Setting up Paddock Paradise

by Linda Chamberlain

Jaime Jackson, the American author and trimmer, has devised a better way of keeping horses and it doesn’t need much investment. He calls it Paddock Paradise and was inspired by his observations of wild Mustangs and how they move as a herd.

Put simply, it means turning your fields into track ways which encourage the animals to walk further for their daily ration of grass.

You can try it in the spring or summer as soon as your field dries out enough. Or you might think it’s worth making hard, stony tracks to keep going in the winter.

I have a ten acre field that’s on a hill which I chose for my experiment. There is a footbath at the top of the hill, a water trough half way down and some woods at the bottom. We made a track around the edge of the field, very much like a race horse’s training gallop, using electric fencing. My cob was fond of breaking plastic posts so I had to invest in wooden posts but for most horses this might not be necessary. Jaime Jackson, a former farrier who is now a leading barefoot trimmer, suggests scraping the grass off and feeding hay but I was reluctant to do this and allowed them to graze it down.

Following the leader

Following the leader

The system has since been extended to other fields which adjoin and I probably have a couple of miles of tracks now some with stony ground and others with wider areas for resting and grazing. The middle of the field grows long grass which we sometimes cut for hay or it can be saved for winter grazing when it is appreciated and less likely to cause foot problems.

You might ask: why bother?

It’s the movement and the difference it makes to the horse. We ask these animals to be athletes and they do much better if they don’t spend half their lives in bed. They are grazers who are designed to move. Their feet respond brilliantly and take on an improved and tough shape that can carry you over all sorts of terrain. And they keep fit whether you ride them or not. They move so much more on a track than they do in a traditional paddock because they are herd animals who follow each other in a line in their natural habitat. On a track, they revert to this behaviour.

electric fencing keeps them on the track

electric fencing keeps them on the track

Their daily walks are choreographed by the herd leader who either pushes from behind or leads from the front. Horses lower in the pecking order have no choice; they have to move. Their instinct is to stay together and once my track has the optimum amount of grass I can see they are travelling for a few miles every day. A horse in the wild is known to cover about 15 miles a day – no wonder their feet are tough and perfectly worn. Mine don’t walk so far but if they spend enough time on the stony yard – where they can get water and access to the field shelter – their feet hardly need any trimming at all.

Our winters are too wet, the fields too muddy, for me to maintain this lifestyle without some serious investment. The extra movement means the track soon gets poached in high rainfall but I manage to keep mine on it from April/May to October depending on the weather. There are times when they breach the electric fence and pig out in the long grass but if I’m vigilant this doesn’t happen too often.

If you are still not convinced this system is healthier than the traditional stable with paddock turnout, take a look at Casha’s story.

Casha has lived on our system for about five years and came with very stiff back legs. She had an old suspensary ligament injury and wasn’t ridden. I was alarmed when I first saw her because she reminded me of a banana running up a hill. Very slowly she began to improve. She kept up with the others and her owner began taking her for walks in hand on the Forest. Her body became straighter as she lost the banana shape and her fitness level increased. Watching her canter on the track, we talked about her being ridden again. Was she ready? She had improved so much from the constant physio of walking that we thought it worth a try so on one of our walks Lisa got on board and the horse trotted off.

It had been years since Lisa had ridden her and she didn’t want to stay on for long. She got off once the horse slowed down, wearing a smile as wide as the Atlantic.

‘She didn’t rear or behave like a stallion. Amazing.’

Casha - walking well

Casha – walking well

 

She had been a difficult ride in her young days and rearing had been one of her party tricks. With the benefit of hindsight Lisa felt this was due to discomfort even before her suspensary ligament injury. I hadn’t known what to expect and the animal’s rush into trot might have been a sign of pain and so over the next few months she was slowly reintroduced to a rider on her back. Sometimes she didn’t seem to want to play and at others she remained happy for a good half hour. Lisa always listened to her, respecting the fact that her horse was getting older but delighted that she could be gently ridden again.

