Variety is the spice of life!

One of my small obsessions is watching my horses eat. I love the way they pick and choose so carefully and precisely, how their nose and whiskers work together to sort through a dense mat of green stuff. Negev is an absolute master, a gourmand, who takes a little of this, a little of that till he has 4 or 5 different tastes in his mouth at the same time. And just as you think he’s done, he goes back for a little bit more of one plant before he chews it all up, eyes half closed. When I think of horses who are confined to single species grazing, or fed only and forever on hay, I shudder.

Personally, I think the two most important factors in horse health are movement and variety of diet. Enough movement is essential for the musculo-skeletal system, including the feet, varied diet keeps the motor running at optimum to fuel the movement. With enough variety in the diet a horse can balance his nutritional needs, which vary from day to day, or week to week, and many of those niggly little problems of itching, or nervousness, or runny eyes will clear up. Not to mention the not-so-niggly problems, such as laminitis and metabolic syndrome.

I am lucky -or determined, I didn’t get here overnight!- as I am now living in an environment where it is easy to provide my horses with a wide variety of forage, on a selection of different terrains (different terrain means different mineral content and trace elements). And when I say ‘provide’ I don’t mean they get room service, they have to move a lot to find their food.

This property starts in moist, cool river bottoms with Atlantic vegetation, then strolls up the rocky hillside through oaks, pines, and mediterranean scrub with rough grasses: ideal. However, when I lived in less perfect conditions I used to provide variety by taking horses out to graze on the hedgerows of England or equivalent (depending on the country!. Or I offered herbs and essential oils to provide the secondary metabolites necessary for  self-medication, and clays and minerals to provide their non-vegetable needs. If your horse is confined you can add herbs and barks to a feeding ball to keep them entertained and healthy.

I have hours of video of horses eating (did I mention obsessed?), I’ll spare you that. Here is a small clip I put together for my aromatics students, just to illustrate the point.

 

Horse Herding

We’ve been doing a lot of horse-herding recently. The grass is almost finished on our slopes and the new hay isn’t in yet, the result of a colder/wetter year than is usual in these parts – our weather is dictated by the Atlantic, which is suffering from melting polar caps, as I’m sure you all know –  so, in time honoured tradition, we take the herd to look for greener pastures.

The property on which we live is under repair. The pine and eucalyptus trees were cut before we got here, but the place is still littered with stumps and branches. We cleared one slope just barely in time to seed some oats as green feed (for the soil not the horses!) and the horses are kept out of there. Most of the time they roam around the steep hills, foraging between the timber debris for native grasses, heather, gorse, and whatever else is edible (have you ever watched a horse eat gorse tips, or thistles? Know how they do it? Carefully!).

We have varied this diet with occasional access to the grassier areas around the human living areas when we want to control growth (we use them to strim in other words). We also have a few flat areas alongside waterways which were cleared of bramble and bracken, then seeded with a grass mix of 10 traditional grasses. They are not really established yet so the horses are only allowed on to do a little trimming to help strengthen and thicken the growth. Anyway, horses used to a wide variety of plants become quickly bored on plain old grass it seems. Now all those areas are used up and we can’t count on further growth till September sometime (as far as we understand from the locals, it’s all new to us, we don’t really know the growing cycles yet, or the times of fat and lean ).

So to keep the horses healthy and happy, physically and mentally, we turn to horse-herding.  One behind the other we set off in search of fodder. The horses know the routine now and quickly fall in to their allotted places (allotted by them not us) and follow us keenly. And likewise we listen to them, moving at their pace, heeding their suggestions.

One day we find bunch grasses under the Eucalyptus plantations, which is a favourite, or we cross the river to an overgrown patch of land full of herbs and grasses, or today, we find ourselves under a stand of pines that is due to have it’s under-storey cleared on Monday, but now is rich with long-stalked grasses, cow parsley and other delicious tidbits. Jessie is topping all the thistles.

I sit and watch over them, sharing the pleasure of the breeze in the pines, the fresh, green smells, and the peacock-blue dragonfly resting on the ferns. When they’ve munched their way through this lot they’ll let me know and we’ll move on, walking calmly in a line, connected by the invisible string of energy that holds us together. Time and place dissolve in this walking, I feel the nomadic spirit, ancient and immediate, and nature’s rhythm pulsing in us all.

