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Looking After The HorseBack Horses


We have a week between courses just now, and this is the time we take to concentrate on our horses. They work so hard through the year, helping veterans and young people, and so it is our privilege and duty to keep them as happy and healthy as human ingenuity can contrive.

At HorseBack, we are very conscious that horses are herd animals and prey animals. They have evolved over fifty-five million years and their domestication only happened very recently. (Around ten thousand years, give or take.) We try to see the world through their eyes and to work with the grain of their nature, rather than against it.

Because of this, we keep them in herds, out in the fields. At this time of year, most are up on a long, sweeping Scottish hill, allowed to roam as free as they can be. Some of the minis and native breeds have to stay in smaller fields, where the rough grass grows, because they can’t take too much lush greenery. In fact in many cases, truly caring for the horses needs means watching their weight and sugar intake to ensure they do not eat too much! High sugars for certain breeds could lead to multiple health issues both internally and externally. It is our job as carers to give them forage, freedom and friends, whilst also supporting their dietary requirements, which must be attended to throughout the year.

Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learnt over many years of working with horses is to treat each one as an individual. Horses obviously have a lot of things in common. Their digestive systems, for instance, are designed for constant grazing and moving. That’s why it’s hard for horses to adapt to life in stables, and why many horses are prone to ulcers. Ad lib forage, plenty of fibre, and freedom are vital for those delicate digestions. Both the constant movement and constant grazing acts as the horses internal central heating system, keeping them warm in the winter months. Horses are designed to lose weight in the winter and gain in the summer, therefore with human interventions such as food, exercise, stabling etc we are impacting on natures way and so its even more vital we monitor each horses weight and condition all year round.

Their herd nature means they are happiest when they have plenty of friends with them. And their prey nature means that they crave a sense of safety above all. They get that from being with other horses – there is always someone on mountain lion watch in any herd – and from working with a calm, steady human who understands their needs.

There are also some more obscure facts about horses which not everyone knows. They need REM sleep just as humans do, and for that they must feel secure enough to lie down. (This is another thing the herd does for them.) It’s fascinating to watch the herd take it in turns to stand over the other horses while they sleep. Usually there is a herd leader who eats first, walks first and protects the herd from predators. He or she will stand over the other horses while they are sleeping. Occasionally if herds feel safe enough, the herd boss will sleep while their second in command watches on their feet.

The one place in the horses body where they will not display physical pain is inside the mouth, so it’s vital to make sure they have regular dental check-ups. They’ll tell you if they are sore in the back or the legs, but the mouth is a strange, hidden place, and vets are sometimes shocked when they find rough teeth or lacerated cheeks or nasty abscesses in a horse who has been going about its business without making a fuss. (Horses are natural stoics. In the wild, if they show weakness or pain, they are vulnerable to predators.)

So all that is vital to know when you are looking after your horses, but it’s incredibly important to take into account their individual characters and physical needs as well. Even something as simple as grooming can be quite complex, when you really pay attention.

There are some horses who adore it, and will lean into the brush with a look of dreamy bliss on their faces. But some are much more cat-like and don’t especially enjoy being touched. With those, you first have to understand WHY they don’t like it. Remember horses can feel a fly on their backs, so even the most gentle touch they can feel with great sensitivity. If there are no medical or psychological problems with the horse then introducing to them grooming is a learning behaviour and needs to be done with gentleness and empathy. You can’t just march in with the brush because you want to get the mud off.

We look out for any signals of slight anxiety or stress and retreat when we see them. It’s important for the horses to know you are listening to them. You can get a horse like this to love the brush, but you have to build the process up gradually and with politeness. Grooming is something horses do in the wild and in herds. Its called Mutual Grooming, when you see two horses scratching each others necks with their teeth. To most people it could be perceived as fighting and biting, but if you see all four feet on the ground, a calm manner and just stood in a love heart shape with their necks reaching around each other, it is a symbol of love and they are grooming each other.

Some horses thrive on work. They have active bodies and active minds, and they like a good regime. Some are much happiest, once you’ve got a good foundation on them, to be left to do their own thing, dreaming their days away in the field. We work all our horses to balance their minds and their bodies, but we don’t have a one-size-fits-all. We work with the horse we have that day, and we always ask what the horse needs rather than what we want.

Our days of looking after our horses involve checking in on the herd as you would check in on a group of friends. This one might need a little more work, to engage a dancing mind; that one might just need a groom and a scratch in the sweet spots and bit of love. We’ll check on the herd dynamics, which are fluid. If someone is getting pushed down the pecking order or if another is getting a little too invested in bossing everyone around, we might change the arrangements.

On the practical side, there are regular vet visits and farrier visits. One of the team is always checking the water troughs, clearing up the dung, making sure the fences are in good shape. Believe it or not horse dung is important and can tell us so much about the health of the horses! Dung removal is also vital in maintaining not only the fields, but also the horses health. We won’t make you squirm with the ins and outs of horse dung incase you are enjoying a nice cuppa whilst reading this, but it is essential the dung texture, colour, and movement is observed.

There will be the ordering and distributing of hay – very important for the extra fibre it provides – and the writing up of the feeding schedule. The feeds will change with the seasons, weather and ever changing condition of each horse. Feeds also change with the amount of exercise our horses do. With a herd of thirty-six, all that is an ongoing part of our life here.

On the more – how shall we say? – emotional side, it’s very important to us that we check our horses’ state of mind. We need to make sure that they are at ease in themselves, bright yet relaxed, confident that they are protected by their herd and their humans. This might sound a bit hippy dippy, but a horse who is in a state of low level anxiety can be prone to ulcers and stress colic, as well as becoming spooky and rushy under saddle. Keeping them mentally and emotionally balanced is a huge part of our daily work.

And finally, this is the one you might not be expecting: looking after horses well means looking after yourself. If you go down to the field filled with swarming worries and unprocessed resentments and general angst, your horses will pick up on that. This comes back to the nature of the prey animal. They can feel human jangles like they feel a storm coming.

It’s a wonderful idea to get yourself into the habit of doing an audit of your body and mind before you go down to your horses. Are you holding onto tensions in your shoulders? Is that difficult email weighing on your mind? Are you berating yourself for some small error?

See if you can get those frets out. There are a hundred lovely ways to do this, and we write about them often. Write them out, talk them out, stomp them out, dance them out. (One of our team sometimes swears them out. She makes sure she does this in the woods, where nobody can be shocked.)

This is your stuff and it’s not your horses’ job to carry it. The beautiful thing is that if you get into this habit of awareness and letting go, your human life will be so much easier as well as your horse life.

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We do not rely on government funding so any donations will greatly assist with the running of our charity.

We do not rely on government funding so any donations will greatly assist with the running of our charity.