Casha is getting on a bit now and her ligament troubled her again this winter thanks to the mud. The vet advised rest and Bute in an effort to reduce the swelling. If you think she should have been stabled I’m afraid it wouldn’t have worked as she seizes up without the movement. But we were able to give her a mud free sick bay for a few weeks since I always save some sections of the winter fields just in case any of them are ill. We weren’t sure whether she would make it but she’s back on the track with the others now and cantering quite well.

Sadly, we don’t feel we can ask her to get through another winter but she’s having a happy summer retirement with her friends.

Casha (right) sheltering from the heat and flies

Casha (right) sheltering from the heat and flies

Carrie and the Cow

by Linda Chamberlain

I had a horse once that escaped a lot and visited the neighbours. They tolerated me, most of the time, but I’ve had to repair quite a few gardens and offer free bags of well rotted manure as recompense.

Lately, it’s been happening the other way around. The neighbours, or rather their animals, have been visiting me and the results haven’t always been good.

First it was two pigs. Their visit was a flying one and the only damage was the ploughing they attempted with their snouts once I finally shut them in another field away from the horses. The sight of them coming merrily up our track toward the herd set off alarm bells and I was lucky enough to observe it as I was dutifully poo picking.

The herd teamed up to defend itself. I was impressed because I had never seen this before even when a dog was worrying one of them. There were six horses in the field – one gelding; the rest were mares. The pigs seemed to have no aggressive thoughts only the desire to share a bit of grass. Barnaby, the gelding, was the first to approach them. This was done with an arched neck; he was going to do this job looking like a stallion no matter what the vet had done to him years ago. He went into trot and as he got closer to the pigs he sent them squealing and running by kicking out with his front feet.

Carrie, the lead mare, joined him and chased them out of the field. The whole operation was successfully completed within minutes. Two other mares surprised me by bringing down the electric fence and running away as far as they could rather than staying with the herd.

I imagine something similar happened when the neighbour’s cows broke down a fence and joined my horses in their field. Here’s one of them. Behind bars where I prefer them. With the most almighty look of guilt on her face.

 

What a guilty look

What a guilty look

 

And here’s why.

There wasn’t a cow in sight when I fed the horses breakfast one morning but Carrie had the most enormous gash on her rear end. It wasn’t immediately noticeable because she wasn’t lame and ate happily…but she was slowly dripping blood. At first I had no idea what had caused it. It must have been six inches across and had a deep hole in the centre. For some reason, shock possibly, I tried applying wound powder and wondered how I might fix a bandage. I woke up and phoned the vet.

He came in a little white van but he was like the cavalry to me. As we walked to the yard in the field he told me he was a locum for the practice (Lingfield Equine Vets) and often worked in Paris with racehorses. Oh, no, I thought. This is going to be awful. I had seen a few vets wince at the sight of my set up and raise their eyebrows at the strange lack of metal horse shoes. On one occasion, a vet reluctantly agreed that our pony with colic might be better off recovering with her friends rather than being shut in a stable but he was visibly exasperated that I didn’t want to comply with his advice. Couldn’t I use a neighbour’s stable? I told him the poor animal would die from the distress.

Would this new vet be any different? He might faint when he met Mrs Muddy and her friends. I was getting my apology ready for the lack of stabling and my quirky approach.

No, he said, when he saw them all. He liked horses like this, too. Sure, I thought. Even hairy ones that don’t wax and pluck.

He gave Carrie sedation so that he could stitch and staple her leg back together. I couldn’t watch and stayed near her head like a nervous father at a birth. It was going to be fine, he said, confidently. I was left with antibiotics and I asked him whether I should confine her to the yard or shut her in the field shelter. For some reason I was feeling obedient. Surely, he wouldn’t advise turning her out with the herd. I mean, they nearly always recommend box rest in my experience.

‘Oh, yes,’ he said enthusiastically. ‘Look at this beautiful field. She will get better more quickly in all this nature. The air is fresher than on the yard; fewer germs. And the movement will help.’

I was shocked. I had never heard a vet say anything so sweet in my life.

So, I turned them loose once the sedative had worked off. The winter field hadn’t been grazed all summer so they took to it eagerly. Carrie thought to follow at the same pace but changed her mind and caught up in her own time.

