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Owning And Caring For A Native Horse Or Pony - Who Said It Was Easy?!

As my horse Rock is an overheight Connemara, standing 15.3hh with a leg in each corner and a depth of girth a 6 foot giant wouldn't look long legged on, keeping him trim and fit is an on-going battle!

He is just as challenging to look after as a type that struggles to keep weight on and needs to be double rugged almost all year round, but in a completely different way.

I was experienced with turnout boots, conditioning feed, double rugging from a 7/8 TB and an old boy... but who knew about feathers, living on fresh air, small hole hay nets, leaving a grey naked to help freeze off the chub, grazing muzzles, grazing muzzles which rub, too much grass, clipping all year round... arghhhh!!!

My number one recommendation for dealing with native-ownership would be to always start everything before you think you need to, weeks and often months before, as prevention is definitely better than a cure.

I've found that the easiest way to manage my native good-doer is to always manage him with the possibility of Laminitis at the back of my mind – although thankfully we've never been there and hopefully never will. Not only does this help keep the pounds off from a health perspective, it also helps to ensure your saddle fits and you can do your girth up (vital)!

Too much grass!

The stress of too much grass had never, EVER crossed my mind before. The juggling of fields so as to always try and ensure suitable company but with minimal grass is maybe more relevant north of the border where we have more rain over the summer.

However, I'm sure no matter where you live, if your horse is a good-doer, you'll always feel there is too much grass. When spring comes, it’s a time of real fear as they can go from being trim and muscular to chubby/fat almost overnight with the grass shooting through. As soon as you spot this, you need to act! Delaying your weight management, even by a week, can mean you’re chasing your tail for the rest of the summer. Horses/ponies, especially natives, are designed to lose weight over the winter as they rely on the extra pounds they put on in spring /summer to see them through, but as they are often stabled or hay is put out on pasture, winter weight loss in the modern native often doesn't happen.

Getting the right balance

Feeding zero calories but with enough nutrients and vitamins for a hardworking, competition (albeit low level) Connie is a minefield. Despite the fact that you’re trying to restrict calories to prevent weight gain, you also need to ensure your native good-doer has enough fuel to do the job you're asking of them. I've opted for a performance balancer which is designed as low-cal for good-doers who are in decent amounts of work in the summer, and the same performance balancer plus hi-fi in the winter. If you’re looking at a balancer, try to pick one with no added iron as it's often oversupplied in forage based diets and too much iron is not a good thing.

Salt and electrolytes are also an important consideration over the warmer months, as your native may have a thicker summer coat and be more prone to sweating. If they do sweat heavily or often, it's really important to replace the vitamins and nutrients they’re losing. If your horse/pony really isn't doing much of anything, you could just feed carrots and balancer when the others get their buckets dropped in. Don't feel guilty or pressured into feeding a breakfast and dinner just because all the others get this. So long as they have something in a bucket, they'll be happy while the others are munching.

To rug or not to rug?

You'd probably feel really, really evil leaving your horse rugless from mid-February onward to pre-emptively ward off unwanted spring grass pounds... but... when the vet did injections for us in early February, he warned us about the very mild winter and increase in Laminitis. He also pointed out a tiny fat pad on Rock's last rib... and that's how it all starts!

The old saying 'being cruel to be kind' really needs to be in the forefront of your mind, as being proactive about weight loss/preventing weight gain is vital. No matter how awful you feel, it’s much easier than having to stable your horse/pony all summer, miss out on riding and deal with potentially fatal Laminitis. If like me, you just can’t face leaving a grey/clipped horse rugless quite that early in the year when there's still quite a lot of mud about and it’s chilly, a full neck, zero weight rainsheet is a fantastic investment.

Have your grazing muzzle at the ready!

Light weight rugs along with buying a grazing muzzle really can be your two greatest weapons in preventive weight gain. Buying a grazing muzzle well in advance of when you think you might need it (e.g. early March) is also important. Don't wait until it's too late.

After trying 4 we eventually found one that works for us. Sadly, there probably isn't one I can recommend as a 'one size fits all' and it can be quite costly the first spring/summer trying to find one which works for you and your horse.

