Track systems seem to be a bit of a must-have for a lot of barefooters lately, and it’s been kind of interesting talking to folks about them, and indeed, lurking on various sites and discussion boards and listening to what people are saying, planning, and indeed, the occasionally rather odd things they are claiming that A Track System Will Do For You. We have a pretty decent one, and we’ve lived with it now for a couple of years. And, unfashionable and boring as it is, I think that before you sell a kidney or your grandmother into slavery to afford all those fenceposts and all that pea gravel, there are a couple of things you need to know.
But, first things first. What’s a track system? Well, the idea originated with Jaime Jackson’s Paddock Paradise. You probably should read the book of the same name, because it’s jolly good and very interesting. I think everyone who has built one since has their own take on the hows and wherefors, but briefly, a track system is an enriched environment that enables horses to display natural behaviours–24/7 movement, foraging, and social interaction–by fencing an ideally multi-terrain track around your pasture land. It can be as simple as temporary electric fence round the perimeter of a flat field, or it can cover acres of forest, mountain, rivers–pretty much any location can be successfully tracked.
Tracks can function most basically, as strip grazing with more room to move, or as diverse mini-ranges mimicking the much larger paths and tracks that wild horses are supposed to follow on their travels in the wild.
In theory, this system has huge benefits. Horses that move more looking for food and water tend to develop stronger feet and muscles, and rarely have the respiratory complaints or stable vices they develop if locked up. A track need not be grass–it can be surfaced, or overgrazed to bare soil, so providing safe turnout for laminitics and insulin resistant horses who simply wouldn’t cope in a square pasture–even muzzled. And of course, movement is thought to reduce insulin resistance too, so the very act of moving from hay station to hay station, to water, and so on, is likely to be beneficial. A track surfaced with rock–gravel, shale, slate, crushed concrete–also strengthens up feet, since feet tend to adapt to the environment they are in: so it makes sense to pasture a riding horse, not on soft ground, but on the flinty, rocky, or hard surfaces that it is likely to encounter out on the trail or on the roads. It is the best of both worlds: preparing feet for domestic work whilst mimicking supposed ‘natural horse living.’
Our previous set up, back in the days when we only had three horses, all laminitic and pasture intolerant to some degree, was a third of an acre of what used to be next door’s garden. Next door had been demolished to make way for a road, so we bought it, uprooted the trees, put down a ridiculous amount of slate waste to raise it above the flood plain (the sea was 50 metres away) then topped it all off with wood arena surface and a small sand yard, with a barn and run in stables. It was next to the house so we had running water and electricity, which made hay soaking and night feeds a lot easier, and we had a very large beach and coast path for exercise. This actually worked OK for a good few years. The main issues we had were stealth feeders sneaking over the fence to feed JJ things he was allergic to, or were too sugary, so we were perpetually having to claw him back from near laminitis, not helped by the humidity encouraging dust mites in the hay, which kicked off his allergic symptoms, and the not inconsiderable fact that it was almost impossible to guarantee a decent hay supply. Also–and bear this in mind if you are thinking of installing a wood surface for turnout–wood rots down pretty quickly and it seriously, seriously messes up feet. Quite apart from the lack of sole and heel stimulation, mushy woodchip in a humid coastal environment (and Welsh rain) grows fungus like nothing else, so if you want perpetually sodden feet, rotting frogs, pitted crumbly soles, perpetually infected perioples and and an environment full of spores and mycotoxins, you’ll be delighted to know it all comes free with a couple of grandsworth of recycled woodchip arena surface. We had a hell of a crop of what looked like magic mushrooms too. I spent half my time murdering the bloody things because three horses thinking they were in Magic Roundabout Land wasn’t on my agenda, and H Pony in particular had already shown that she would eat woodlice and turkey sandwiches, so I reckoned she wouldn’t baulk at mushrooms. The chickens didn’t either, but to be honest, chickens behave like they’re in an LSD version of Jurassic park anyway, so who would know? Still, we decided we needed to go.
It took us rather a long time to find somewhere to move to, where we reckoned we could
set up a better system of non-grass turnout. Our intention all along had been to build a track, since it sounded like the perfect solution for three very laminitis prone barefoot horses. We ended up 60 miles away, 20 miles inland, at 900ft and on the outskirts of a forest, or in other words, on the other side of the back of beyond. The house, which was falling down, was part C17th, part Victorian, had no running water, fried electrics, and a large colony of bats in the roof as well as about 40 000 very loud owls in the garden. The forest was silent, dim, hiding moss covered ruins of old longhouses: it was like walking into Fangorn, or maybe, given how often it rained, into a Twilight novel, although I have so far failed to track down Viggo or any Cullens, but you never know. Still, we can do without them: the house also had seven acres of wooded valley, complete with river, huge ponds, two long, narrow hillside fields that hadn’t been touched in years, had never been fertilised, and were sown with old meadow varieties, as well as a garden paddock, three fords, and a network of old, derelict, but stone-surfaced forestry tracks.
We bought it.