I invite you to share for a moment in my horse watching meditation in this short video clip: Nothing ever happens what is just is! 

Simple Pleasure

Lawn mowing duties
Spring greens

There are not many days in a year with weather as perfect as this. It’s Spring (always a good thing in my book), birds sing. The sun is warm enough for me to sit in the shade on a mossy rock (curiously dry moss here in Portugal), the breeze is coolish. Behind me the water tumbles down its gully with a perfect harmony of tonalities that soothe and uplift, lively but not rambunctious. In front of me the horses are lost in an orgy of greens, as they ‘mow’ around the tents. Bliss.

When it was raining and cold I had to coax the horses out of the shelter some days to go walk with me and stretch their legs, “Horses are supposed to move,” I said, “it’s good for you.” “So?” they replied, looking at this foolish human who doesn’t understand about conservation of energy and seasonal cycles. I, observing one herd, in one season, started to reformulate some of my long held beliefs and build new theories, thought maybe horses were perfectly happy to stand around all day and munch on hay. In which case why did we go through so much pain and expense to provide them this lovely natural environment? But formulating a theory on such limited data is never a good idea.

Early morning delegation of horses at my window
Early morning delegation at my window

Spring came and the rhythm of our days has changed. The horses are restless to leave the home compound where we have been keeping them at night. Ellie’s face peers through my window demanding I open the gates at dawn. So I do. They go round their “trackless track” twice in a day instead of going out and back on the same route, following their noses up and down the hills, up and down the hills. They volunteer to come play with me in the picadero or go for a ride. And they insist I open the gate to the green stuff, the delicious cold-weather grasses and herbs on our side of the fence. So here we are.

In all my long years and varied lives, I have never lived in such close intimacy with a herd of horses on a daily basis, although I have cared for small and large herds on three continents. I have been a slave to the feeding routine, dragging myself out of bed at the crack of dawn (or before) so they wouldn’t have to wonder for a second if food was coming. I have slept in the tack room waiting for mares to give birth, waking at every shifting foot and heavy breath – and still managing to miss the moment. I have spent nights in tents in the wilderness, listening to the horses munching; or wolves howling under a full moon, turning all of us electric with awareness. I have clumped out on dark nights, through raging gales on Exmoor, to beg my horses to come into the barn and get shelter. And many an evening I have sat watching the sun set over English hills and shared a beer with my horse. It’s not like I have been a distant stranger to them.

But it’s never been like this before.

At your service
At your service

Here, our lives overlap and intertwine minute to minute and I live in surrender to their rhythms. Our days are not organised for the convenience of humans. We have no schedules, no goals to achieve, no training to be done, no owners expectations to satisfy; just a herd of horses, boundless love, and an openness to learning. Every day, as we try to provide the best living space possible for the horses, our communications become more subtle, clear and direct and we figure out our common language. We humans learn to trust the intuitive, non-verbal nature of the conversation; the horses know that we are listening, so express more clearly what they need, or would like.

But I don’t want this to sound like some New Age, spiritual thing. It’s not. It is very down to earth, grounded in the simplicity of being. Horse-ness. Which can be Human-ness if we pay attention. When we sit at the stable block at the end of the day, all chores done, and the horses choose to hang out with us, even though their hay is waiting for them, it is a simple pleasure. And that’s what it’s all about.

Horse heaven
Horse heaven

Who do you want to be?

horses eat
Jessie can eat with anybody

I was watching the horses the other day (just for a change!), it was early evening and they were making their way down the terraces to the shelter, as is their habit, munching on hay as they went. I was looking down on them from the terrace above, which is a fabulous vantage spot as it allows me to see the pattern of their movement, like watching the rise and fall of waves on a beach.

The hay is spread in small piles and the horses flow from one to the other, either pushed or pulled, one by the other. Sometimes the calm is disturbed with a little flurry of movement when one of the top horses comes close to a horse they have to assert themselves over, sometimes the movement is smooth and natural, hard to tell who moved who. Some horses like to eat together, others are possessive of their pile, the top horses like to move all the time to make sure they are getting the best bits. As I watched, enjoying the harmony, I realised that of all the horses, the one I want to be is Jessie.

