by Linda Chamberlain
My horses were seriously ill this winter but now that has changed. They have a new home, new friends and the most amazing track system to walk courtesy of the War Ministry!
We are using a highly unusual site which was once the home of a tank regiment then a forest garden in peacetime. It was occupied years later by a massive group of new-age travellers and became the subject of a controversial court case. It was full of rubbish – broken bottles, mattresses and metalwork – and needed a huge environmental clean-up before anyone vaguely sensible would put their horse on it.
But it had something that was particularly appealing to me as the owner of three horses with illnesses which were being aggravated by traditional field life. Concrete. Loads of it and almost no grass or mud.
Most horse owners, who are familiar with traditional livery yards, would probably have winced at the thought of keeping a horse in such a set-up.
What! No stables? No individual turnout? And where was the grass?
A dear but ‘traditional’ friend of mine worried that the horses would hurt each other fighting over the hay or die from eating trees.
But I was desperate and perfectly happy to feed ad lib hay to prevent that. I was also exhausted from being nursemaid rather than horse rider. I couldn’t ride any of my three. One was retired and had mud fever, my daughter’s horse, who was careless with my safety (ie: I fell off) had a strained tendon and Sophie went down with laminitis in the Autumn and couldn’t go near a sprout of grass without triggering a repeat of the lameness.
I had to keep all of them off the grass and the mud. Sophie was stressed living on the yard and track. If I walked her up to my house she was beside herself with nerves and worry and thought introducing me to the rhododendron bush was a good idea. The other two were no better. They were not happy.
I gave up riding, I gave up leading them anywhere and aimed to keep them alive…
But the ‘facilities’ at this new place, the lack of grass and the herd life with new friends, have made my horses well again. They have only been there for three weeks at time of writing. They are relaxed, they are sound, putting on muscle and going for walks in hand with relaxed enthusiasm. I have my horses back! The change in Sophie is monumental – she walked the stony tracks on Ashdown Forest last week without flinching. And she was calm and happy.
The key thing that had been missing from their lives was movement which was free from the risks of mud and grass. Both were causing problems that needed veterinary help.
Moving away from having my horses at home was a wrench but here’s how it happened…
I posted a blog in which I moaned how dreadful this winter was for horses and their owners thanks to the combination of rich grass and deep mud.
A friend read the article and sent me a message saying she was also struggling, her back was hurting from carrying bales of hay through a swamp and her horses were miserable. After such a mild, wet winter there was a real risk of ailments ahead thanks to the rich, cow pasture that we generally keep our animals on. She, too, felt like moving home before the Spring grass started sprouting and gave us a laminitis risk – if only we could find somewhere that was easier to keep horses.
‘Like a car park!’ she said.
How many times have I made that quip? But deep down, somewhere hidden, I meant it. Fields don’t always work well for horses. Rye grass is very good for the milk yields but for many horses it is too high in sugar; it makes them ill. Hay is safer. In winter there is nothing glorious about the mud. Farmers usually keep their cows in a barn for the winter and protect the fields from being churned…but farmers rarely attempt to ride their cows. Such restricted regimes of 24/7 stabling doesn’t make for happy and healthy equines and riding a miserable one, who is fed up being confined, isn’t fun or easy.
‘I know the perfect place,’ I told my friend. ‘Bigger than a car park. Nearly as much hard standing as they’ve got at Gatwick airport. Very little grass but there’s a few problems. It might need a tiny bit of TLC.’
She was intrigued.
‘I wrote about it in A Barefoot Journey. I had my (then) two horses there for a winter. It was wonderfully sheltered and they were really happy. There wasn’t any mud.’
I explained that it was a 40 acre wood on the edge of Ashdown Forest and we could go there again. It would need re-fencing. And a water supply would be useful. There were some open areas which allow some sun between the trees and we could make a few more. We could grow some horse-friendly grass!
Those of you who have read the book will know it was the place where my horses first went barefoot about 15 plus years ago. You see, it had the ideal environment for a horse coming out of shoes. – roadways of concrete, so thick you couldn’t dig them up even if the army ordered you at gunpoint.
From that initial conversation a small group of four horse owners was formed – myself, Mary Joy Johnson, Kate Ayling and Suz Jeffery – thanks to all of them for these photos. Work started. The fencing is mostly finished, some dangerous or fallen trees have been taken down and shelters, sand areas and a nice yard are on my shopping list.
But already we have a unique environment for horses. So many of us battle to put hard standing or stony tracks in our fields; it’s expensive and sometimes needs planning permission. Like others, we have been inspired by Jaime Jackson’s book Paddock Paradise and know how increased movement from tracking fields is an aid to health.
Land owners often deride the desire to turn land that’s good for growing food into roads for horses. I agree, it sounds daft.
So, I am approaching this from the opposite direction and will be introducing grass and herbs alongside the roadways that run through the woods. Just enough for variety and to encourage grazing and movement. Mostly their diet will be mixed-grass hay and birch leaves until I can create bigger grazing areas in some of the glades which are dominated at the moment by bracken.
You see, if your horse is barefoot and you want him to be healthy, and rideable, he will fare much better if his feet are not forever walking over soft ground or standing still in a stable. Just think how much humans struggle when they take off their shoes and socks on a stony beach. The horse is no different – he needs to walk over varied terrain. And the sly owners at this place have situated the water and the hay at opposite ends of the long roadway!
We arrived about three weeks ago and have the 14 horses in two herds – each with their own tank track! They also have a chunk of woodland which is dotted with the concrete bases of the former army accommodation huts. And some open areas too…Already we are finding that hooves need less trimming. My retired horse, Carrie, is no longer walking stiffly; she’s putting on weight. Sophie and Tao are getting ready for riding…and the horse owners seem happy, too. It’s great to share chores and have help and support from like-minded friends. Mary Joy and her eight animals have the quiet zone away from the road. She specialises in helping troubled people including, she hopes, ex-servicemen and women who have been traumatised by conflict. Her work is known as equine assisted learning and deserves a blog post of its own. How amazing that land once used by the Ministry of War should become a place for healing both horses and humans!
I’m a writer and a journalist who has a passion for horses especially if they are barefoot. My book – A Barefoot Journey – is an honest and light-hearted account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. Horsemanship Magazine said – ‘The writing is charming, warm, and (gently) brutally honest about a subject which is so obviously dear to her heart and central to her life. The big issues of hoof trim, equine lifestyle and human understanding are all covered. From the agony of self-doubt to the ecstasy of equine partnership, it is all laid out here, clearly and thoughtfully. It really ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of taking their horse’s shoes off.’
Natural Horse Management magazine said – ‘I loved reading this intelligently written book. It’s so good I think every hoof trimmer should hand this book out to clients who are going barefoot for the first time.’
My historical novel, The First Vet, is inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago! Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book has more than 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical NovelSociety. Here’s one of the latest reviews – ‘I work nights & this book made me miss sleep (which is sacred to me) – I could not put it down! I loved the combination of historical fact & romance novel & it is so well written. I’m going to buy the hard copy now – it deserves a place on my bookshelf & will be read again. 10 gold stars Ms Chamberlain!’
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