by Linda Chamberlain
Excuse the pun but obesity is a growing problem – and not just for our children.
Perhaps it is no surprise that twenty-eight per cent of the UK’s kids are obese or overweight. More and more of them are driven to school, where they spend their day sat behind a desk and then they come home and exercise their fingers on some digital device. They do not move enough.
How can this have happened? And what can we do to change it?
In my last blog I looked at the amount of sugar in food aimed at both children AND horses. There is an awful lot of it being consumed – sweets, fizzy drinks AND green grass are full of it, bagged commercial feeds are laced with molasses – and reducing it must be the first step in getting healthier.
The other factor in this scenario is exercise. Now, a lot of people might be thinking that the average horse runs about a lot but many are kept stabled for long periods where inactivity is compulsory.
A little-known section of the horse world is changing that with a brilliant way of keeping horses – on tracks rather than stables and fields – and showing how important exercise and movement is to health.
If we set up something similar for children you would see their dinner waiting for them at the top of the road, a drink at the bottom. Two streets over, up a footpath, would be a park where they could play with friends; another path might take them to a youth club. Finally, they would need to walk home again to find their bed where they could rest happily after an exhausting day! If our children lived every day like that, we might see obesity in retreat.
This innovative way of keeping horses is known as a track system and it does away with the traditional model of stabling with occasional paddock turnout. Many horses are kept in stables overnight. It’s convenient for some humans that way and it prevents wet land from becoming poached. Some horses are kept in all day and all night and I dare not think what condition their bodies must be in.
I asked some people who have set up a tracks for horses to share some of their findings and success stories. Have horses lost weight with this method? Have they overcome health problems?
The answer is an overwhelming YES. Laminitis has been shown the door, allergies have disappeared, hooves have got stronger and excess weight is reducing.
Bethan Summers, who runs Gawsworth Track Livery in Cheshire, UK, found increased movement was a key factor but she wanted to know more. So, she put a monitor on two of the horses and found this startling difference. A horse on the track moved nearly seven miles in a 24-hour period. Another horse in a field travelled just over three miles.
Now, I know that is not a scientific study but it is interesting and if you are looking at an obese horse you might want to take note. Or even better, track the edge of your field and see what happens. They key is spreading their activity around the track – water at one end, shelter at another and hay somewhere else.
It is owners of laminitic horses who are the first in the queue when a new track livery yard opens. They already know to take their equine off rich, sugary grass but they need movement, too, and traditional set-ups rarely have anywhere suitable beyond the stable door.
Liane Rhodes offers track herd life in West Yorkshire, specialising in treatment for lami with what she describes as free-range horse management.
‘Our approach is very much horse led, we prioritise horses’ mental and emotional well-being. Living in a family group, as nature intended, is paramount to successful recovery and healthy minds as well as bodies. We are constantly progressing and improving our track environment, adding more surfaced areas to help with extra movement. One livery arrived with severely stretched white lines, she had done a whole season of endurance just before coming to us, so this proved to me that movement alone wasn’t enough. All her hooves have grown in tight and her flares are hugely improved after just one year. Another livery came with low grade laminitis, she had been on mostly a correct diet for a long time, but stabled at her previous yard due to lack of facilities. Movement and social interaction as well as diet are helping this mare get back to being a healthy, active individual.’
Amy Dell, who runs Abbots View Livery in Buckinghamshire, UK, said: ‘Our type of livery is perfect for the majority of horses as it aims to mimic the horse’s natural environment and gives them freedom of choice, but is especially good for those who suffer from today’s common health problems, such as obesity (see before and after pic below), laminitis, and arthritis, or horses that do not like being stabled, suffer from boredom, or just crave a stimulating and enriching environment.
‘Over the spring and summer the horses are kept on a track system 24/7 but in the winter, due to England’s weather, they are shut off from the track and let into the carefully-managed middle in sections, with continued access to and from the corral where water, ad lib hay, and our open shelter are always available. This ensures the horses have free choice, are on the move all-year round and are never confined to stables.’
Tanya Bisp has a track for her own horses in Somerset. ‘I include big climbing mounds, narrow and wide tracks with stepping poles,’ she said. ‘A track system offers a home for young, old, laminitics, arthritic, big or small. It doesn’t matter if they are not ridden, as the track can be made interesting and stimulating and keeps the horses fit, healthy and happy. I often have people come, just to see my chilled out herd; sit amongst them drinking tea, brush them, walk with them, whether it be for therapy or just peace.’
In Belgium, Camille Vanham, set up a track system because her horses were suffering from laminitis. ‘I have not had a laminitis crisis on the part of horses since. In addition to that I find the horses more serene and always able to work with humans. Their feet are in good shape, and in the summer wear well thanks to the beaten-earth corridors. I do not have a problem with foot rot anymore.’
Jessica Dench, from South Africa, had this to say: ‘We are 6 ladies who decided to take the leap and set up a paddock paradise track in South Africa. Many people thought we were cruel or stupid to keep our horses off grass and live out but the results speak for themselves.
One horse used to be on Allergex and had to be washed weekly due to grass allergies. She doesn’t have those issues anymore. Two of our horses were overweight and under muscled and because of constant movement and hay diets they improved and actually look healthy for a change.’
My own two horses live on a woodland track and lately I have been investigating ways of helping them to move even more. Their hay was already spread over a long and winding trail but there were other areas that they seemed to neglect and didn’t visit.
I have tied some large plant pots to the trees and each day add herbs, a few slices of carrot or a handful of hay cobs for them to ‘find’ – a reason for them to explore. Inspired by other ‘trackies’ who have built mounds for their horses to climb I have also been putting hay onto the natural banks in the woods. The aim is to give those legs a good work out.
My ex-race horse, Charlie Brown, has long struggled to lift up his hind legs for hoof care but this is now improving and his dipped back has muscled up to the amazement of our equine osteopath.
Sophie (right), my ridden horse, gave me some concern over her lack of weight and muscle strength last summer and she frequently rested her right hind leg. Since osteopathic treatment and climbing those hills she is a different mare.
Tracks are like a giant playground for your kids, something they can enjoy all day long. Your job, as a horse guardian, is to set it up, keep it interesting and watch, or keep up with the poo picking, as nature works its magic.
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