Healing

Healing

Two weeks later the vet came to take out her staples. They had come out by themselves, however, and his only job was to inspect and admire the healing wound…oh, and to advise me to start riding her gently again.

By this time, I knew how she got her injury because the cows revisited the summer field again. At last, I had an explanation for that deep hole. And that’s why I prefer cows who wear horns to be behind bars.

This all happened more than a year ago but I’m sharing it because I learnt a lot from it. Firstly, the speed a horse can heal given natural conditions and secondly that some vets thankfully are fully aware of it.

 

Surviving tough winters

by Linda Chamberlain

This winter was probably one of the wettest and the last few were some of the coldest. We’ve had some difficult winters – enough to make you want to give up horses and move to Capri.

I should have got a Shetland because I’ll never get my horse into a suitcase…so I probably won’t go anyway.

 

Cloud enjoying some winter sun

Cloud enjoying some winter sun

But this year a friend confessed that she felt for me amid all that rain and not a stable in sight. Well, yeah, it’s a bit tough feeding animals twice a day but I think she felt sorry for my horses who had to stay out in it longer than I did. Did they suffer? Her comment made me question my set up through fresh eyes and here’s what I think.

No, they were fine.

What would they have preferred? Big field shelter, large fields with trees and hedges that supply them with food whenever they want. A herd that offers a chat and some comfort when there’s nothing on TV. A large yard they can access at all times to dry their feet off. Rugs off on sunny, winter days as in the above picture. Oh…and a personal slave to rub oil into legs at risk from mud fever.

Or, a stable? No physical contact with other herd members. Doors shut at 4pm in winter – reopening at 7am (maybe). Hay often finished by, what? Midnight? Not a lot else to do for an animal who only sleeps for 20 minutes snatches at a time. Boredom? Stiff joints?

Years ago, I used to stable my horses and remember the feeling of ease I experienced putting them away at night knowing they were warm and comfortable so I understand why people favour them.  The sound of horses munching hay contentedly meant I could go home satisfied that I’d done my best for them. I hadn’t of course. They weren’t moving and they were alone – a frightening situation for an animal whose ancestor’s were prey. And their feet suffered from standing mainly still in what became a non-flushing toilet by the morning.

My horse used to rush from that box every morning and, frankly, we were probably both smelly by the time I’d mucked out. One night I decided to leave the stable door open and see where my cob, Barnaby, spent the night. I was lucky in that I had a little patch of grass (paddock would be an exaggeration) and a yard in front of the stables. I put his hay in the stable and left him and a stabled friend to their own devices.

By morning, I could see he hadn’t spent much time indoors. The hay had been eaten but the droppings were outside and his bed hadn’t been slept in. This behaviour didn’t change whatever the weather did.

I never stabled him again.

Take a look at these feet

 

 

 

Carrie's feet looked like driftwood

Carrie’s feet looked like driftwood

 

Surely, the person responsible for these feet should be placed under house arrest and be forced to listen to the omnibus edition of the Archers. They are certainly the worst set of hooves I’ve ever seen. Sadly, they were mine to sort out. I had some help along the way but here is the story of Carrie’s feet and how they became…well, you will see…

Carrie was a 15-year-old bay thoroughbred who had done some eventing. She looked good and she was fast – even with those feet – but her only role left in life was as a companion. She was on Bute to help her with navicular (serious and sometimes incurable condition in the feet) and she was a lousy companion thanks to her aggression. It seemed she had reached the end of the road. I got a phone call from my friend who had Carrie on loan. The rescue charities were full and the owner couldn’t take her back. Carrie might have to be put down – could I take her?

Of course I could. I wasn’t doing anything for the next five years.

She had shoes on all four and I asked if my friend’s farrier would trim her and only refit the fronts. I was anticipating some kicking and I wouldn’t have her with weaponry. I wanted her to be barefoot but it was a hot summer and the ground was hard and we might have to wait. Her feet had other ideas. They were so long and weak that her new front shoes didn’t stay on beyond a few days. That’s when this pictures was taken. Fortunately, you can’t see one of me in a state of panic. I have never seen hooves fall apart so quickly. They peeled and they broke off in lumps and, although she could potter around the field very much the boss, she wouldn’t have won any prizes.

