Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Hooves and Living Conditions

In my last journal entry, Janet Grant left a comment with a query, which I thought I would address here today. Janet wrote:
Lynne, I have been reading your blog since the beginning and don't recall you having a discussion about the horse's feet. I am involved with the Paso Fino's, as you know, and they are very prone to founder. With your herd, do you ever have to trim their feet? Are their hooves in really good health because of the herd's constant movement? What percentage of their food are they getting from you in the form of hay and what are they getting from the land? I suppose my real question is what are we doing wrong! I think the Pasos have been bred in South America for 500 years, are recent immigrants, and don't tolerate our rich grass.

I specifically haven't devoted any prior journal entries to hooves, because I have not immersed myself too deeply in the study of the "natural hoof" and therefore feel rather unequipped to discuss or advise about such things. Nevertheless, there are some experiences and observations which have occurred here at Ravenseyrie that might be of interest to those who have studied hoof ailments intensively or those who have horses with less than perfect hooves.

Kevin and I did attend a barefoot hoof clinic held on the island in early May. Kate Romanenko was the instructor/farrier and she offered first a lecture and then worked on some of the horses that participants had brought to the clinic. I'm sharing some of the photos I took. Kate did an excellent job of relaying the benefits to natural horse keeping and stressed again and again how important it was to remove shoes and get horses out of their stalls.

Natural hoof advocate, Kate Romanenko

There appear to be many issues that trigger abnormalities in hoof growth and overall hoof health such as genetic heritage, environment, nutrition and what humans might "use" their horses for.

Kate Romanenko helps a horse with a severe case of founder

Here at Ravenseyrie, I put a lot of trust in the varied environment to supply the horses with everything they require to maintain themselves the best hooves suited to their lifestyles. Most of them have no issues that would require intervention from us, not even one nip or need for rasping.

Bella, pictured here with Belina and Zorita as they move across the autumn landscape

The registered Spanish Mustang mare, Bella, who came to us as a yearling, has always had poor hooves (flat, prone to flares and wicked cracks) and during the spring of her second year suffered from a laminitic episode that required some specific trimming on her front hooves. Despite a brief period of being distinctly lame, Bella continued to keep up with the movements of the herd, which more than likely hastened her recovery. While today Bella's hooves are still not "perfect", their shape and growth patterns have improved a lot and she has not had any further episodes.

Zeus, the Thoroughbred gelding, has massive hooves that, like Bella's, would persistently flare and crack. Zeus was often "ouchy" especially back in the old days after the routine farrier's trim. The first year here at Ravenseyrie, Zeus suffered from a bad abscess, but again, like Bella, despite being distinctly lame, kept up with the movements of the herd and quickly recovered on its own without digging it out or soaking it. Today, Zeus' hooves are much stronger and while surface cracks continue, the flaring has stopped and though they sometimes get ragged-edged, his hooves now self-trim to a nice looking shape which appears to suit his needs incredibly well.

I don't think that Zeus and Bella will ever have "perfect" hooves, but it appears that their hooves have adjusted to their environment in ways that have improved them and allow them to lead very active, energetic lives. It's possible their hooves are less than ideal due to genetic heritage and while micro-managing by highly skilled farriers might keep them looking more like ideal hooves, I suspect that the environment of Ravenseyrie actually does a better job of making them better functioning hooves despite their less than picture perfect appearance.

Occasionally, we will do a light trim of the toe or quarters on the mules, whose hooves seem to take longer to self-trim. From time to time each of the other horses will have a chip, crack or break in the quarter as their hooves go through the process of self-trimming, typically this is noted during the seasons when the ground is moist.

At Ravenseyrie, the horses are fed hay generally from December to early May. The hay is a first cutting of mixed prairie grasses combined with flowering herbs that grow among the grasses. The hay is put up into the large 500 lb round bales, off from which we peel copious amounts two to three times a day and spread this out into numerous piles wherever the herd has chosen to be on the landscape depending on the weather conditions. The amount we put out is based on the condition of the horses (both physically and mentally) and how harsh the weather is. In addition to hay, we feed one scoop (approx. 3 cups) of whole oats per horse (foals not included, though they nibble a little of it) in the morning. While we continue to offer breakfast oats even after we've stopped feeding hay, there is a period of time in late June and early July when the horses stop coming up for oats is a time when I feel most unneeded by them--except that when I hike out to see them they remember how good I am at itching places they cannot reach themselves. Occasionally, we hand feed apple and compressed alfalfa cubes as special treats.

