Managing horse pasture at any time is a tough full time job, but this has been one of the wettest winters on record in Ireland. For horse owners across the country and in neighbouring areas of the UK it can be almost despairing.
Irish Weather – Rain and More Rain
I live in the West of Ireland and according to the Irish meteorological reports we receive 225 wet days a year – although I have to admit there are times when it feel like a lot more!
The met office do go on to say that even on a wet day it can be dry for periods, although not often at the times when it would be most helpful. The question is how can land sustain this level of continual wetness and what effect does it have on the ground when heavy animals are walking and running about on top of it?
Dealing with Flooded Horse Pasture
Even the best drained land seems to be experiencing flooding this year, and the water is collecting in small ponds wherever land slopes, rather than draining away. This poses three main challenges for horse owners;
- limited grazing and poor quality grass
- constant wetness of the horse and its hooves
- land susceptible to be churned or poached and no chance of recovery
Larger fields can cope better with horses and wet because there is more area for them to use, however smaller paddocks will become poached in wet weather.
Drainage can work well if rainfall is not consistent and the land has the chance to dry out. But most agriculture type drains only move the water from one end of the field to another, they are not drained into proper run offs. This means that they can only cope with smaller amounts of wetness and are there to help the natural process of seepage drainage.
Once heavy and continuous rainfalls starts or the land is exposed to rivers flooding, then small drains like these are not designed to cope with this.
One advantage of a field shelter is that is prevents rain falling directly onto the ground beneath it. If the shelter is positioned correctly i.e. on the top or middle of a slope rather than the bottom, and sheltered from potential damage caused by high winds, then horses have an area to escape from the continuous wetness.
Mature trees also provide shelter and will absorb large amounts of water from the ground. A mature tree can absorb approximately 50 gallons of water a day from the ground.
Protecting Field Entrances
The worst area of a field will naturally be the entrance way as this is in frequent use. It can become worse in winter as horses are often more willing (!) to come in and can start pacing near the entrance way.
I have read a suggestion of using grass mats at the entrance of a field to protect the ground, but these need to be laid when the ground is dry and good. A stronger option is to use some form of hardcore that won’t be slippy for the horses (which concrete sometimes can be), and which will be durable and has good drainage.
Rescuing Horses in the Floods
Ireland has seen some incredible flood scenes this year and stories that would wrench your heart as people have battled to save homes and land from the torrential water.
As well as humans animals have also seen their homeland ares washed away, as this amazing horse rescue video shows. These horses were rescued from the river Shannon area where they had brome stranded on an island. The water was already three feet high above the land and local vets said they wouldn’t have survived another night with all the cold and wet. Thankfully they were all rescued as can be seen in this video by the local sub aqua club who were called in by the owner of the horses.
Keeping Horses Dry
There are often plenty of discussions about whether horses need to be rugged up over the winter, or whether they wouldn’t be better running free as they do in the wild. In Ireland, where the climate is generally milder using rugs to keep out the cold is not such as necessity unless your horse is clipped or is originally designed for a warmer and drier climate.
However using rugs to keep horses dry is a way in which they can continue to live outdoors without succumbing to ailments and illnesses associated with the wet rather than the cold in winter.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is preventing Mud Fever, which is a bacterial infection which thrives on the moisture. Cuts and abrasions can become infected and are then very hard to keep clean without confining the horse to a stable.
The constant wet is especially a problem for Horse hooves, which can become susceptible to rotting. It is one of the reasons why even field kept horses should have some time in a shelter or stand on dry ground. For horses that really don’t like coming into a stable (l have one of those) I find the only way to get him in and dry for a while is to feed him in a field shelter and tie up a hay net.
Winter Access To Turnout Areas
For all horses whether living inside or out there needs to be access to areas that they can run around and blow off steam. This can be an arena, sanded turnout area or a section of a field that you just sacrifice for winter use.
Although riding in an arena is one form of turnout, horses also need a bit of free time where they can roll and brush out their winter coat, as well as kick and stretch out leg muscles that may have become cramped and stiff with long periods of standing around.
This can be difficult to arrange in the depths of a very wet winter but it will pay dividends as they horse will be fitter and mentally in better form (saving vets bills in the future).
Finally in Winter Horse Care
Wet winters along with dark mornings and early nights make equine care a tricky business. But by closely monitoring both the land condition and your horse’s health the winter will pass uneventfully. Hopefully, Spring will soon be in sight and according to the Irish Met, April is often our driest month of the year, I certainly hope so.