th of May, which will be the one year anniversary of my meeting Stella for the first time. So I’m hoping that date brings us some luck.

While we’re doing all of the waiting that comes along with breeding (waiting to see if we’re in foal, waiting for the foal to be born, waiting for weaning), my husband and I will be hard at work getting our house in the city renovated and sold so we can move to the country and build our little farm. Then, after our little baby is weaned, the most exciting day of my life will come: Stella, and my sweet old paint mare, Sunny, will move home to my back yard and finally get to be sisters. Sunny can have the best friend she’s been longing for since my old gelding (and her old best friend) Nico passed away, and Stella can get back to being my adorable little dressage pony.

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The next couple of years are going to be a roller coaster, for sure. And rather than wish the days away until Stella’s foal is born, I’m going to try to remember to savour every moment.

Please keep your fingers crossed for Stella (and send us some baby-dust around the middle of May)!

Hmmm… is it okay to have a baby shower for a pony?

In Praise of Winters Off

I’ve been fortunate enough, for the past several years, to ride at a stable with an indoor arena. I was not always so lucky. Throughout my entire childhood and young adulthood, we kept our horses at home, with no indoor. We stopped riding when the ground started to freeze (usually mid-October or so, although some years we were lucky enough to be able to keep going through to November), and, with the exception of the occasional snowy hack, or the traditional Christmas Eve ride, we started back up on April first (no matter the weather). This day was always circled on my calendar. It was the most exciting day of the year.

Now that I have use of an indoor, sometimes I look back on those days and think about how my riding life has changed. Year-round riding, not needing to leg horses up in the spring, not losing everything we’d worked so hard all year to improve… But the funny thing is, I don’t ever remember wishing for an indoor arena back in those days. That was just the way it was, and besides, there were plenty of non-mounted horse-related projects to be completed in the winter, and if the horses didn’t have a few months off, when would those projects get done?

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It wasn’t like my horses didn’t improve back then. In fact, within my group of peers at the time, I don’t really see that there was a big difference between horses who had the winter off and horses who kept going all year long. Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’re a professional, and you need to be able to ride every day, or if you show at a much higher level than I do, then yes, you probably need an indoor. But for me, as an amateur, doing training level eventing, first level dressage, and pony clubbing, not having an indoor never set me back. In fact, I wonder if my horses were actually better off by not working all winter.

First, because I didn’t need to worry about horses getting sweaty during winter workouts, they were able to go pretty much blanket-free, and grow those big wooly coats that horses who live in Canada are supposed to grow. Our horses just didn’t wear blankets indoors… ever. I think we had a few winter rugs hanging around for those days when it was 25 below, with cold wind or rain, but otherwise, they remained au naturel.

Lightning January 2013

In those days, when the horses grew real winter coats, we didn’t brush them very much. Too much currying could remove oils and hair from the coat that the horses needed to stay warm and snow-proof. We picked out their feet daily, brushed the mud off their legs (at night, after it had dried), and left the rest alone. By the time the hair was shed out in the spring, the horses’ coats always had a nice, dappled bloom. Obviously a winter of “roughing it” didn’t hurt!

Having the winter off also allowed us to give the horses’ feet a break from shoes. We usually pulled their shoes before the first snow fall, and left them off til we were sure there would be no more ice to deal with. Horses without shoes are much better able to keep themselves from sliding around, and they also never have to deal with the dreaded ice build-up that you get with shod horses in winter. Having a few months off from shoes really seemed to lead to a healthier hoof for most of our horses (and gave a little relief to the pocketbook as well!).

Another up-side to some down-time is that sometimes we all just need a breather. A little bit of a break. Time to re-charge, to re-define our goals, to sit by a warm fire with our feet up, daydreaming about next show season, while our horses contentedly munch on hay in their snow-covered paddocks.

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See, here’s the thing. Back in the days when the horses had winters off, there are a few things that I don’t remember having to deal with, like mystery lamenesses, ulcers, rider burn-out, horse burn-out, schooling boredom, or unproductive rides when it was minus 10 in the arena and I was just too cold to be effective.

