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Keeping it sweet over summer

This article first appeared in Equestrian Life magazine, for more information on our latest issue please click here.

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Once you acquire or set up a horse property, there is always a maintenance component, no matter what time of year it is!

 

BY JANE O'CONNOR // PHOTOGRAPHY BY CRAIG PURCELL
 
It is time to herald in all that summer has to offer, with the promise of holidays, more daylight hours and the opportunity for some equine leisure pleasure or competition. But, while life takes on a cruisier tone, there are some specific areas that need attention to ensure you, your property and horse are safe, happy and in the best condition.
 
It is a fact of life that once we acquire or set up a horse property, there is always a maintenance component, no matter what time of year. But, each season brings with it a particular set of issues. With some sensible planning, a bit of education and a checklist we can ensure that the bases are covered.
 
Some of the crucial summer issues include horse owners going away for an extended holiday, preparing for the bushfire season, knowing the equine health risks that are likely to arise and what to pay attention to in regard to property maintenance.
 
The owner 
 
The time has come when a beach may beckon or you are off on an extended break away from home. It is also the time of year when the welfare of horses left untended comes into focus. Whether you are one of the thousands of horse owners who agist in Australia or someone who can accommodate your own, the events that can dampen that great getaway can be quite basic and often overlooked.
It can be as simple as assuming that a horse is self-sufficient enough to be left to its own devices as long as it has water and feed, or that an agistment property will take care of a raft of issues while you top up the tan. There are some excellent facilities that will accommodate horses in much the same way we can send the dog to a boarding kennel, but the absence of a float, lack of such facilities nearby or logistics mean the vast majority will be left in their usual paddock.
 
Be clear about what an agistment property will do or expects you to make arrangements for if you will be absent. Relying on casual deals with neighbours, friends or family members can cause problems if you have failed to make your requirements clear or their horse knowledge is limited. Always ensure any ‘babysitters’ have details on how to contact a vet in the case of an emergency. Our guide provides a checklist that can be put in place ahead of holiday plans, or just for your general attention.
 
The horse
 
Water:
 
Do you know how much water your horse drinks in a 24 hour period? According to the RSPCA, an average 500 kilogram 15hh horse will consume between 30 and 50 litres. That will increase in hot weather. Young horses need even more. Horses are one of the few animals that sweat to stay cool. Their high fibre diet also needs a lot of water to move through the digestive system and that process in itself exudes heat. If a horse is on rapidly growing, green grass, water consumption will drop, but mature, dry grass will see it increase.
What many may not be aware of is that the horse's strong sense of smell and taste will reject water that is polluted, stagnant, dirty or that might be clean, but has suddenly changed to a different source. They will avoid it to the point of dehydration. Be vigilant and observe how much your horse is drinking, particularly if it has been moved to a new location. To get a horse used to a new water source before you go away, the RSPCA recommends flavouring the water it is used to with a little molasses for a few days and then flavour the new water source the same way, gradually reducing it until the horse accepts it.
 
Ensure that you, or someone who may be checking on your horse, is aware of the  likes of dirt, algae or manure appearing in water receptacles and cleans them quickly. Check out whether perpetual water feeding installations that can be attached to tanks or other sources that ensure clean, fresh water is constantly feeding troughs may be a good solution, but these too need cleaning from time to time. And, while we may have had a wet winter, water tank levels can drop rapidly when hot weather hits. Check these levels if planning to be away for an extended period and have them filled if necessary. Simply leaving a horse with a bucket of water may see them drink a lot all at once, but they are also easily knocked over.
 
Shows and events are also in full swing over summer and taking a good supply of 'home' water with you can save both time and health risks. Many horse floats carry water tanks. Even on a long ride, the horse may reject unfamiliar water and if this is the case, take a bottle of 'home' water with you. The RSPCA says it is also an outdated myth that water should be withheld from a horse after a workout. Instead, allow it to drink a little, walk it for a few minutes and then let it drink again.
 
Shade and shelter:
 
We've packed the sunnies, sunscreen and a great hat, but how many horses do you see on a blazing hot day with no shade or shelter? They are able to cope with the elements, but should have access to some shade or shelter. In the wild, they will naturally seek it out, but domestic horses can only use what you have made available.
 
