|July 17th, 2011: A new horse, with a new way to catch me out!|
A new horse, with a new way to catch me out!
The story of a young horse that needs fittening for the field, and keeping his mind active while he waits...
Rocket - the horse who's finding himself
I’d like to introduce you to Rocket – a 5 year old quarter horse who moved in with us last weekend. He’s a very handsome chap, with a lovely character and has just been bought by Dagmar, as a leisure horse for herself, with the potential to become a family horse for her and her young daughter in a few years time. Rocket seems to fit the bill perfectly. I worked for an hour or so with him in his old home and he was very willing to learn, just a little unsure of what life is all about. He passed his vet. check with flying colours - and was duly delivered to us last Sunday.
As usual, I had checked on his feeding and turnout arrangements so we could arrange a gradual introduction to his new lifestyle. Ours are out all day (and all night too, when the weather is fine) have ad lib haylage or grass when they are on the grass paddocks. Only two of them have any hard feed at all. Rocket was used to a fair amount of hard feed, limited hay and no grass, so a period of adjustment was needed. He had been turned out alone recently, but had been in a group before with no problems.
Meeting the gang
We started by turning him out in the round pen, so he could see the other horses but could keep an eye on his diet, reducing his hard feed and introducing more hay mixed with haylage. Day 2, we put him on a scrub paddock which has very little grass, and put the rest of the horses on the grass paddock next to it so they could start getting to know each other over the fence.
On day 3, we turned him out for a few hours with the other horses. There was a little squealing and stamping at first (perfectly normal) but after a little while Rocket found the distance the rest of the group required him to stay at, and he stayed in his part of the paddock. Within a couple of hours, he was getting friendly visits from other members of the group, even eating from the same hay pile as Baron and Bigsy, and he was edging towards the main group. We put him back in the scrub grass field next door overnight, so he could feel “part of the group” but we could still ration his feed, and we repeated the process on day 4.
Rocket's alarming development
On day 5 Rocket frightened the life out of me. Suddenly could suddenly hardly move. Leading him from the paddock too ages and he was walking like a tottery 80 year old person going barefoot on a particularly stony beach. One fetlock was very slightly warm and swollen, and he had lost a shoe (he was clearly due for the blacksmith anyway), but the symptoms he was showing were way out of proportion to the apparent causes. I coaxed him slowly into the “hospital paddock”, and the vet came that afternoon. After examining Rocket, he asked whether he had been exercised hard, or chased excessively by the other horses – because he appeared to be completely exhausted with sore feet and aching muscles. Dagmar, Michi and I were baffled. Rocket hadn’t done anything – he’d just been out in a paddock, and his integration in the group had been remarkably peaceful. There had been the occasional nip, or kick, or chase of a few yards with a buck and a squeal but nothing out of the ordinary for a new horse in the group, and only a little more than they do every day anyway. He’d just been doing what horses do every day out in the field.
Horses on the move
What it turned out we had all completely underestimated, is how much horses just move around when they are turned out in a group. They don’t seem to move much when you watch them – they wander here and there, take a bit of hay or grass, move to another patch, follow their friends around a bit, stand for a while, go for a drink of water and so on – but in fact, they are on the go for a lot of the time. Rocket had come from being almost totally stabled, coming out just for an exercise session, maybe a couple of hours on his own in a small paddock then back in the box. He has some quite spectacular muscles, and can almost sit down in a sliding stop – but just doing what horses do in a naturally in a group was too much for him. He was rather like a weight lifter who can lift twice his own weight, but can’t walk to the end of the road.
In all my careful calculations for adjusting of his diet and introduction to the other horses, I had completely overlooked the detail that he might not be used to what I consider "just being a horse". It never crossed my mind that he might need physical training to be part of an outdoor group.
Restricted movement and keeping the mind active
Rocket is now having a few days convalescence in the hospital paddock, then next week will go back in the round pen and we’ll start taking him for walks to build up his stamina before putting him gradually in the group again.
In the meantime, Dagmar is practising some exercises that can be done to keep a horse mentally active, even when its movement is restricted.
There is a lot you can do to engage with the horse’s mind without it even having to move its feet. With Rocket, we’re starting with asking him to give Dagmar his attention.
She directs his attention to her by guiding his head with the rope, then rewarding him with soft strokes on his face and neck when he looks at her for a few seconds.
She can then devlop this by moving to a different position in the pen and ask him to move just his head to follow her.
She can also direct his attention in the direction she is looking herself, then reward him for picking up on her ideas.
They are simple exercises, but for a horse that is not allowed to move for a few days, they make a very welcome break!
Toys are a good idea, too. Young horses, in particular, are often very eager to explore new shapes and textures with their mouths.
I'm sure I'll be writing more about Rocket in the coming months, but for now he's discovering the great outdoors!
There are detailed descriptions of exercises with the horses attention as well as many others that can be used to relieve the tedium for horses on restricted movement on the Thinking Horse DVD.
Order the Thinking Horse DVD here!