Our horses mental and physical well-being is just as important to us as our own.
Here at Valley Farm we try to give our horses as many natural aspects to their lives that their herd instinct allows and ensure that all our animals enjoy the five freedoms they are entitled to as well as other enrichment. For example: -
In the summer
All our horses live out in large herds on our eighty acres of grassland. Here they have the freedom to express natural behaviour, to socialise, make friends and interact as a herd. It is a wonderful opportunity for visitors to see and study horses in this environment.
During the day the working horses are all brought in to the stables to complete their work schedules and rest in the cool away from flies. The stables have automatic drinkers to allow the horses access to fresh water whenever they require it.
The horses are run in each day as a herd from the fields along the tracks to the stables. On arrival at the yard each horse will go into his own stable and await the staff to come round shutting the doors. As an incentive to come into the stables, each horse has a handful of grass nuts in the corner to locate. Running the horses in each day allows us to see them all moving in order that we can check any that might be unsound, and moving on tracks helps to keep their limbs and feet healthy.
At the end of the working day the horses stable doors are all opened, and they trot off back to the fields. This also serves as a daily fire drill for the animals and staff. Visitors often enjoy watching the herds returning to their fields.
The marshland meadows are bordered with large trees and hedges with dykes running between. There is an immense assortment of wildlife living in the reed beds and around the fields. There are barn owls, little owls, cattle egrets, herons, swans, geese, field fare, skylarks, water vole, otters, the list is endless.
The upland fields have been recently converted from arable land. The problem with this type of grazing is that most arable conversions have little or no protection from the summer sun or winter sleet. With this in mind, we have planted a hedge (Autumn 2009) right along one side of the field to give protection from north winds and provide shelter from the sun. In addition we have planted a small copse in the middle of the field to give additional shade and shelter. In 2016 we planted a further 1600 trees.
For horses living out it gives the opportunity to graze and search out the assorted herbs and minerals they require as well as satisfy their social and mental needs.
Rotational grazing allows us to sweep and rest areas as required in order to preserve the meadows and the habitat they provide.
In the winter
When the weather is good enough, the horses live out for as many months as possible. Horses who are not working on a specific day are returned to the field as soon as they have had their health check.
Not all our horses wear rugs. Studies have shown that healthy horses naturally insulate themselves with winter coats and prefer to coat themselves in mud rather than wearing man made rugs which can cause them to overheat and rub. Rugs are available for those who are clipped, or in need for any other reason, but mostly in the winter you can expect to ride a happy but perhaps somewhat muddy pony!
If the weather turns too inclement, the majority of the horses are brought into the stables to prevent poaching to the grassland.
The trouble with stabled horses is that it instantly removes their natural way of herd life. So over the years we have endeavoured to replace this as much as possible for the welfare of our animals. Each day we have an exercise schedule to ensure that no animal is missed out and left standing in its stable. Every animal is exercised either by being ridden or else loose schooled with others in the indoor arena.
Loose schooling allows them to continue the bonding from the summer herds which is very important in horses well-being. At the beginning and end of each session the horses are allowed bonding time where they may groom each other, play, roll or just wander about and renew pecking orders or friendships. Loose schooling them in the indoor arena allows us to see them all moving and helps youngsters to let off steam or the oldies to ease arthritic joints. Group rolling helps the horses to feel relaxed and happy with their environment and allows them to have a good old scratch all over.
The indoor arena is ideal for their exercise sessions because the horses are able to interact with each other which is a very important part of their lifestyle. Loose running them in this way also puts less strain on their joints than using a horsewalker as they have long straight runs as well as corners to negotiate.
Horses are sociable animals and trickle feeders. Therefore we stable them where they have either contact or views of others and they are fed four times a day when stabled, with mixtures of hay and haylage to keep their diet as natural as possible. Mineral/salt blocks are provided and play balls or mirrors help some horses to tolerate the winter months better. (Thanks here to our many clients who supply mineral blocks, licks and succulents for our animals in the winter, it is much appreciated by all.)
Our clipped horses benefit from our electric grooming machine in addition to the usual hand grooming. The machine not only cleans their coats, it massages them too.
For the oldies we have a heat lamp to ease their aches and pains during the winter months.
All the horses are regularly put over our weigh bridge to check their condition. It is important for us to monitor the horses weights in order to administer the correct doses of wormer or any medications and help us to provide them with appropriate supplements to their diet. It also helps us to spot any sudden changes or weight which could be crucial in spotting medical problems early. We have regular visits from our vet and horse dentist. We work closely with our farrier to provide the best hoof care for individual horses, and as a result some of our horses do not wear shoes. We monitor and record how much exercise every horse is getting on a daily basis, in order that we can ensure that it is appropriate for that individuals needs. We impose weight limits for riders. These are individual to each horse, but also variable depending on the age, health and fitness of the horse in question.
Our youngstock, and horses donated to us or purchased are assessed and trained using natural horsemanship methods. Where possible we aim to educate the public to use calm and sympathetic methods in their riding and handling of the horses. Many of our horses are trained for more than one discipline. For example western riding, vaulting, carriage driving, or side saddle in addition to dressage and jumping. This adds variety to their lives and helps to prevent boredom. It also allows us to see where an individual horse's strengths and interests lie, so that we are able to chose work to suit the individual character of each animal. It is interesting for the horses to learn new things, so we continue their education, and give them plenty of opportunity to try out new experiences to enrich their lives.
Our horses are dependent on us to provide the lifestyle they require as best we can, within the nature of the business we run. We strive to achieve this, unbeknown to them.
The usual way of fetching the horses in is to open the field gates and call loudly. This produces a herd reaction to race up the tracks to the stables for breakfast. Occasionally some sleepy horse will be flat out in the early morning sunshine and miss the breakfast call. All of a sudden they become aware of the fact the herd has left and they wake up to an empty field. With an almost human reaction they jump to their feet and race to catch up with the retreating herd. It is enjoyable for us to work with happy horses.
You can see more images of our horses relaxing when they are not at work by visiting our Facebook page.