Summer rugs, the RSPCA says, may have some benefits in certain circumstances, but they won't solve problems such as over heating, sunburn on white or pink flesh areas left exposed, or pink areas around the eyes. Horse's eyes let in a lot of light, so be aware that they may react to increased sun. If the forelock doesn't provide protection, check out eye guards. Muzzles are also prone to sunburn and high factor sunscreens can be applied. Shade also cuts down on the annoyance of horse flies as they prefer to be in full sun. 
 
Flies and insects:
 
Be aware of any specific fly or insect problems in your area. For instance, a condition known as 'Sweet Itch' and commonly known as 'Queensland Itch' will not only make your horse miserable, but create a difficult cycle for you to break. Caused by the bites of midges, it is an allergy that can lead to intense itching and scratching, hair loss and exposed skin. Daily checks should occur in areas prone to this, particularly underneath the mane and around the base of the tail. A lotion can be applied, but special rugs with holes small enough to keep out midges, but let air circulate can help greatly.
 
 
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Some horses are very sensitive to summer insects - and some areas are more 'insect prone' than others.
 
 
Don’t feel tempted to dramatically clip manes, tails and forelocks. These are the horse’s best defence against flies.
If things really hot up, wash the sweat off with a hose. This will cut down on flies attracted to dry sweat and dirt as will keeping paddocks clear of manure. 
 
Other health issues:
 
Australia is a vast and diverse land and with that comes an incredible array of soil and pasture types. They carry a wide range of deficiencies and problems. The wonderful thing about your veterinarian is that they will be aware of issues specific to the area they work in. Before guessing about supplements or prevention measures, get a list of the potential problems and the signals to watch for. Supplementary feeding may be totally unnecessary if grass is showing continuous growth and contains all the right grass types and nutrients, but in many cases, prevention is always better than cure. 
 
Like us, horses also lose salts and minerals if they are worked hard in extreme heat, but avoiding the hottest parts of the day can help avoid excessive losses, or electrolytes can be added to water to replace them.
 
A sigh of relief is often breathed in summer, as we assume the spring flush of new grass growth has put an end to the worst of the laminitis season. But, depending on the climate, this serious condition can occur all year. Autumn can be as potent as Spring. Again, ask your vet if they are seeing cases in the area and know the signs to watch for.
 
Horses still need worming in summer, so check with your vet what is appropriate for your area.
 
Where horses are largely stabled, make sure they are left open to allow breezes to flow through, or add fans to pull the air into the space.
 
Feeding:
 
Again, there is a tendency to think that because the grass is growing we can relax knowing they are eating the most natural feed. But, horses evolved to graze on dry tundra. Centuries of breeding, plus constant pasture improvements means we have changed this entirely. The reality is we either have too much or too little pasture or the wrong selection of grass types. Assess a horse’s weight and what type of work or exercise it does. The chances are it will benefit from some supplements to overcome any deficiencies. There are options such as strip grazing where grass is too lush, but ask your stockfeed company or vet for advice on supplements to ensure they are getting the right nutrients. One advance in this area is in feed balancing products that can cover the spectrum from young to old horses and take into account their level of exercise or work. If a horse is overweight it will find it harder to deal with heat as body fat acts as insulation. Never work an overweight horse in the heat.
 
Hoof care:
 
The ground is drying out and winter slush has turned to hard, baked dirt. Unshod horses may be prone to cracking and brittle hooves, so ensure the farrier is regular. Aside from that, have a summer hoof care regime in place. A healthy diet, a good farrier and regular hoof oil applications should be enough. A horse prone to brittle hooves can benefit from a soaking in water. A perfect excuse for finding a stream and having a paddle.
 
Hidden dangers:
 
The neighbours - It is now increasingly common for horse properties to adjoin suburban blocks. If this affects you or an agistment property, consider posting a notice or informing  those usually well-intentioned, but misguided neighbours that grass and garden clippings are not doing your horse a favour.
 
Freshly mown grass clippings ferment. A horse may gorge on them without having to chew, so they don’t mix with saliva. They can continue to ferment in the stomach, causing a rupture or colic. And, it is doubtful whether a neighbour is aware that general garden waste can also contain toxic plant matter. If you are going to be away from the property, put up a general sign asking that such material not be put there, or go and meet the neighbours and ask them not to dump garden waste at any time.
 
Insurance:
 
Apart from any general property insurance you may need, be very clear about what your liabilities are regarding your horses. If agisting, what does the property owner cover and – equally importantly – not cover. Ask the same question of riding schools, holiday horse riding establishments and even your own position should visitors to the property go for a ride. This also applies to a scenario whereby your horses may escape from the property in your absence and get onto roadways or into other properties.
 
