6 September 2002

NATURAL

WAY TO CAREFOR HORSES

The Natural Horse Group is taking

a fresh look at the way we keep

horses. Wendy Short reports

SOME traditional horse owners would throw up their hands in horror if asked to leave their animals out for the winter with no rugs or shoes on. But that is exactly how Rachel Bedingfield manages her four horses.

To encourage others to take a fresh look at the way they keep their animals, she has set up the Natural Horse Group. The organisation currently has 100 members and is hoping to spread its message nationwide.

Earlier this year, farmers weekly reported on the growing interest in natural horsemanship, which uses the horses own language in training. Rachel takes this idea a step further. She believes current management methods have strayed too far away from the horses lifestyle in the wild. Paying more attention to its needs will produce better results and a happier horse, she says.

Rachel is a former ADAS adviser who specialised in organic farming towards the end of her career as an agricultural consultant.

She has now moved into business management training, but retains her interest in organic production and practises most of its principles on her own smallholding in Masham, North Yorks, although the land is not officially registered.

"I am not totally against traditional methods, but I think there are many routine tasks which have largely been carried out just because its the way it has always been done. All I am suggesting is that people ask themselves why they keep their horses in a certain way.

"It is all about looking at it from the horses viewpoint. For example, many horses these days only get intermittent exercise. And others are ridden mainly on grass or in sand paddocks. Do they really need to wear shoes all year round?"

All Rachels horses are unshod, although they are ridden regularly. If they are taken on stony ground they wear horse boots made of a special plastic for protection. At £50 for each boot, these are expensive. However they will last a year on average and the cost can be offset against the six or eight-weekly bill for conventional shoeing.

&#42 Hoof structure

"The main reason we have to shoe horses is because their feet are not in good health. Poor hoof structure can be caused by the horse being forced to stand in a stable on straw for most of the time."

Anyone who thinks that natural horse-keeping involves turning the horse out in a field and leaving it until it is time to go riding will have to think again if they want to be successful.

Rachel stresses there is much more to it than meets the eye. The whole management system is interlinked and the way the horse is kept generally will have an influence on all aspects of its health. Horses will also need time to adapt to any new regime.

"The hoof has to harden up gradually through a build up of work over different terrain. It is the same for us – we cant just take our shoes off and walk straight across rocky ground without getting sore feet."

Feeding is another issue where Rachel thinks some horse owners could make changes.

"High performance horses are a specialist subject but there are people successfully keeping endurance and dressage horses on a mainly forage-based diet.

"For happy hackers like me, it is vital that the horse has access to forage at all times. In the wild, horses eat for 16 hours/day. Restricting its eating time is bound to cause stress.

"But I would not want anyone to think I am advocating a strict method. During my years in farming I learned that a system needs to be adapted to the individual circumstance.

"My thoroughbred was quite happy out in the field without her rug for most of the winter. But she lost condition due to low quality forage and the weather got very wet and windy.

"She was then reluctant to leave her field shelter so I put the rug back on until spring. You have to be flexible and always put the animals need before your system."

Rachel is currently in the early stages of writing a book called Natural Horse-Keeping. She is collaborating with Abigail Hogg, an equine behaviour specialist and they would like to hear from anyone who is also keeping their horses naturally to build case studies for the book.

Rachel can be contacted on 01765-689850 or e-mail r.bedingfield@hemscott.net

RODBASTON College, near Penkridge in Staffs is looking for horses on loan due to their ever-expanding equine department.

Horses should be more than five years old, over 14.2hh and that have a calm, sensible disposition. Particularly wanted are experienced schoolmasters, such as ex-competition horses now seeking an easier life and beginners horses such as steady cobs.

The college can offer an excellent standard of care including stable keep with daily turnout, daily grooming and trimming and clipping as required, top quality feed and bedding and all round high standards with fully qualified staff constantly overseeing students.

Horses would have varied work for one or two hours a day with at least one day off per week. Qualified BHS instructors would supervise all work.

During the holidays the horse would be able to stay at Rodbaston and have a lighter workload or return to the owners yard.

For more information, contact Dawn Williams (01785-716801).

Equine department looking for a loan

Rachel Bedingfield and (left) one of the plastic horse boots.