Keeping a Horse Outdoors

As a long-time horse owner, I love to reading anything and everything I can on taking better care of my horses, especially since my horses are boarded. Not all boarding facilities are created equal, and I think it’s important to know that your horses are receiving proper care. One older gem I’ve had in my library for years is Susan McBane’s Keeping a Horse Outdoors (Equestrian Library (David & Charles).

One of the most interesting finds in McBane’s book is her discussion of a study done in the 1970s at the Equine Research Station in Newmarket, England, in which a group of pasture ponies had established grazing areas and bathroom areas. They removed the ponies from the pasture and put larger equines in the pasture. The larger equines adopted similar grazing patterns and used the same exact bathroom area. They removed all equines from the pasture and spread well-rotted cow manure evenly over the entire pasture. Afterwards, they returned the ponies to the pasture. The ponies established completely new grazing patterns and new bathroom areas.

They discovered that horses designate areas in their pastures, specifically a bathroom area and a dining area. They will not eat in the bathroom area and will not go to the bathroom in the dining area. Horses will not change these areas as time passes, so if horses stay in the same pasture eventually the dining area becomes overgrazed while the bathroom area becomes very lush from the nutrients in the urine and manure. Even though the bathroom area is very lush, the horses will not eat in that area. The study makes a great case for pasture rotation and fertilization! (See pages 59-61.)

Another great area McBane addresses is parasite management–a constant battle for most horse people! Strongyles and ascarids are the most common internal parasites in horses. Outdoor horses are more prone to infection than an indoor horse, because they are permanently exposed to the infection. Most of the time parasites will begin as eggs and larvae, both of which are microscopic. Horses with parasites will defecate out the eggs and larvae. In warmer, moist weather, eggs can hatch in 24 hours. The larvae will crawl onto the grass and generally crawl long distances.

Many people nowadays treat for worms every 4 to 8 weeks depending on conditions. Poor pastures that are over filled, never cleaned of manure, and never rested have much higher infection levels than well cared for pastures. The absolute best way to treat and control worms is to talk with your vet about what is the best way to treat your horse. I personally do quarterly fecals and deworm using the medication recommended by my vet based on fecal results. The last time my horses were checked, two of them required no treatment. (See pages 81-83.)

One final area I found very useful was her discussion of using the horse’s condition as a guide for altering care. She points out that keeping an eye on your horses weight, shape, and coat conditions can help you determine if your horse is getting adequate nutrition and exercise. She makes an very important point regarding the importance of maintaining a good weight on your horse:

Even when resting, a horse should not be allowed to grow too fat because of the risk of tendon strain and laminitis. Conversely, if he is too thin, he will have lowered resistance to disease and the ravages of the weather and flies.

McBane notes that you should pay particular attention to your horse’s belly and top line. While assessing your horses weight is much easier in the summer when coats are thin, she recommends getting into the habit “of really digging your fingers through his coat and feeling how much flesh he has on him over his top line area. You should not be too aware of his ribs and hips but rather have to feel and press for them.”

She gives great advice for understanding your horse’s natural body types and how to keep an eye on how his specific body type will change with excessive weight or malnutrition. (See pages 104-105.)

I highly recommend checking out McBane’s book whether you keep your horses at home or are pasture boarding at a local facility.

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