This is Wales, so we had to remove about a mile of fallen fencing, barbed wire, scrap, debris. We found bizarre things: toy guns, dead sheep, a syringe, a chain harrow, garden tools, a concrete hedgehog, a ruined cottage. We tried to replace the more decrepit wire stock fencing with horse-safe electric, though couldn’t do much about the boundary because the only thing that will keep sheep out, is stock fence. We also doubted the older chaps would deal with living out over winter, so elected also to build a stable yard next to the house. It had a run in covered yard and access out onto the tracks and the garden paddock, and the plan was to let them come and go as they pleased.
Initially we used 40mm tape on plastic posts to create a series of central paddocks and outer tracks in the lower fields, but it became immediately apparent that our new colt would calmly walk through fencing and the old Welshie would either jump it or help demolish it. Plus, tape catches the wind as it whistles down the valley, often streaming 40m of detatched and still electrified tape. Now, No 1 thing you need to know is that a track system intensifies the thought that the grass is always greener, in a horse’s mind, because even the most dim crittur can see the difference between Bare Track with Hay and All You Can Eat Equine Buffet on the other side of the fence (and al of mine have minds like buzz saws). I spent a lot of time catching horses at first, and at one point, retrieving them from the forest after Storm decided to experiment whether he could jump more than 2ft 6 (he can, but only in an outwards direction). It was, I can tell you, a bloody miserable way to keep horses, not helped by the wettest summer and winter for years, which turned track, field, and yard to knee deep mud.
After a bout of mud fever so severe the vet insisted we keep JJ in til spring, we retreated into the large barn we’d borrowed from next door, and stayed there.
We moved over to electric rope on 3 inch round wooden posts as soon as we could, which cost the earth. They were pretty difficult to actually drive INTO the earth, for that matter, since bedrock appeared to be about an inch down. Also, quarter horse colts and middle aged Welsh ponies are very helpful when you are fencing, and everybody involved ended up sounding like they had Tourettes. By some miracle however, nobody got a broken nose from the post driver, and the fencing looks very smart and so far has been horseproof. Possibly replacing our energiser with two mains powered electrobeasts that could stun an elephant a mile away had something to do with that.
We tackled the mud issue by resurfacing the first portion of the river track with riverstone, the yard with shale dug out from the quarry in the garden, and part of the hillier section with slate slab, though that needs topping off with something smaller. We sank 2m tall hay poles–along the lower track, to hang haynets from, and rigged up a system of baths and barrels outside the yard to soak hay. On the whole, it is pretty good: overall, the track is about 1.5km, possibly slightly longer given that there are various routes through the woodland. We have 6 stables in two blocks, a tack and feedroom and covered concrete yard, and the track itself is basically a series of circular routes, with two areas where the horses can access the river as well as a water point in the yard, with the lower tracks surfaced, plenty of hills, and the grass tracks in the fields of varying widths, with open areas, shade, and a series of gates so we can close off areas or open them up as we need to. The idea was that the ones that could eat a decent amount of grass, or who coped muzzled, could graze down the grass tracks then the central paddocks, and the really compromised PPID boys could have the yards, the surfaced tracks, and the more threadbare grass tracks at safe times of the year. When the weather was bad–this is Wales, after all–then everybody could bodge around on the surfaced tracks and in the yards.
Obviously, we didn’t build all this in one go–the idea changed and evolved as we found out what was likely to work, and what didn’t. We are now pretty much finished, apart from planning to put additional crushed rock surface down on the yard and in front of the second stable block. Resurfacing is always problematic–pea gravel, the much beloved surface of the barefoot rehab, isn’t an option here because we are so far from anywhere that transporting it in is prohibitive cost wise, particularly since we can’t get a 20 tonne lorry down the lane and even a smaller truck would have to leave its load 200m away. The quarry in the garden (I mean, that’s really normal, right?) has a more or less inexhaustible supply of shale though, and there is always riverstone from the river…so long as you’re prepared to dig it out and wheelbarrow it (usually uphill) to where you want it.
So–does a track system offer any actual benefits in the real world? Can you translate a US dry-weather concept to the mud and rain and rocky terrain of North Wales?
Well, we have wild ponies in Wales too, and they are probably a better model for wild living in our environment. Mimicking supposed ‘wild horse movement’ is a bit of a misnomer really, since our local wild ponies use their environment (which is high level Welsh mountainside with very much the same sort of terrain as our valley) rather differently to the way horses from the Great Basin are supposed to move for twenty miles a day. I’m not sure I’d want that sort of wear and tear on a horse anyway, to be honest, but ultimately environment is going to determine how any horses move, interact, and live, and a Welsh valley is a bit different to one in the Great Basin. In Wales, 20 miles won’t happen: for most of the year forage is pretty available if you’re an efficient grazer or browser and the weather isn’t too awful, there are always gardens to raid or tourists to mug, and given the national rainfall, there’ll a water shortage here when hell freezes over. The ponies do range freely, but they generally tend to hang around in one area for a few days, and move on.