Grazing muzzle considerations include;

1. Your horse doesn't mind it or at least tolerates it
2. They can actually eat through it
3. They keep it on
4. It doesn’t rub (too much)

Even when you've found 'the one' you may still need an alternative fitting one anyway, because at some stage they all rub!

I have two that we're rotating between, although one of them is used much more often than the other. That said, I still wouldn't be without one for the spring and summer. Any doubts you have are soon banished when people, and especially your instructor, say your horse/pony looks brilliant (not looks 'well' as that's code for carrying too much weight! Hehehe) and they're fitter and more able to do the work you want.

Clipping and winter care

Clipping every 8 weeks or so is also a necessary evil for us, as Rock is one the warmest horses alive. If you don't want the ‘clipped’ look over the summer, you can blend the legs and top of the tail so they really don’t look clipped at all. There are quite a few tutorials on line to help but it does take a bit of practice. If the summer then turns rainy, be ready to pop on a rainsheet or waterproof fly rug as when clipped, they will need protection from heavy or persistent rain and flies.

You'll only really need two rugs and not get to use all the pretty 'season changing' rugs either. I’m just kidding; I still have lots of rugs! However, I have rarely used a heavy weight with Rock, even when he's fully clipped in a Scottish winter. A full neck 200gm is the heaviest I use, and the elusive 50gm is my favourite and suits so much of the year. You might also need to try a brand you're not used to, to accommodate big shoulders and behind.

Pig oil and sulphur is a really great buy for feathers in the winter; don't be fooled into thinking your native is indestructible. Mud rash can be much harder to spot with feathers, which means you don't catch it as early. Personally, I apply pig oil and sulphur twice a week in winter and don't leg hose at bringing in time, as this did cause mud rash the only winter Rock was hosed.

Reduce their intake... even in winter

I'd also strongly recommend tiny (not just small) holed haynets so they can't inhale the entire night's net in an hour. Sadly these types of haynets tend to be much more expensive than standard haynets, but as you can save on buying hard feed, it all balances out. Tiny holed haynets really are great at slowing down how quickly they eat, which means you're less inclined to stuff the haynet full and to feed too much. Introducing your horse/pony to an extremely small holed haynet is similar to introducing a grazing muzzle in the spring/summer. Think 'cruel to be kind'; ensure they can actually eat and stick with it.

Maintaining fitness levels

My goodness! However long you think your fitness plan should be, double it. I like to try and keep Rock ticking over all winter as it's difficult to get him back to full fitness, but if he has had time off then we start with 4 weeks walking, followed by 6 weeks trotting. None of this TB bouncing back to his toned beach bod easily business. The 'problem' with a lot of natives is they lack stamina, regardless of how fit they are, and that's simply down to breeding and genetics. This makes building up fitness a slow process but it's worth taking the time and doing this slowly and sensibly to prevent injury and build up their stamina.

Serious question, have you ever tried to tame a thick, native’s mane into presentable dressage plaits? Even with a mane thinner and plaiting gel our plaits are still very generous and a little bit too much like golf balls. A work in progress I like to think!

The struggle is real! Very real. Owing a native is NOT a walk in park.

That said, I wouldn't swap him for the world! A good native is truly reliable, trustworthy, versatile, dependable and, most of all, fun!

You can keep up to date with all Caroline and Rock's adventures by following them on Instagram @grey_connieadventures

Caroline Ramsay
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 30-07-2020
Caroline is a horse owner and rider based in bonnie Scotland where she juggles how to keep a native fit while working full time in IT and renovating a never-ending project house with her other half and 2 cats. Caroline holds an Equine Nutrition Award by The University of Edinburgh which covered feed composition and how this affects digestibility, nutrient sources, dietary management, general nutrient requirements of horses and ponies, body condition score and clinical nutrition. Caroline has experience with older horses as her first pony lived to the grand old age of 28, competing until he was 26, and is also sadly very familiar with broken horses as unfortunately, his replacement was extremely accident prone. Caroline set up her Instagram account to document the honest highs and lows of starting a young reluctant horse and chart their journey together.