We have 8 horses and two of them are chestnut thoroughbreds. Both of them are now in their mid teens. We acquired the mare Six when she was a 2 year old and the gelding Riley when he was a 4 year old.
For many years I lived just east of the city of Melbourne. Michèle and I leased space on a farm owned by friends. It is here that we kept my horses and ran our training business.
Winters in Melbourne are cold and wet. For 4 months of the year it was almost mandatory to wear rubber boots to slosh around the paddocks. Sometimes the mud could be so deep that you’d lose a boot as it was sucked right off your foot.
Between the mud, the rain, the cold and the wind, training horses in Melbourne in winter was a chore and my wife and I often dreamed of warmer climates.
Every winter Six and Riley suffered recurring skin problems. They both suffered a disease called rain scald, which is a persistent bacterial infection that attacks the neck, shoulders and topline. It creates sores that make the skin sensitive to touch. The sores form a hard scabby surface that covers a pussy gunck underneath. I became a dab hand at treating the infection with medicated washes every second day. In the worse years I would bring out the big guns of antibiotic injections to clear it up.
Six also contracted mud fever on her two white pasterns every winter. Mud fever is a fungal infection that causes swelling of the pastern and fetlock and eventually can result in cellulitis in the lower leg. Six always went lame and very sore. She would threaten to kill anyone who dare touch her sore legs or even looked at them the wrong way. I learned that if I caught it early with a mixture of Vaseline gel, sulphur and tea tree oil on the affected areas I could keep the disease under control.
Only the chestnut thoroughbreds were under attack by these skin conditions and only in winter. Once spring was under way, they would spontaneously disappear and stay gone until next winter.
Finally Michèle and I were able to buy our own property. We bought 150 acres in north-west New South Wales. The winters here are mild and dry, while the summer days are often over 40 deg C. Our property is quiet. We are off the beaten track and I no longer take outside horses for training. Nobody visits and I rarely leave when I’m not teaching clinics. Although we have plenty of grass it is poor quality and mostly native varieties that are good for cattle, but has all the nutritional value of newspaper for horses. Nothing like the lush rich grass the horses were eating in Victoria.
The first winter we lived in our new home, Six and Riley came down with rain scald and mud fever like every other winter. The attacks were perhaps not as severe as previous years, but they still needed treatment. However, in the second and third winters, there was no sign of the annual bout of rain scald and mud fever. I was prepared for it, but it didn’t happen.
The second thing that I noticed that coincided with moving interstate was a change in the amount of feeding the horses needed to maintain good condition. The first year we were at our new property, the horses needed a lot of extra feeding because we our paddocks are filled with poor native pastures and they were used to rich English pastures meant for dairy cattle. But as each year has passed it is obvious that our horses have adapted to the local grass and do well with a lot less supplementation. Now only the thoroughbreds (and an aging Arab gelding) are given a small amount of extra. The other horses get all their requirements from the harsh, tussock-like grasses. Furthermore, we use to have to treat for intestinal worms 5 or 6 times a year, but now we only treat once per year.
During the last 3 or 4 years of our time in Victoria, spring brought other problems for our mare, Six. She developed a severe case of hormones. I’ve had mares who showed behaviourial changes when breeding season arrived, but nothing like Six showed. Most of the year she was a sweet mare, but when she came into season she turned into a monster. A few times it was not even possible to put a saddle on her. I had never experienced a mare who showed such a Jekyll and Hyde transformation.
It happen to correspond with the time that stallions were brought onto the property by another trainer. Before the stallions arrived, Six suffered no problems when she came into season. But once the stallions came to live, it all changed for the worse. And this was despite the fact that she was kept at the opposite end of the property – out of sight and out of hearing of the stallions. I was on the verge of having her checked for ovarian tumours or hormone issues, when we moved to our new home.
However, on the 18 hour trip to New South Wales, Six must have had an ovarectomy because I didn’t know notice any changes in her during the next spring. Not only was her behaviour unremarkably different from the rest of the year, but also I was not even aware when she cycled. Her mood changes were so benign when she was in season, that I missed noticing them at first.
Once I became aware of the improvement in Six’s behaviour I made an effort to look for changes in all the horses.
It has become crystal clear that moving to NSW has had a calming affect on all our horses. They are so much more mellow. The change could make a person think there were smoking “grass” instead of eating it – if you know what I mean.
I wasn’t aware that our horses were not completely settled and happy before. It was only after moving to our new home that I was jolted into realizing that all the horses had suffered a low-level underlying stress that simmered constantly while living in their previous home.
It is easy to see that our horses are happier and healthier living here than they ever were in Victoria. If I try to explain this, the thing that I keep coming back to is that our new home is a low stress environment compared to where they use to live. There are no stallions coming and going. There are no training horses coming and going. The herd is stable with no short-term visitors. I no longer use them to help me train the young and the troubled horses, so the riding they do now is a lot less stressful.
I am certain that the underlying stress our horses experienced while living at the previous facility compromised their ability to fight skin infections and maintain condition. With that constant anxiety now gone, things have changed for the better.
This new realization has made me wonder how many horse’s issues in the world can be attributed to living in a stressful environment?
I have been to show barns and boarding facilities where there is a serious focus on competition riding and it has been impossible to ignore the prevalence of stressed horses. It seems to me that if my horses (who had a pretty easy-going life) were stressed by living in a paddock with 7 of their best mates and only required for occasional work, then what about horses who have a much more demanding life?
What must the experience be for horses are fed jet-fuel type diets, live in stables for hours a day, limited herd interaction, layers of rugs (blankets), adrenaline pumping exercise and training?
It is worth asking if some of the issues we have with our horses are caused by environmental factors and not necessarily derived from medical or training problems alone. I treated Six’s mud fever as a medical issue, when in fact the real problem was where she lived. How many issues are treated as training or veterinary issues when the real causes are in the environment they live?
The photo is of my friend Ben riding Riley when he and his fiancé, Sari visited us a couple of years ago.