They have leisure time, in fact, which they put to good use vandalising cars. Sometimes–in the absence of any predator bigger than a horsefly–they wander off on their own, you will find individuals grazing quite unconcernedly away from their family group–mostly, they live in very small family groups. Watching them, briefly, they do seem to have known paths that they travel–and if you follow the youngsters and end up lagging behind, they will often stop and wait for you as well, which isn’t perhaps behaviour you’d expect. Equally, watching the little herd of domesticated Sec As in the field down the road, they have exactly the same patterns: little familiar paths worn, according to the terrain, favourite places to sleep, socialise, and roll. My sheepfarmer neighbour tells me that sheep are exactly the same, and the seven feral sheep that have moved in with the ponies do, in fact, seem to have joined the herd: I saw all of them plodding cheerfully in single file up the hill together, following the biggest sheep.
Now, we actually have a wild pony here: H came off the Carneddau in North Wales, and introducing a proper wild pony–admittedly one who has been out of the wild for some time–back to simulated wild living on a track is an interesting prospect, and not really something you get to do in the UK very much. Obviously it’s not going to tell anyone anything revolutionary, but the idea entertained me anyway. For those of you who don’t know about the Carneddau, or how even to say it (you’re on your own on that one), we are not talking about ‘wild horses’ as ferals reintroduced into the Americas 400 years ago after the indiginous population died out in pre-history, or horses like the Namibian thoroughbreds. The Carneddau ponies are genetically distinct from Section A Welsh ponies, and are probably one of the oldest breeds in the world–there were ponies on the Carneddau in pre-history, and they are pretty well adapted to this sort of environment, which is why they are still there and thriving despite thousands of years of climate change, land use, and encroachment by other species.
Unfortunately, laminitis appears to be one of the adaptations: the cycle of getting fat, getting insulin resistant to conserve fat for harsh winters, as well as pregnancy, very much seems to prime some of the mares for spring laminitis. Only a small proportion of them are ever noticeably lame, even though their feet often show a long toe/low heel configuration: despite pretty rough and abrasive terrain, not all of them have the fabulous neat pony feet you might expect from wild living on varied terrain and scrub. But, of course, slightly sore feet is irrelevant. There are no predators, the symptoms subside, the hoof breaks away and normalises, self trimming on the rocky terrain, and the ponies are small and light anyway so cope better than a horse would even with a degree of rotation, so the ponies carry on as normal. What this means, of course, is that laminitis is NOT a problem solely of domestication, or even modernity. Brian Hampson’s PhD thesis makes for interesting reading, seeing between 40% and 93% incidence in chronic laminitis in three feral horse populations, Lane Wallett looked at 1119 pedal bones from prehistoric America and discovered evidence of laminitic changes in three quarters of them, and pedal bone remodelling in a third. And obviously any internet expert in laminitis will have read Chris Pollitt’s Advances in Laminitis, which begins with an excellent review of laminitis in medical literature from Classical times to the C20th (references at the end for anyone interested). What this basically means is that laminitis appears to be a problem of wild living as well as domestic living, and indeed, in savannah as well as upland environments, and in antiquity as well as the modern age. Obviously it is somewhat unfashionable to suggest that an untouched wild horse might live its life in a degree of pain or that its environment might actually cause issues, since laminitis is usually considered to be entirely a modern epidemic and a matter of rubbish management in unnatural domestic settings. Unfortunately, that is now known to be untrue. And the Carneddau ponies have existed in their own mountains for so long I’m afraid we can’t realistically say they are in an unnatural, unsuitable, wet-weather and green grass environment for which they haven’t adapted either, because like most native British ponies, they clearly have. Unfortunately, laminitis appears to be part of the bodge fix of equine evolution: you are able to get porky and insulin resistant enough to live through a bitter upland winter, or a wretched harsh dry season, or any other time of dearth and dowithout–but as a side effect, you are going to experience foot pain.
Now, I mention all this partly because it is relevant to using tracks to manage laminitics–that we are mimicking wild horse living does NOT automatically mean we will be laminitis free. Also, our particular Carneddau pony, H, is a pretty standard EMS pony. Allowed to stuff herself on low sugar, soaked hay whilst living with two larger geldings, she has managed to get laminitis twice, both times after a cold snap of weather. For her, keeping moving, keeping her thin and restricting her intake of everything (she is a total dustbin, I wasn’t joking about the woodlice) keeps her perfectly sound. You can do it by stabling her overnight (she doesn’t give a stuff), but on the face of it being on a track should be ideal for her, as well as being a more natural environment for her–so long as, of course, you don’t feel obliged to mimic the wild pony fluctuations of dearth and plenty, insulin resistance and starvation, that cause problems in the wild. The idea obviously is to mimic the good, in a track system, and not the obvious disadvantages–to, in fact, improve on nature.