Jessie can share a hay pile with anybody, even Negev, who pulls horrid faces at any horse who thinks of coming near ‘his’ pile. He has experienced life without enough to eat and will never be convinced those times are over, but he cant say no to Jessie. Even when he tries she takes no notice; she is not impolite, she yields fractionally with body and energy, but rarely moves her feet, barely stops eating. Negev might give her the bad-eye a couple of times, but she does just enough to defuse his push, and carries on regardless till he relaxes with her there, even appears to enjoy it.

Jessie can get along with anyone
Jessie can get along with anyone

And it is not just that she can eat with anyone, she has a unique relationship with each herd member. She plays with GG and Sensei, she has girly gossips with Q, and sometimes I see her standing quietly with Starling, doing nothing very much. She is always working on her relationship with the other horses, flowing with the moods and rhythms that are an intrinsic part of herd life. She is not ashamed to runaway with her rump down on the days when GG is intolerant, though it doesn’t take long for her to come back and invite him to play again, or just graze side by side. If Ellie’s feeling grumpy she leaves her alone,  if GG decides to have a go at one of the other boys Jessie intervenes, literally comes between them to defuse the energy.

If I call them up to go on a herd expedition, Jessie’s is the first face I see coming to join me, the other horses all tag along behind her. She is the courageous pathfinder and the others are encouraged by her confidence and clarity. She is courageous and curious but a lot of that comes from the support of the herd moving with her, and she is always listening to them.

It is a common theory in the world of horses that you must ‘show them who is boss’, make yourself their leader, emulate the behaviour of a dominant horse. And I guess that is sound advice if you want to control your horse and have him do exactly as you say at all times. But that’s not what I want. I want to hear what my horses have to say, I want them to make me laugh, to point out when I am being rude or insensitive, let me know if they are in pain, or if they don’t understand me; I want them to want to figure out what it is I am asking, even if it seems a bit odd to them. It’s hard to have a two way conversation if I’m the boss and what I say goes.

Horses face
Jessie, young, beautiful and everybody loves her.

So I want to be Jessie.

Anyone can push Jessie around, she’s nobody’s boss, a two year old filly, bottom of the hierarchy (as seen from a human perspective). She can’t push any of the older horses, but she influences their movement and direction in other ways, ways that create willing participation and a feeling of connectedness, and that’ll do for me.

A walk in the woods

Spring is sprung

It’s starting to feel Spring-like around here, the grasses are a bright edible green, dandelion leaves are juicy and irrestible, Lesser celandine sets yellow sparks in the undergrowth. Everyone shouting, “Eat me, eat me”. Unfortunately for the horses they are mostly on the other side of the fence. The land the horses live on is in the process of regeneration, most of the grasses were ripped out or crushed in the process of clearing out old tree stumps and they have to search hard for the juicy bits.

Give us a choice!

L1070866Now, hardcore, fundamentalist, barefoot horse practitioners would say I am in an enviable position, that horses are not meant to eat grass at all and great that they have to work so hard for their food. In many ways I agree. Horses fed on industrial-grade mono-culture grass (which is what modern farming practices have condemned us to) are getting too much sugar and protein, not enough variety and no choice. All of which leads to laminitis, metabolic syndrome and a host of other ‘normal’ equine illnesses. But is all grass bad?

In a natural environment a horse’s diet changes throughout the year, they can choose which plants they want to eat, and counteract toxins by eating clay or charcoal, or a neutralising plant. Given a choice (which our horse are) horses do not necessarily choose the greenest grass, in fact, will usually avoid the greenest grass in favour of longer, more fibrous grasses. Our horses also like to eat oak leaves, heather and gorse.

Watch and learn

I often sit and watch what the herd is eating when I let them out on to the lusher areas of the property. They go through the mass of greenery, noses twitching, carefully selecting exactly the blades of grass and leaves they want. It reminds me of the way I load up a fork from my plate, a little of this, a little of that, a mixture of all the good things, ‘just so’, to please my palate.

I have noticed that as we move into Spring, the time when Chinese medicine says we should eat green things to support the liver, the horses seek out the bright green stuff more avidly.

A walk in the woods

L1070875So on days like today, when the sun is warm and the birdsong provocative, the Call of the Green gets too much for us and we have to go for a walk. It would be impossible to leave anyone behind on such an outing, so we take them all. We put a couple of key characters on a halter so we don’t have any unfortunate incidents with the neighbour’s hay field (it has been known!) and off we go, down to the woods for a picnic. There are few pleasures greater in life than this sort of walk together. To catch a glimpse of it click here.