The other morning I created a track within a track. The part of the track that runs up the steep hill on the west side is separated from the grass by a thick hedge of mainly hawthorn, brambles and wild rose. September’s harvest is looking particularly bountiful on the grass side of this hedge.
So I created a temporary lane from one opening of the track to another running along this hedge. I kept the top and bottom parts wider.
There is some grass and far too many buttercups. They seemed to proliferate after our long wet winter last year. Ben came when I called. He knew I was doing something interesting. Cloud was more suspicious. But in they came and cropped the grass. It will be a while before they get to the hedgerow. But the grass is sparse. This part of our paddock is my favourite part – an oak and a hazel tree grow there amongst a scattering of hawthorn and ash. The ground drains well and limestone is close beneath the surface.
I lingered to watch. They moved up and down, the narrow lane pushing them forward and the wider parts allowing Ben room to move around Cloud and come back down. It is a short strip but there was more movement along it than there would be if they had the whole paddock and more movement than on the main track. No matter how I distribute it, they do not move in the same way for hay. Hay just does not generate the same excitement. I wonder does it taste much more uniform. On a grass track their seems to be a regular impetus to try the next spot, maybe it will be juicier or sweeter or – some other adjective beyond my imagination, not being a grass eater.
I am not working today, so I can take my time. I head out after breakfast to the yard. They see me and come down the track looking for their breakfast.
I tip over the bins containing the soaking haynets. I drag the haynets to a wooden pallet to drain and start filling the bins again with water. I give the boys their already prepared buckets of feed. I shut Cloud, the faster eater, in to his stable.
I gather the day’s hay into a wheelbarrow and bring it around the track, placing half in the haynet under the trees and spreading the other half around the track. I am careful to place the hay away from the mud that has built up on the track.
I am experimenting with different schedules to make the hay last. Good dooer as Ben is, I never had this issue when Rosie was with us. Ben chews more slowly than Cloud and Rosie would frequently take breaks and wander off causing Ben to follow her. Cloud lays into that hay as if it will be his last meal.
I gave them a small amount of straw yesterday and I check the two haynets to see if they ate it. When I observed them last, they had been concentrating on the hay. But the straw is gone, as is all hay that was strewn around the track.
Ben has come out and I let Cloud out. Cloud pushes Ben off the hay he is eating and they both make their way to the haynet. Sometimes they like to move around the track eating the hay on the ground first. They eat a piece and move to the next before the last piece is finished and this keeps them moving repeatedly around the track.
I place the tap into the second bin. I start to muck out. The stables are almost clean, just some wet pieces of hay left on the ground from their night time haynets, which I always place in the open stables.
I move around the track. Droppings seem normal. To counteract the mud I leave the picadero open and they clearly spend a large amount of time there. Otherwise droppings are gathered in the shelter of the hedgerow at the back of the track, near the big haynet and also (thank you boys) neatly dumped by the muck heap.
I fill two haynets with a small amount of straw. I bought some barley straw in the local market yesterday and hope that it will prolong chewing time for Ben and Cloud. I weigh the haynets now and am starting to be able to accurately estimate their weight. I tie the nets at different places along the track.
During this time Ben and Cloud come, separately, to the yard to drink water. Both wander over to me, extend nose in greeting and wander off.
It starts to rain. I do not worry about the hay strewn around the track. It will all be eaten. I have only sheltered tasks left; haynets to fill and soak for the night and feeds to prepare.
If I don’t soak the hay one or other of them cough. The soaking is a nuisance and soaking in advance leaches nutrients along with calories. But to soak for 20 minutes or so ahead of feeding them would be too time consuming. When I win the lottery I want one of these. In the meantime I am researching how to make my own hay steamer.
No grass in all this routine. They have chewed down the poorest area I have. The lake front, the garden and the rest of the paddock will be kept for winter grazing. It all looks much too lush right now.
I leave them sharing the big haynet.
It is peaceful. There is a sense of harmony between these two. Ben of course is filthy. He loves to roll and has found a suitably muddy patch beside a hedge of brambles, stripped of all their leaves. Cloud never seems to roll. He is always clean. But I am sure he is responsible for much of that hedge stripping. To get to this area they need to walk along a narrow rock and muddy channel. I am happy with the surfaces on the track despite the increasing mud. Some branches have fallen, or been pulled, recently and I leave them where they lie, as I also leave loose wooden posts, logs and rocks.
I look out the kitchen window and there is Rosie, ignoring the hay left for her and gazing at grass. She moves off along the track and my eyes follow her anxiously, watching her footfall, worrying about her soundness. Is she sore today on the off fore? Is she really moving better or is it my imagination? Should I have kept them off the grass last night?
It can become an obsession. An obsession as big as Rosie’s own obsession with grass. When the spring growth started she would stretch her neck under the second layer of tape and work her away around the track, eating a surprisingly wide strip inside the tape. That’s when I first noticed she was sore on hard ground once again. Not dead lame, sound on soft ground but, on hard ground, obviously sore on her off fore. She had come back home from winter grazing sound on all surfaces.