And what does the pony think of track living? Well, to be absolutely brutally honest, she doesn’t care. She likes being out, but she also likes the yard, a stable, is fond of raiding the garden, and would probably live in the house cheerfully as well. She’ll live in a square patch with or without a muzzle, bodge round the woods, she even liked the beach and poking through seaweed and trying to eat Coke cans. She really does not give a stuff so long as she’s got something to do and ideally, something to eat, so being given a track wasn’t exactly life-changing for her at all, though personally I’d rather her be out and about than locked up. She has lost lots of weight and hasn’t had laminitis since being on the tracks, (but then she didn’t when she was yarded with the others during the day but stabled at night to restrict her overall eating). On the whole though, the track is a better option for her and she is, I think, happier than she would be if she was in a miserable laminitic life of 23 hours stabled and one hour out.
It’s not an option without its problems, though. All of our five have vastly differing needs, which leads to issues with communal living. H is considerably smaller than the others: they are all quarter horses and welsh cobs, and she is 11.2hh and needs to eat much less. However she can always, in all situations, eat more than she moves. I suspect she can eat
more than she weighs actually. However, Malory and Chilli are are 14.2hh baby quarter horses, built like trucks and eaters of grass, a great deal of grass with apparent impunity. If H is left to eat the grass tracks and long central paddocks with them, she will without a doubt turn into the Hindenburg overnight, but if we put her on the surfaced tracks with adlib hay and JJ and Storm who are both ghastly appalling hard doers, she will cheerfully eat herself to death, and in both cases, she is heading for laminitis. As a result, she spends a lot of the time over spring and summer on the grass tracks and paddocks with a grass muzzle on, or has to be brought in at night with soaked hay, but it is a system that suits her so far and she is much thinner and fitter (albeit slightly pissed off). Having a shopping basket strapped to her face, however, isn’t ideal because she can’t easily browse the hedgerows or avail herself of any of the huge variety of plants and bushes that she loves and that would make up a lovely varied, useful diet for her–and there is an ever present possibility she will snag her muzzle on a fence, or a tree, so when she is muzzled, I tend to have to close off the woodland tracks. Were she able to live with another group of ponies with similar needs, I rather think the track would be fine for her, though, but another five Carneddau ponies would be an army and frankly I feel outnumbered just dealing with H. If you can imagine the scariest old bag of a middle aged primary school teacher, cross her with a Thelwell pony, add a mind like a buzz saw, give it a can of spray paint and a bottle of cider, then photoshop it so it looks like a mini-Iberian, that’s H. One is enough. More than enough.
Watching her interact with the others and the environment itself though, is interesting (muzzled or not). Our track is large, and complex, every track goes somewhere, and demands a certain amount of reasoning ability, ie if all your mates are walking off and you are on the other side of a fence, you might actually have to canter in the other direction to go through the gate to catch them up. H, of course, had the instant confidence of one who hadn’t spent her life in a square field, and knew this immediately. The others, who have all been clicker trained, also knew it, and the one that didn’t soon figured it out. Quarter horses and Section Ds are bright. When we had a few horses to stay for a friend, they were an absolute nightmare, and one of them NEVER figured it out, but would run up and down fencelines screaming and finally plough through them. One of the things I very much like about the track is that it fosters independence–even Storm, who was Mr Separation Anxiety for years, will like the wild Carneddau, mooch off on his own (especially if he thinks he can find something to eat by himself). Unlike a flat field, or a track round a flat field, here they can lose sight of each other, and they get used to it. At other times, they prefer to stick together: they will plod along in single file on the narrower tracks, very like the wild ponies, and if you are around, you are immediately included in the herd.
This assumption that humans also belong fascinates me. This means that a: they will follow you if you walk off a bit purposefully (especially if you really want to do something that will be more awkward with them helping), and b: if they decide they are going somewhere and you straggle, they–especially H–will normally wait for you or even chivvy you along if you dawdle. Curiously though, there are certain points at which they will let you leave: I am expected to walk to the watering hole if they are heading out, but not, it seems, to go under further (unless I want to). If you are at base camp, they will shout to you to check in, and–however bizarrely–everybody here has also got into the habit of periodically calling up to the horses too. So long as JJ isn’t around, there is no real primary leader or mover, not even H, although she is more likely to insist that the younger ones drink or move to where she thinks is best. Periodically all of them kind of ‘pick up’ the herd, and move on. They all have a communal rolling place–of course it is the vilest and muddiest area–and their movements during the day are pretty predictable, normally following the same path, the same places to eat, the same places to take a nap. You can see little bare earth paths worn into the grass, marking their progress. I’d like to report that they have tidy dung areas as well. Unfortunately they don’t: even strategic dung piles, which are supposed to encourage the creatures to have toilet areas nearby, have done little more than amuse the chickens (and the wild pheasants) who like nothing better than to shower you with horse doings as you go by. Malory, being an ex-stallion, very much likes to leave his mark in gateways or on the boundary though. This, of course, is about as far away from the various poo piles as he can get, and he likes long grass too, which means cleaning up is usually like trying to comb the world’s largest nits out of a 7.5 acre barnet. I swear the humans with the wheelbarrows get far more exercise than the horses, which I suppose is a good thing if walking 20 miles a day (on top of running 6 and riding however far) is also on your list of things to do.
