Sweet road to comfort

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.

piles of wood needed clearing

piles of wood needed clearing

Phie - working 2

bags and bags of rubbish went to the dump

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.

horses at phie 12

this road sign was found in the woods

What! No stables? No individual turnout? And where was the grass?

Amber, my daughter, myself and Kate Ayling at one of our work days

Amber, my daughter, myself and Kate Ayling at one of our work days

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.

Sophie - walking well on concrete

Sophie – walking well on concrete

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.’

This is the bit with grass

This is the bit with grass

Phie Forest 3

Shame about the riding, though!

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!

horses at phie 26

horses at phie 16

back to health after being crippled with athritus this winter

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.

horses at phie 21But 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 horses at phie 22until 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!

horses at phie 15We 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 onchorses at Phie 7e used by the Ministry of War should become a place for healing both horses and humans!

 

About Me…

IMG_3822I’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 Cover_Barefoot_3 (1)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 NovelCoverSociety. 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!’

If you want to keep in touch, follow this blog or find me on Facebook

 

 

 

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Mistakes, mud…and murder

by Linda Chamberlain

It has been the winter of my discontent…

But perhaps it will be made glorious summer from the things I have learnt.

Discontented?

Yes, that’s me – I haven’t ridden since taking a tumble from my daughter’s horse in the Autumn. My nearest and dearest know this means I’m now much more likely to commit murder…!

Helen Barnes-Short

You see, my own, much safer horse went down with laminitis at about the same time as the fall and although she has recovered we haven’t got out for a ride.

We haven’t got out because it’s been so muddy that my three horses have been confined to the yard – not the way I like to keep them but at least it’s huge and they are altogether with their ad lib hay.  And if anyone thinks I can bring a highly-strung, chestnut mare back into work with that lifestyle they need their head examined.

Retreating from the fields in favour of the yard began in the Autumn with Sophie’s laminitis. She needed zero grass. Once the others had turned some of the grass track into brown track she was allowed out again but then came the rain…and more rain.

Tao, my daughter’s horse, strained an old leg injury in the deep mud. Carrie, our retired 26-year-old mare, got mud fever and needed two bouts of antibiotics when my usual armory of lotions and potions failed to prevent her sore and balding legs from swelling like a granny’s.

Three out of three horses had something wrong with them. It seemed I couldn’t do anything right and only the vet was happy. I wanted to give up…or at least, go on holiday but I couldn’t leave them.

Other horse lovers were struggling thanks to the heavy rain, lush grass and the health issues they cause, but that didn’t make it easier.

Seriously, I thought about moving house. Fields were no good for a laminitic horse, and they all needed movement if they were to get well again.

Yes, of course I took them for walks but it had no impact on the granny legs. Dry, hard ground had never seemed so far away.

Nikki Freer 2

I had to find something positive from all this. Number one was feeding them ad lib hay. It was the least I could do for them.  Reportedly, horses do well if their forage never runs out but I was sure the greedy one would explode. She didn’t, although she gave it her best shot for the first few days of this regime. Then she calmed down; the other two put on a bit of weight which was welcome. All of them looked well.  They were also very contented in spite of the lack of turnout. For weeks, perhaps months, we managed.

jenny bradleyBut they desperately needed to move more. An hour a day shoveling poop gives a girl plenty of thinking time. I would make some all-weather tracks around the field; I couldn’t be in this situation again. Grass tracks were good but they were better in California.

 

 

Nikki Freer 1

Sadly, the price was prohibitive and no one could build tracks while the ground was so wet. I came up with another plan – we would fence part of the long driveway that led from the house to the yard. The hard standing/roadway was already there and the only outlay would be the fencing. It could be done quickly, too. Hay put out on a dry parcel of woodland provided a turning space just off the drive and would encourage them to investigate. It was wooded and would give great shelter in summer. The ground seemed to be dry, too.

So, we got it fenced.  I led Tao there for a look and the others followed. They bucked, bucked some more and rolled. Then they ran back to the yard full of fear. Were they agoraphobic? Frightened of the cars parked nearby?

20150312_155753For two days I led them up the track but every time they ran ‘home’ within minutes. At least I could see Sophie and Tao had recovered their soundness. Rock crunching on the stony track.

The next morning’s gloomy thoughts from Eeyore (that’s me) were – they’re never going to use it; they think it’s haunted and have become emotional cripples. I left the yard gate open after feeding and taking rugs off, feeling a little bit depressed. They could help themselves to the track if they wanted it. I couldn’t do anymore.

So of course, off Sophie went as bold as brass. The others followed, had a roll; ate the hay. No bucking or running for home. Yes, we have mud-free, grass-free turnout!

Zelda LithgowIt’s not much but it’s a start. I have my eye on the rest of the driveway but it’s narrow and I’ll need to use some of the lawn by the house for a turning spot. But who likes mowing? And there’s very little fencing to do.

How do conventional horse keepers cope with animals that are confined far more than mine were? How do they keep them well and rideable? Perhaps they don’t. So many horses are kept in stables during the winter 24/7. It’s a practice I have condemned before since it is so detrimental to the horse’s mental and physical welfare.

Chris TaylorMy yard measures about 60 feet by 80 feet. It is huge compared to the average stable which is a mere 12 by 12; they can still potter about and be together. I really hope their new piece of track relieves the cabin fever I could see building inside them.

So far, it’s doing a good job. The granny legs are looking more youthful; the swelling is nearly gone. The antibiotics had cleared the secondary infection caused by the mud fever but made no impact on the swelling. Sophie is calmer, more like a rideable horse and Tao is the most content I have ever seen her now that I’m an ad-lib hay advocate. Movement seems as though it will be the key once more. My horses look at me with their ‘I-could-have-told-you-that’ faces.

mud

My thanks to Nikki Freer, Chris Taylor, Zelda Lithgow, Jenny Bradley and Helen Barnes-Short (all members of the Barefoot Horse Owners Group on Facebook) for the photos – I’m not the only one who has been wet this year.

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IMG_3822ABOUT ME – I’m a writer and a journalist who has a passion for horses especially if they are barefoot. A Barefoot Journey, is my 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. It is a small-but-perfectly-formed field companion to my novel The First Vet, a historical romance inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm Cover_Barefoot_3 (1)of shoeing 200 years ago! Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book has 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical Novel CoverSociety. 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!’

 

Keep in touch by following this blog or finding me on Facebook.