The set up at my place is all horses live out all year round. There is a field shelter and there are rugs for any horse that needs one. At the time, there was also a foot bath made from railway sleepers, pond liner and carpet. Five star, eh? It was at the top of my summer field and that’s where Carrie put herself most days – sometimes for long periods. I wish it had been enough to stop them crumbling and looking like they had woodworm. It gave her some relief though and gradually she was able to be ridden again.

In spite of regular trimming – big thanks to Alicia Mitchell who introduced me to Jame Jackson’s barefoot trim – her feet remained flat and weak, but rideable. She was prone to abscesses and wouldn’t have impressed on the roads. They improved slowly and Spring with its rush of grass was always a time to take extra care of her. It was important that she didn’t get too much of the lush stuff which put a strain on her feet.

The breakthrough for Carrie was another great idea from Jamie Jackson. His book Paddock Paradise shows how you can increase the amount of movement for your horse in his everyday life. It’s simple and works brilliantly in the summer with very little work. Using electric fencing, you set up a track system around the edge of your field until it looks like a gallop for race horses. And that’s what they did when I first turned them out on it – galloped for a couple of circuits.

 

Carrie leading the field on paddock paradise

Carrie leading the field on paddock paradise

 

 

Later, I’ll write more about Paddock Paradise. For now, I’ll concentrate on Carrie and her awful feet which do so much better if she keeps moving and isn’t overfed. The thing about a track system is the horse has to walk for his daily ration and the herd moves together in a way they would naturally – pushed on by a leader.

 

Carrie’s twenty four now and survived navicular and an early exit. I believe shoes were to blame for the state of her feet. They are not her best feature even now but they manage an impressive trot on the roads and I’m proud of them. Oh, and by the way – she’s still the boss.

Here are some things that helped to get Carrie through: –

+ regular trimming

+ footbaths

+ movement / exercise

+ cutting down on lush grass

+ in summer – oil with tea tree applied in the morning while hooves are damp

That's much better - Carrie's hooves today

That’s much better – Carrie’s hooves today

 

 

The Start of my Barefoot Journey

 

by Linda Chamberlain

Here is the opening of a book I’m working on – see what you think.

 

I’ve made it a policy to avoid arguing with well muscled men wielding a hammer and nails. I’m not a tall woman; more a lightweight who can be pushed over easily but my stand off with the farrier that day required me to get in touch with my masculine side. Quickly.

You see, my requirements were simple; I wanted the shoes off my two horses and it was not a job I could do myself. He shouldn’t have started a fight over it but he had a jangling set of new shoes in his hand and he wanted to fit them. I wanted him to put them in the back of his bloody van and drive off – once he’d taken the old set off, of course. He was a nice guy. Young; lovely smile and the well-defined muscles of his trade but he had a natural desire to keep hold of his business. Even in the face of some daft woman who had read a tiny but controversial book about riding barefoot horses.

Barnaby leads the way

Barnaby leads the way

‘They won’t manage, love,’ he said, rubbing his chin and eyeing the sad state of Barnaby’s feet.

My daughter’s pony made him sigh but he placidly wrenched the old and worn shoes from their feet; gave them a trim and was ready to smooth their hooves with the heavy rasp that he could wield as if it was a nail file. He straightened his back, swept his hair from his head with one easy swipe and came to a decision without meeting my eye.

‘We’ll put shoes on their fronts; that’s the answer.’

I liked this guy; he was one of the nicest farriers I had used and we had shared a few hours over the years chatting about horses and drinking tea. He had been a competitive rider when he was younger and handled the animals with a sympathy and understanding that came from a genuine connection. But I was a coward and couldn’t find the words to tell him that farriers had become second to undertakers on my people-to-avoid-while-alive list?

He grabbed the tray of tools from the back of his blue van without waiting for my answer and was about to start up the furnace of his mobile forge. Years ago, I used to ride for miles to take my horse to the blacksmith but now the old forges have become bijoux dwellings and farriers have these little mobile jobs so they can hot shoe horses while they’re still in bed. The smell of burnt horse foot follows them like an invisible mist.