As for horses moving for miles…. Our fields are steep and long and narrow and accessed by the tracks anyway, so to be honest there may not have been a net gain on the track as opposed to in normal turnout. The central paddocks merely restrict their grazing and direct their movement. They move more on the tracks than they do when they are allowed to eat one of the paddocks, that’s for sure, and far far more than if they ere locked in stables all the time, but turnout on the actual surfaced tracks, with soaked hay hung from haypoles, doesn’t seem to encourage much in the way of activity at all.
The Spring and Summer arrangement is that Storm and JJ are pretty much confined to the surfaced tracks and yard, JJ booted if necessary. Because JJ is a picky eater, often Storm is stabled overnight so that Mr Awkward can be left feeds that he will nibble at. He is quite capable of not eating for days and at worst, just after his diagnosis and before we
had increased his Prascend dose, when any food seemed to kick off a laminitic attack and our 9% sugar/starch hay had to be double soaked for him, he weighed 421kg and looked like a rescue case. Daily grass track turnout for him, even on a track eaten threadbare by the others, is NOT an option, and in that respect the yards and surfaces are a godsend: but neither Storm nor JJ move as much as I would like, because to be honest, putting hay out in various places doesn’t motivate them that much and they really will return to the yard to complain if they don’t feel like eating further away. It would be a different matter if they had tonnes of grass to stuff themselves with, I think, but sometimes they have to be pretty hungry to go looking for a soaked haynet. I could simply refuse to feed them in the yard, but for anything with blood sugar issues, you really don’t want them fasting then eating, nor getting wound up and stressed. On the other hand, on some days–usually dry, warm ones–they cheerfully clear off for hours and I have to go looking for them. Still, even on a refusing to move day, they move more than they would if they were locked in stables or the yard, and JJ has been fairly clear of PSSM symptoms, so the arrangement will do. I suppose the basic issue is I think they are on a track and they should be moving, foraging, doing normal horse things and stimulating Good Feet, and they think that some days they want to hang around on the horse equivalent of the sofa all day doing buggerawl and being comfortable. Do I actually have the right to determine their every move, even when they are on their own time?
One of the things I do hear a lot from fellow barefooters is that they believe they but they will be able to maintain much better feet on a track, or maybe dispense with trimming altogether. Now, lower sugars and more movement is obviously going to be beneficial to a horse with low grade foot soreness from subtle insulin resistance, and H would agree with you there (in principle, wearing her shopping basket). Obviously for Storm and JJ any grass (and the vast amount of tasty trees and shrubs) are too much in the way of sugars, but I think in general I’d agree than any normal EMS/IR pony would benefit from a track, especially for the chubsters who live on air and think running round happens to other horses. However, the best feet in our herd belong to the two young unbroken quarter horses Chilli and Malory, who irritatingly do perfectly well on any amount of grass. Combined with track turnout, they are both glossy and muscular and neither of them are trimmed much–Malory twice to tidy up in the last year, and I can’t remember the last time Chilli needed trimming. Chilli’s feet, however, looked exactly the same on 10 acres of rye cow pasture and when she was on three weeks box rest, so she would probably cope with anything. Malory needed more frequent attention on a less abrasive surface. The others are more special needs, being metabolically challenged, and are trimmed as needed. Storm, despite stomping around on rocks and gravel all day (and despite having PPID he is sound over everything, and I mean everything) grows wall and bars like they’re going out of fashion. I have blunted new rasps on his feet and if anyone ever invents hydraulic nippers, then let me at them. JJ is trickier, because despite having neat, hard quarter horse feet, no amount of diet management, mineral supplements, frog pads, boots, or mileage has ever improved his feet to the point that he is trustworthily sound over the wicked terrain we have here. His feet issues are not mechanical, weak foot issues that movement and stimulation will sort out, a bit like how weights might sort out puny muscles. With JJ, it is long term systemic illness–Cushings, PSSM–encouraging inflammatory changes in the actual soft tissues, and no amount of stimulation is going to stop a sore corium from being sore. The only things that have ever made any noticeable long term changes, in fact, are Prascend and Keratex, both of which as you no doubt know contain dangeroustoxicasfuck chemicals and will probably cause the world to end or something. I could tell you an excellent story about the connection between Joan of Arc and Prascend actually, but that might have to wait.