The property
 
Property planning:
 
Agricultural and animal research and accepted practices and approaches don’t stand still. Summer is a great time to spare a little leisure time to read up on what is available or seek out courses and seminars that can arm us with the information needed to head in the right direction. Even if you have a property plan, revisit it. Either it is on track, your plans may have changed or it could benefit from some contemporary methods.
 
Some of these plans need to be state and region-specific. For example, there will be pasture, climate or horse health issues that are ever-present, but can be managed. Even serious emerging problems such as the Hendra virus that has put the Queensland equine community on alert has its own set of requirements and horse property owners can ensure they have taken the right action. The Queensland Horse Council – www.qldhorsecoucil.com - has a raft of information on how to set up a property for the best preventative measures.
 
The general planning starting point, while seemingly simple, requires some homework. This involves working out what you need – intensive grazing, the stocking rate, what pasture mixes there are or should be, what weeds need controlling, where shade and shelter trees may be needed and how to undertake rotational grazing for the best outcome. LandCare groups and state agriculture departments offer state and regional information to get you started. Some of the perennial grasses now on the market can be a case of replanting your pastures once and in years to come they are self-perpetuating and you have some leisure time back. The planned planting of trees not only provide shade for the horses, but could solve an erosion problem. Eliminating stagnant water could cut an insect problem. Installing drainage grids around troughs or muddy shed areas could add up to a more pleasant Autumn and Winter. Looking for such add-on benefits can be a satisfying exercise.
 
Water supplies have also become more efficient as we strive to use less. It may be a case where some new, well placed tanks – such as off a new shed, stables or barn – will increase water security greatly. Pumping systems, automatic trough filling mechanisms and piping can also reduce the Australian summer water enemy – evaporation. If some areas need drainage, then now is the time when it is dry enough to lay piping.
 
Manure management is also essential in summer, not only for fly control and health reasons, but because it can also be used for your benefit. Harrowed into pasture as a natural fertiliser, added to a compost regime or keeping the kids occupied bagging and selling it at the front gate for some holiday pocket money.
 
General maintenance:
 
Property maintenance and horses go hand in hand. There is also a growing move towards a more sustainable approach to how you run your horse property. Ultimately, this can lead to a great deal of savings in both time and money, as well as benefiting the environment. State government departments of agriculture have great material available to help with these processes, many of which – such as weed control, re-vegetation or getting your pasture right for the purpose – should be part of a property plan anyway.
 
Fences - They do deteriorate. Horses push against them, wooden posts break down and wires slacken off. Good fencing is crucial to keep animals in. Walk fence lines often and quickly replace any damage. Ensure gate latches are secure. For electric fencing, test it regularly with a voltmeter to see if voltage is dropping at any point. Insulators also need checking and replacing and ground rods should be tested to ensure they are making the proper contact. We tend to believe that once a horse is used to electric fencing it will avoid it, so it doesn’t matter if it is working. But, in a fright or flight situation both horse and fence could suffer some serious damage. As the owner of a very smart Miniature who likes to eat beyond her capacity, it was with a mixture of horror and admiration that she was observed always testing the electric tape when strip grazed. If 'on' she will happily avoid it, but once 'off' she steps straight through to greener pastures.
 
Buildings - While taking those pleasant summer fence walks, check out the buildings as well – sheds, shelters, barns and stables. That loose corrugated iron or roofing material can become a flying hazard when gales arrive. Carry a hammer and some nails and attend to them as you go or note what needs repairs.
 
Equipment - Generators and pumps need maintenance. This is a crucial part of your fire plan anyway. These pieces of equipment often only come into play when there’s a prolonged power outage or we need to activate a fire plan. Given the sporadic nature of such events, they are often out of sight and out of mind. Don’t find yourself heading home from holiday under such circumstances only to find they aren’t working.
 
Pasture - Take the time to check pasture quality and whether it is meeting your needs. Fertilising may rectify some problems, but check out whether repasturing with the innovative grass varieties now on the market could solve a lot of future problems. 
 
Bushfires:
 
Property owners should develop a plan to deal with natural disasters. No matter what state we live in, bush and grassfires are an integral part of the summer landscape and it's important to have a plan in place.

To learn more about bushfires and horses, keep an eye out for the January/February issue of Equestrian Life - we plan to cover all the important points horse owners should keep in mind as summer reaches its peak. 
 

 

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