My horses and I had a fresh start every spring. Their lungs were clear and their limbs were sound after a winter of playing in the snow. Their minds were fresh, and so was mine. There was a clear-cut beginning and end to the riding season. It was easy to set goals, and there was plenty of time in between for re-hashing what went wrong last season, and figuring out how to make it right.

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I’m not saying that having an indoor arena, or working horses year round, is a bad thing. I’m just saying that if you’re among the many who don’t have this privilege, don’t sweat it. There are plenty of reasons why winters off might just be a blessing in disguise!

Just Like Starting Over.

Fifty days. That’s how long Stella was on GastroGard, being treated for gastric ulcers. Who knows how long it took for the ulcers to develop, but fifty days is how long it took to heal them. I gave her the last dose two days ago. Now I’m hoping against hope that we’re right, that the ulcers have healed, and that she is safe to come off the medication.

If you remember, Stella had been telling me for awhile that something was wrong. The quiet little indications turned to louder statements, and then, finally, she decided that if I wasn’t going to listen, she was going to have to shout. That was the day that, at the mounting block, she determined that the only way to make me listen was to rear, spin and buck until she got me off her back.

The long story of Stella’s medical rehab is well documented on this blog, but what I haven’t told you much about is her training rehab. See, if there’s one thing in the world that scares me, it’s a horse who rears when you’re trying to get on. The first time I realized that you can get hurt riding horses was thanks to a horse that reared (violently) while I was mounting. I was seventeen years old, and I tried to get on that horse ten times before I realized that I was going to get hurt if I didn’t give up (and, in my defence, nobody before or after me was ever able to ride that horse either). Nonetheless, it’s the one fear I’ve never really gotten over.

So back on that horrible day in November when Stella decided enough was enough, you can imagine my complete and utter disappointment when my dream pony, for no apparent (at least at the time) reason, did the exact thing that scared me most. I was devastated. And I wasn’t sure if I would ever feel safe getting on my pony again.

I talked to my coach, Wylie, about it. We decided together that, until we figured out what had caused Stella’s meltdown, I was not to try to ride her again. While it pained me to think that Stella was injured or hurting in some way, I was a little relieved that I didn’t have to try to get back on her any time soon. Now we could focus on getting her better without worrying about getting on her back.

Once we felt pretty secure in the knowledge that the cause of the pain (and the behavioural issues) was gastric ulcers, and once the pain started to go away, we slowly returned to “work”. For the first two weeks, every second day, we did something that got Stella into the arena (the scene of the crime). Some days we lunged with her bridle on, some days we just free lunged, and other days we put her in her rope halter and did ground work. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds, because, at first, the mere act of going into the arena turned Stella into a rearing fool. We had to be very careful to get her working right away so her brain didn’t turn to thoughts of standing on her hing legs.

Our rehabbing plan derailed a little bit when, a couple of weeks in, she developed a stone bruise in one of her hooves, and had to rest for almost a week. Once she was sound again, we got right back to work.

We didn’t want to try putting her saddle back on until we were sure she wasn’t in pain, but we did want to do it while she was still getting GastroGard (so we could be certain that any issues were behavioural/memory-based and not pain-related). We chose the week that we were switching over from full tubes to half tubes of the medication. We began with just tacking her up in her stall, then untacking her, which didn’t seem to cause her any worry. Then, on about the fourth day, we went ahead and lunged her, with absolutely no issues at all. The difference between her lungeing before the GastroGard treatment, and after, spoke for itself.

We continued with tacking her up and lungeing for another week. During this time, we also starting bringing her to the mounting block and having me stand on it. This is where the worst of the worst had happened, so it was encouraging to see that she didn’t have any left-over mounting block issues. On the day she received her last dose of GastroGard, we did some “leaning” work at the mounting block, leaning over her, putting some weight on the saddle, wiggling around a bit. We received a lovely non-reaction for our troubles, so we figured it was now or never.

Yesterday, on her first day off medication, it was time to sit on her and take a few steps. I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit apprehensive. I knew this was the moment of truth. But, as John Wayne once said,

“courage is being scared to death…

and saddling up anyway.”

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.