At any rate, I can report that the track works pretty well for horses that actually need not be on a track. Chilli and Malory are quite happy on it: I suspect were they on a mud bath with a few haynets round three acres looking at lots of unreachable grass in the centre, though, it might be a cause of unbelievable mental stress though, and I have to ask myself why anyone would keep a horse on a bare track unless they actually had to. For JJ and Storm, there’s no choice, but to be honest they have been off pasture for so long they really aren’t bothered any more. Over winter, both are actually allowed more Time Out, though this is awkward. For a start, JJ, unlike the others, periodically struggles on the riverstone and needs boots: if he is then allowed access to the grass tracks, then it’s pretty much a case of Goodnight Mr Boot, because not even Transitions, in the end, stood up to galloping over a stony river, up a near vertical hock deep woodland track, back through the field, and then a rapid sliding stop when he realised someone had closed the corral bars on the post and rail. Death count so far has been 2 Transitions, and 6 pairs of Gloves. One of them is still out there. Somewhere. Slinky electric gates are another thing we get through actually (14 so far), mainly because Storm inevitably takes shortcuts to get somewhere before the others, and doesn’t always realise gates are shut. He normally clears the bottom line and pings the top one 20 feet up into the trees: there’s a couple still up there that I couldn’t reach, they keep the magpies amused for hours because shiny gates are clearly worth stealing, but are also 4m long and so far the poor birds haven’t found a way of flying off with them. Unlike Storm.
Still, I digress. The PPID boys cope with a bit of winter grass turnout, but there is one huge problem: when JJ is there, the herd goes where he goes. He isn’t ‘the herd leader’ in any responsible sense, and couldn’t give a monkeys whether they are there or not, actually, he goes where he wants. This often means that he is eating from one of the hay stations, and the others are watching him. They may not actually walk away to a different hay pole, even one nearby. And when he moves, they follow, often bickering and fighting, because Storm is deeply suspicious of new arrivals and is particularly against Chilli (she has been here since last year, but he is not very forgiving and she is an awful squealy marish girl, it’s a bit like watching your old grumpy uncle putting up with Miley Cyrus twerking and shrieking round the house). JJ ignores it all. You’d think he’d be grateful for being given the run of 7 acres over winter really, wouldn’t you? But more often than not, if he can be made to head out to the fields at all, he stays out for 15 minutes and then hightails it back to the yard, usually covered in mud, hoofboots in tatters, because he would much rather bodge about in sight of the house eating hay. And when JJ heads back, they all follow–like, in fact, sheep. The only way that you can keep them out of the yard if they decide they want to come back in, is to lock them out, and even then they spend hours milling round the gate wrecking the track surface and not doing what horses are supposed to, you know, stand about eating grass. Our winter grass is clearly not worth bothering with, hay out in the fields or tracks equally unappetising, and they would rather stand indoors eating than outdoors eating. I suppose if I removed all food and water from the yard and lower track then they would HAVE to go look for food eventually, but the fact it that winter is cold and wet here, the land becomes saturated, the rivers at times are dangerously high, the horses become deeply miserable, and they HAVE to come into the yard or be stabled at night. This reinforces the notion that the yard itself is where you are fed and comfortable, rather than the tracks, where you aren’t–so they will always wait it out til they are allowed in again, or JJ will. The others follow.
This evening, in some ways, was a case in point (and also reminds me that small Carneddau ponies, when they are neither hungry, thirsty, or sleepy, usually find something to break, often your windscreen wipers). I was expecting to bring the normals and H back down for hay and a check over, and sort out JJ and Storm with a bit of feed and the night’s hay ration. They had had the run of the lower tracks, all day, with hay. Had they eaten it? Had they heck. Rather than actually take a short walk to find supper once they’d eaten everything in the yard–and they could have gone to see Chilli, Malory and H over the fence–they had opened the door of every single stable, attempted to break into the feed room, and when that failed, had managed to break into the tackroom–again. Bear in mind that every door in the place is now secured with a carabiner or a padlock through the bolt, but I tend to leave the keys in the padlocks for safety, and JJ, unfortunately, has managed to turn the keys and spring the locks before now, remove the padlock, shoot the bolt, open the kickbolt, and in he goes. The only food in the tackroom of course was a pot of treats and the birdfood in the budgie and parrot cages. Nobody will take the parrots on, since Malory tried and got a nose piercing and a good pecking from a 275g Senegal called Percy, but
today the budgies copped it good and proper: cage picked up and smashed, budgies released. First I knew about it was when Lethal White Budgie crash landed next to me in the haybarn. I caught her and remembered pretty rapidly why she’s called Lethal White Budgie, then had to try to put together a crushed budgie cage with one bleeding hand, surrounded by furious parrots, rugs everywhere, saddles on the floor, cage litter everywhere and indeed, shelves ripped off the walls. I’d have cheerfully murdered the little swines actually but I’d spotted Paisley Budgie in Storm’s stable, so stalked her down–at one point she actually landed ON Storm, who helpfully transported her back into the stable….budgies can’t ride, apparently, she had to grab his fly rug and hang on with her beak. I nearly threw my coat over her then but I had a feeling that Storm–who was looking guilty–would probably assume he was being told off and then I’d be trying to catch him as well as the budgie. I had to walk her down the track and into the woods before she finally crashed and gave up, small, stressed, shocked and very pathetic. At any rate, I now have a clean-up operation tomorrow, which is another few hours wasted, and another few hours out of the exercise and shitshovelling time budget, simply because it is clearly more interesting to break things and eat second-hand budgie food out of a broken cage than it is to take a short walk to find a haynet. This is the second time it’s happened, actually. I didn’t take any pictures this time but I did last….and I’d say on both occasions had I left adequate food round the yard, and not expected them to actually use the tracks, that they wouldn’t have even bothered trying to break in anywhere. Then again, sometimes they go up the tracks and break things there. And sometimes they let themselves out into the garden and raid that. It is I suppose, not so much a Track Issue, as a Horse With Time on its Hooves issue. If you’re in an environment where your needs are met, and not really hungry (or at least not for your normal rations), not tired, not thirsty, don’t fancy a good mutual scratch, hoon around, and if the humans are failing to provide any entertainment, then cheerfully vandalising something probably fills in time beautifully. The ponies on the mountain, certainly, would agree there. It’s probably perfectly natural behaviour, in fact, for a shared-species environment, though personally I’m grateful the little buggers don’t have opposing thumbs and internet access.