My voice was a bit too high pitched to be taken seriously. It needed measured base tones for men to know I meant business. So the first attempt didn’t quell the gas flame.

I needed to try harder since he wasn’t listening. I wanted my horses to be barefoot. We were only riding on the Forest, hardly any road work, so surely they didn’t need metal wrapped around their feet.

‘Nah, his feet will crumble. Look at that crack! White feet; they’re all the same. Weak and useless. He’ll never go barefoot.’

I took a look at the horse that had carted me around for the last five years. He was as strong as an ox and pulled like a tank; he had given me so many reasons to seek out good osteopaths who bemoaned the state of my weary and pulled shoulders. Every farrier that came within two yards of him warned me his feet were his only weak point. They cracked, they didn’t grow quickly enough and so they were full of nail holes with nowhere to fix a new shoe onto.

Horses grazing in a herd

So his feet were in a sorry state even though I had done everything conventional wisdom had advised. Dutiful and regular shoeing every six weeks.

It might have been the hammer that did it; then again the sight of the nails goaded me. Sharp and shining. Lined up neatly in their trays ready to be driven into Barnaby’s feet if this man had his way; consigned to the history books if I had mine.

One word was all it needed. A two-lettered one.

‘No.’

I explained again. ‘We don’t ride them very much. We don’t compete, you know, so I really think they’ll be fine. I don’t want the shoes on.’

Frankly, I would have chosen not to ride if it meant driving nails into their feet every few weeks. For goodness sake, their feet can’t move with metal shoes stuck on them.

I didn’t like to say the shoes were bad for them; I was full of my new-found cause and brimming with facts like a cynic who’d found god on Facebook. Nailing metal onto a moving part of a horse caused injuries, shrank their feet and gave them life-threatening diseases. One lone vet was swimming against the tide and saying their lives were being shortened dramatically by the practice. The average age of a euthanized horse was about eight years old so my two had already passed their sell-by date. But I didn’t like to hurt this man’s feeling by repeating this revolutionary thought and I hated confrontation.

‘Well, what am I going to do?’ he asked.

He seemed shaken with annoyance but he was only losing two horses from his list; he wouldn’t miss them, would he? I mean, I liked them, but surely he hadn’t got attached on such a short acquaintance. His face was tight as if he needed to hold onto his teeth. Embarrassment crept inside me.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘I lose the business then, do I?’

‘Perhaps you could still trim them for me,’ I suggested, apologetically.

This was more than ten years ago. A set of shoes cost about £45 and I have no idea what that has risen to now. I was offering him a job that would yield him £10 or £20 per horse every six weeks at the most. It wasn’t much and he knew it. These horses would need trimming but his business was shoeing. To his mind, it was better for the horse to wear metal shoes since the perceived wisdom was, and still is, that they protect the foot. It was also better for his pay packet.

The little veterinary book that had set me on this journey had warned me against getting the farrier to trim their feet. They trim the feet, it warned, to fit a horse shoe rather than to set a horse up for his barefoot life. But, there weren’t many specialist barefoot trimmers in Britain at that time – I had heard of only one and she lived more than a hundred miles away – so who else would look after their feet?

It was looking more and more likely that this guy wouldn’t be coming back for my measly few pounds.

He flung the rasp to the ground. He wouldn’t look at me and turned away with a hunch of his shoulders. I wasn’t as daft as he thought because I understood and I sympathised but I was too English, too polite to tell him what I really thought of shoeing. Perhaps, we both knew that I would be the first of many owners who would take this step. Neither of us could have envisaged that we were witnessing one of the first cracks in a tradition of metal shoeing that has held sway for a thousand years; a crack that would grow, with or without my contribution, into a worldwide movement affecting thousands of horses. There would be prosecutions, vilification and plenty of hatred. But there would be no stopping the change that was coming.

Horse shoeing. My farrier thought it was essential. I thought it was killing the animals in our care. The middle ground argued it was a necessary evil.

We stood eyeing each other. I kept hold of my thoughts and waited. I had the upper hand. He had to do the job I was asking. Take off the shoes and trim their feet. Nothing more. Or someone else would do it.