When strolling through the undulating landscape of Dorset recently, one particular right of way cut its way through a very large paddock. I entertained myself by trying to guess the types of horses that had been here. The field had been poached over winter, because even in May the grass looked decimated and was littered with discarded spoilt hay. This now empty field would have been a winter paddock, but I wondered at this decision. This was a steep hillside with beautiful views of the sea, but battered by the winds coming of the English Channel, yet there was no shelter, either natural or man-made. Ten minutes later I spotted a large barn which was flanked by smaller paddocks, much smaller paddocks. One particular paddock was approximately the size of 2 tennis courts, and I counted 9 thoroughbreds in there. Ears were pinning, tails were swishing and noses were curling as they jostled for space in an attempt to graze peacefully. Again, I wondered at this decision.
Domesticated horses kept in a manufactured environment, such as a fenced paddock are inhibited in functioning naturally as a herd. It is naïve to think any group of horses will automatically graze peacefully without conflict. There will be times when a dominant horse will send a lower horse away, while favouring others for companionship.
This behaviour can function adequately in very large fields, and sub groups can often be observed. Although herd hierarchy is dynamic, and members of small groups can swap and change often. The situation can only remain relatively harmonious however, if there is room for the subordinate horse to move away. If a paddock is too small for him to find space, he will lead a life of misery by being constantly badgered to move away. In this environment all the horses will be stressed because even the higher horses will be agitated at his (unintentional) non-compliance. It is exactly this environment when injuries or even stress related illnesses are likely to occur.
Large equestrian establishments tend to take very large fields and split them up into smaller areas, which can work, but only for small herd sizes. Paddock size still needs to be large enough to accommodate the horse that is being sent away however. But owners can note what happens in large fields in regards to sub-groups, and use this knowledge to their advantage. If a particular animal is being constantly sent away or bullied by the other horses in a small paddock, then change his herd group i.e. move paddock.
Forcing an animal to live in circumstances that go against the very nature of its instincts will cause conflict within the herd, and most definitely stress. So when choosing a yard do not just look at the size of the school or stable, or be swayed by the off road hacking tracks, go and look at the paddocks, both the size and layout. Enquire about winter and summer turnout, and look at both fields. Take a good look at which ever area is currently not in use. If there is still manure everywhere, unrolled ‘ankle-breaking’ ruts in the ground and broken fencing you can be sure they do not maintain their paddocks, either through a lack of resources, time or knowledge. Its important owners get this right, as the paddock is the place the horse spends much of his time.
Don’t just consider the size of the paddock, but also the size of the herd. Lastly, natural shelter at any time of the year is crucial for both shade in the summer, and adverse weather in the winter. While horses are extremely hardy animals, they should be afforded some relief from torrential rain and high winds. Sturdy well established hedgerows can provide this. But in this case, a hill top paddock battered by high winds coming off the English Channel, with no shelter, should not be used as a winter paddock.
Images: By kind permission of photographer Gary Odell