In short, the track has been remarkably good for the horses here that don’t actually need to be on a track, and a white elephant really for the two who looked to most need it, simply because they totally refuse to use it at the times of year they can. I am not sure using force and food deprivation to make them do so would in any way mimic stress-free ideal living. Stress is NOT proven to be a cause of Cushings: oxidative stress is a possibility, but that is not the same as ordinary ‘stress,’ and we have no idea what actually causes Cushings anyway. Stress sure as hell doesn’t make IR or Cushings any better, though, and Storm and JJ are happiest and least stressed when they have plentiful hay and can go inside when they feel like it, not when they are forced to be out in all weathers. We do not do the out 24/7 rugless here, or the PPID boys don’t. Cold spells involves extra rugs and hoods and leg wraps, since it is now known that cold stress causes a rise in ACTH–and PPID horses are far more vulnerable in autumn and winter when ACTH levels are higher anyway. And the second the temperature drops near freezing at night, H is indoors, on rubber and bedding: wild pony or not, I am not risking another cold spell triggering laminitis.
The track certainly hasn’t made my life any less stress free. OK, if you like running–and I run a lot–it is fun to run around, in a cross country way, though you can expect to be chased by a pony who thinks you are being wierd and thinks you need disciplining. Otherwise–leaving aside the occasional tackroom wrecking wild pony vandal behaviours, apart from the astronomical cost of setting something like this up, maintaining it is a total nightmare. I know lots of people who think that the extra movement on a track will make up for the fact they can’t exercise their horse for miles every day, but the annoying thing is that I’m self employed and I CAN make time to exercise them–if I wasn’t having to clean 1.5km of inaccessible, steep, awkward track, whilst mucking out usually the two or three stables that are left open. Today, I spent four and a half thankless hours cleaning up. And
then there’s the hay: stuffing and soaking and draining 15 haynets a day in winter, all of which have to be transported, again, along the tracks–and of course the waste hay (because they will always waste some) has also to be scraped up and disposed of, because otherwise it becomes foulsmelling rotting goo that you don’t want them standing in. And don’t get me started on the endless fence maintenance….or how tracks destroy beautiful, old meadow pasture and wreck the ecosystem (I have taken to reseeding every year) because old grasses simply don’t cope with the sorts of traffic and intensive grazing implicit in a track. The lovely bare parched earth you have now, is likely going to be a vile poached slippery bog if it isn’t reseeded and rested, and you will be getting mud fever, saturated feet, frog rot, and filthy, miserable, stressed horses if you leave them in it. And once you have destroyed your soil structure, it will never be the same–and the more unusual, older varieties of meadow grass just won’t flourish anymore, whereas it looks to me like blasted high sugar ryegrass will. And docks. And nettles. I can forgive the thistles, the pony likes eating them and has taught the others how to pick the flowers off, and the same with gorse–although now she is muzzled, needless to say, she can’t actually do that any more 😦 And in the absence of the Pony Flymo, it is one of the humans with the strimmer that will have to remove the weeds…and the undergrowth under the electric fence and let’s not forget the poisonous stuff too. We don’t have ragwort. We do have foxgloves, which are death in 15 minutes. It takes me a lot longer than 15 minutes to pull the bloody things up though, and of course–with laminitics on site, and being so close to a watercourse, we can’t spray.