Then I worry that she is too thin and I add extra speedi-beet to her bucket in the mornings, shutting both Ben and Rosie into their stables so that she can take the time to finish her feed. Then it rains, it is cold and the rain comes down in sheets and Ben chooses a dry stable and Rosie stands outside in the yard shivering all over her small body; she looks fragile and wretched. I bring Rosie into the second stable, give her plenty of hay and leave her to dry off. But she is never happy in a stable and I let them out that night and wonder will she still be with us in the morning. Morning comes, I hurry out and her eye is bright, her coat is gleaming and once again she confounds me with her sheer survivability.
But how she can move when she needs to. Left with Cassie and little Arrow while we were on our clicker training weekend, she gave Arrow as good as she got and out-ran him, young pony that he is.
They look remarkably alike – both Kerry Bog Ponies, one young, one old but with neat little heads, a body more like a small horse and plenty of hair.
She hates being left behind when Ben and I ride out.
She loves her feed, she loves treats, she loves grass – and she loves the inside of the shed.
We all love Rosie here.
One thing I have realised is that keeping a track system involves regular adjustment to the track, some tweaks and some major works. It has been fortuitous to have the winter grazing for Ben and Rosie over the past couple of months as the disruption to the paddock and the track has increased again.
The building to the side is the new extension to our house which means no paddock fence at present. There will be a fence, new gate, the service road which was put in for the builders will remain and lead to the yard and there will be a path up to a new ‘pedestrian entrance’ to the yard. So no more climbing up a slippery slope, over a wooden fence, negotiating an electric fence before reaching the yard. The water pipe will also be buried in the hope of preventing freezing.
I have taken advantage of the digger that has been on the premises over the last week.
Rock (never a shortage here) has been brought up to the trees and leveled and pea gravel has been spread on top.
Now when they are eating from those big haynets instead of sinking into mud, Ben and Rosie will be standing on pea gravel and hopefully polishing their hooves. I suspect they will roll a lot here too. The muddiest part of the track has also been scraped right back.
Pea gravel has also gone into my picadero, I look forward to seeing how well this works.
Despite the natural advantage of a lot of rock here, some very muddy areas develop which need to be kept under control. While I do not mind the ponies walking through a muddy section of the track, I do need to be able to push a wheelbarrow along, which had become impossible in the last few months. Also when I started the track, I was very keen that hay would be distributed around the track to encourage movement. This has only been possible on dry days and therefore those large haynets have been useful under the shelter of the trees. However I think I have relied on those haynets too much and when Ben and Rosie return I intend to be more proactive about distributing hay around the track when the weather permits.
I brought Ben and Rosie home just after Christmas, hoping for some good rides on Ben. It was good to have them home! While I have not missed the daily mucking out, I have indeed missed them. Ben celebrated coming home by herding Rosie at speed around the track. I watched in amusement, feeling my energy lifting in response to theirs. Then I noticed Ben’s head tossing in my direction. A challenge! I ran around the track and Ben charged off, bucking and kicking with Rosie neatly dodging out of the way.
I used to think I could connect with Ben by sharing time with him, sitting nearby, and sometimes I can. But there are times when he tosses a challenge and at the end of my response to this we have re-connected. He is then keen to let me into his space, keen for contact and a rub.
The weather has been what, three years ago, I would have called typical for an Irish winter. The long big freezes of the last two years were an exception. We have had gusting rain, bursts of sunshine, hanging grey clouds, showers of hard hitting hailstones, strong winds and more rain. And more rain. And, did I mention? more rain.
This is what has happened to the ground by my haynets under the trees:
Ben and Rosie have cleverly positioned themselves to the side, out of the worst of the mud. I have scraped back that thick, cloying mud many times. I have thrown stones in there. And the mud keeps coming up. I think I will have to put rubber mats down. I like that place under the trees otherwise. The ponies like it too and it is the best place for those haynets, providing shelter but being away from the stables. I have also left haynets in the stables, but Rosie never goes in, and Ben only rarely.
They do use all the track however, and like to shelter at the top with their backs to the hedge. So they move on hard ground and crusher dust as well.
I did not get in one ride over the holidays. Ben’s coat was far too wet. I did walk him in hand out the road a couple of times. My husband came leading Rosie and, while Ben strode over all the rough bits, Rosie chose the grass verge. But she is moving very well, better than she has all year and she was happy to walk on the road where it was smooth. Ben initiated the first walk out the road. Shortly after he was home he strode up to the back gate and looked over it, then he looked back at me and then over the gate again. As clearly as if he spoke aloud he was saying “come on, isn’t this why you brought me here?”
I have also done work with Ben in the picadero which he has been enjoying I think as he has come up looking for more.
We go up to Dublin to my parents tomorrow and Ben and Rosie go back to the lake. In preparation for that exposed place I left them in the stables overnight to dry out so that I could put rugs on; just a rain sheet on Ben and a heavier rug on Rosie. Ben seemed quite happy to be in the stable. Rosie was clearly disgusted. Of the two, Rosie is the truly wild one.