Kevin hands out some apples to Mistral's group
The horses at Ravenseyrie experience seasonal changes in body weight, gaining weight in the spring, losing a bit during the late summer, regaining again in the autumn and losing a bit over the winter. In March of this year, we noted that Ciente and Mistral had lost much more weight than normal and so supplemented their breakfast oats with black oil sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, fenugreek seeds and alfalfa cubes, which were no longer required once the early spring grasses flushed over the landscape.

There is no barn here at Ravenseyrie, so the horses take shelter in the forest, selecting for themselves the spots most advantageous to their comfort depending on the prevailing winds. The horses are almost perpetually on the move, except when dozing, and while they move less in the bitter winter weather, they nonetheless continue to traverse their territory. The horses obtain water in spring and autumn from the numerous seasonal ponds and creeks upon on the table land. In summer, when these sources dry up, the horses go down the rocky bluff to slack their thirsts in the the lake. In the winter they eat snow or visit the few spots in the landscape where the ground water under the snow doesn't freeze.

In addition to grazing the grasses and herbs, the horses at Ravenseyrie also browse on branches, leaves, bark, roots, even dirt at all times of the year. In previous journal entries I have also showed the horses partaking of the mineral/salt block we put out for them.

Here we see Animado seeking out and eating earth

Many breeds of horses, even though highly domesticated, nevertheless have metabolisms adapted to surviving and thriving in a landscape that presents them with seasonal changes, environmental stresses and constant interaction with herd mates and other wildlife. Our well-intentioned habit of taking horses out of these landscapes to make their lives easier, more comfortable and more convenient for humans to have them available to "use" for their own whims and desires comes at a huge price in overall health and well-being. Most domestically kept horses are lacking appropriate physical and mental stimulation, are fed too much and exercised too little, and their human handlers are scrambling furtively to tinker with elements they can never fully comprehend in an effort to create an equilibrium in an unbalanced situation. Even horses that are out on pasture are often on "improved" groomed pastures which are too rich and lack diversity.

I am not learned enough to give advice to those of you who are having health issues with your horses...I can only relay what the daily lives of the Ravenseyrie horses is like and perhaps this will reveal something about how beneficial it is to embrace even the hardships of a natural environment. I hope, Janet, that you can find a way to implement some or all of these "wilderness" elements in ways that help your Paso Finos.


Janet Grant said...

Thank you Lynne, that was very informative. I am looking for a property of my own, and am mulling over the kind of lifestyle I will give my horses. I would love to fence off as much land as possible (I couldn't afford 350 acres!) and let them roam and eat as much natural vegetation as they wanted. I think the constant movement of your herd and varied terrain at Ravenseyrie are the 2 most important factors in keeping their hooves healthy.

Lynne Gerard said...

You will love having your horses on your own property where you can enjoy living with them and experiencing their lives as a deeper part of your own.

We cannot afford 350 acres either! This entire place used to be one farm in the old days comprising three conjoined 120 acre lots. By the time we came into the picture, the farm had already been split and was no longer family owned. We purchased 2/3 of it while the remaining 1/3 continues to be owned by another couple who live in the village. They are very kind to have allowed all the lots to remain as one large parcel fenced only on the outer parameter so the horses get the benefit of roaming the full 360 acres. Each 120 acre lot has special features that make the entire parcel so well suited to free range horses. We continue to be very thankful for this wonderful landscape!

I agree with you, Janet, its the varied terrain coupled with the movement that makes for the strong,healthy hooves of the horses. Add to this the interesting element of herd dynamics due to the presence of a stallion and his harem of mares and foals, and one realizes that the movement is also motivated by behavioral interactions.

I continue to learn new things from all these factors and I must say I find it all so fascinating!

I hope you find the right piece of land for your Paso's Janet!