I suppose this sounds deeply negative, and yes, it is, in very many ways. No doubt I’ll be howled at and told that if the design was different or I was barefooting harder or if I lived somewhere more suitable, then everything would be hunky dory, but that’s scarcely a practical solution. Probably if the yard and house were in the centre and the track a gravelled surfaced oval, they would be happier using it, but that sounds like a totally factory farmed, arid environment to me and not at all enriched living. The truth is, tracks have issues–same as any system of management. You just have to decide if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
One of the issues I can see developing, actually, as this sort of horsekeeping becomes more mainstream, is an increase in equine motor neurone disease. Do NOT underestimate this–if you’re keeping a horse primarily on a hay diet without supplemental fortified feed, you MUST supplement with Vitamin E. I do see a lot of people (not only on tracks) who aren’t, and it doesn’t take that long for a serious deficiency to develop if the horse isn’t been fed decent compound feed to manufacturer’s recommended amounts, or at least a supplement in straight feed. Unfortunately it is more likely to be the barefoot and alternative demographic who are feeding mostly or exclusively hay diets, and are also giving credence to the idea that every known horsefeed is somehow grubby floor sweepings or chockfull of dangerousnastytoxicasfuck chemicals–anything pelletted, anything with non-natural mineral and vitamin sources in it, soya, oatfeed, wheatfeed, rice bran, grain, beet pulp, carrots, alfalfa, grass meal, straw (especially that nutritionally improved version which is now being blamed by a process of Chinese iWhispers for everything from ulcers to lameness), molasses, rapeseed oil, vegetable oil–which considering that’s what most vitamin and mineral-fortified feeds consist of, is not leaving you with very many options for filling in the gaps in a dry forage based diet. Is there any truth in any of that? I really wouldn’t like to comment. The line between truth and projected eating disorders is one I probably couldn’t tackle in a couple of sentences. But I do know that artificially restricted feed regimes leave horses open to a range of vitamin and mineral deficiencies if you don’t supplement adequately. And even if you do, feeding a load of hay, magic powders, and nowadays what is most likely to be a bowl of turmeric, coconut, and linseed, is still only the equine equivalent of a meal replacer sachet–it will do, and if you really are dealing with something like JJ, who is allergic and hypersensitive to sugars and starches, it may be your only option. But for normal horses who could eat normal horse food including sensible amounts of grass, it may not be the best option.
The thing is, by far the vast majority of horses do fine–and are sound, with good feet–on a
much more varied diet, including grass in sensible amounts. Moreover–and this is an idle thought, but one worth thinking about–there is a currently unidentified relationship between EMS/IR and the later development of PPID in many horses. What if there is something in the way we are managing or feeding our laminitics that subsequently predisposes them to PPID? Plenty of people are hoping that by putting their laminitics into more natural enriched-living strategies like tracks will reduce chronic stress and reduce the chance of PPID developing. It would be a long shot to suggest that a dry, restricted, often nutrient-deficient diet that is low in antioxidants, such as that commonly fed to a laminitic (and latterly, grass-free horses generally), MIGHT contribute to the oxidative stress that MIGHT be a cause of PPID. But there is probably as much peer reviewed evidence for that as there is for carrots or other feedstuffs being chockfull of significant levels of dangerousnastytoxicasfuck chemicals that affect feet, possibly rather more, because there is a tentative bit of research on antioxidant therapy and Parkinsons’s Disease, which has more than a passing similarity with PPID. Obviously there are plenty of alternative supplements being sold by companies jumping the research gun on this one, but if you are willing to entertain the dangerousness of carrots, then this is worth pondering too.
Still, that is a by the way, so to get back on track–as it were–having lived with a track for a couple of years, I can’t say I’m hugely bothered either way. It’s useful, but not critical. The tracks were here anyway, so we have to use them just to get to water, or to the fields, so they may as well be used for turnout as well, even though I resent the vast amount of time just keeping it clean takes up. But it’s fine for the youngsters, and I’d be truly stuffed if all I had was a line of stables in a field as my two options. At least here, the PPID boys have got a pretty decent quality of life and aren’t confined all the time, even if they are wretched vandals (I repeat, this is natural wild pony behaviour, interaction with environment and all that). Would I build another track from scratch? Maybe, maybe not. It wouldn’t determine where I moved to anymore, let’s put it that way. If I did create another track, and if I (being poor) couldn’t actually put all weather surfaces on a kilometre or so, I think I would factor Storm and JJ out and probably give them a nice big surfaced yard. Maybe they are old and institutionalised, but they liked that much better anyway, plus I can position the CCTV to keep an eye on the little bastards when they are up to no
good. As for the rest of you reading this, well, it’s up to you what you do. You might find it far more indispensable than I have, or you might pull up your fence in a sea of mud in a few months and give up completely, I don’t know. What I do know is that while a track can be pretty useful (especially for normals who need restricted grazing) it isn’t the be all and end all if you don’t have one, and in all honesty they tend to involve ongoing expense, aggravation, time-consuming slog and ecological impact that may well outweigh the advantages, especially if your horse is one of those who doesn’t strictly need to be be on a track anyhow.
Lane A Wallett. Laminitic paleopathology: evidence from the fossil record of Equus. Abstracts Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 33 (2013) 840.
Brian Hampson. The effects of environment on the feral horse foot. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at The University of Queensland in May, 2011
School of Veterinary Science.
Link to abstract: http://www.wildhorseresearch.com/Documents/PhD%20Synopsis.htm
Henry W. Heymering, CJF, RMF. A Historical Perspective on Laminitis. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice, Vol 26, N0. 1 April 2010. Also here: Christopher C. Pollitt, Advances in Laminitis, Part 1. An Issue of Veterinary Clinics: Equine Practice. Elsevier Health Sciences. 10 May 2010,