Tuesday, December 1, 2009

State of the Track Report

Well, we've made it through Spring, Summer and most of Autumn on the track now, although it's only been fully open for a few weeks. It's certainly been an interesting journey and a major learning curve, so I think it's time to take stock. What have I learned? What's worked and what hasn't? Hmmmm.

Figuring out what kind of fencing to use (that I could afford!) was a major challenge. Fortunately I had some fencing experience, particularly with electric fencing, and fortunately I actually like fencing work. It is 2 miles around my property, and I also fenced around the farmyard and up and down the drive, so that was about 2.5 miles of fence altogether. But the perimeter fence is barbed wire, not a good thing for horses, so I also had to run an offset hotwire along that, to keep them away from that hazard. I used plain aluminum wire and 6" plastic offset insulators for this. An insulator does occasionally get knocked off, but usually there is enough tension in the wire to avoid it touching the posts or barbed wire and causing a short.

Offset insulator

I used metal T posts and a product called IntelliRope along the drive and around the yard, as there are a lot of hazards in this area and I don't want any escapes. So far there has not been a single problem with this. IntelliRope seems to be a really good product, and pretty economical. I capped all the T posts with little rubber things so hopefully the horses won't impale themselves.

View looking up the drive

T post with plastic cap

For the main track fence I chose fiberglass rods, and a finer fence material called IntelliTwine. This has worked out pretty well, and to be honest, was about all I could afford, but the twine does get broken occasionally - sometimes by horses, sometimes by visiting deer. The rods were pretty awkward to drive in, especially where the ground was very hard in a few places. The little wire clips that carry the twine are a pain in the neck to put on, and frequently snag the twine or get pulled off, etc. I'm glad that I went ahead and cemented in good sized wooden posts at all the corners and bends, as if I decide to go to a heavier material like plain wire, later, they will be in place to take the strain. There are also quite a few T posts in the fence, as there is a gate leading to each of the 16 grazing cells in the interior, plus a few others for access. I used T posts at these gates and anywhere else a grazing cell run will be strained. These help to strengthen the fence quite a bit, and give more straining points when we have to make repairs.

Fibreglass post with wire clip and IntelliTwine

This corner was already rounded off, so I used two corner posts

Another shot of the same corner. You can see that this has created an interesting area for the horses, as well as space to turn larger vehicles.

A grazing cell gate.

Repairs and fence checking are a big part of our routine, but to me that is all part of having livestock, and fortunately it can be done from horseback (even minor repairs, sometimes) and to me, that's just fun. It gives the horses a job, too! However, I would suggest that anyone tracking a large area consider the increased convenience of being able to drive vehicles and tractors along their track. It has been extremely useful to us to be able to do this, and with our sandy soil it also helps to keep the track compacted.

Horse Health
This is not the first track I have had, but it is the first time I have lived on the tracked property, so I'm not sure that I am noticing dramatic changes in health or behaviour. The Fells have excellent feet anyway (as long as we don't get laminitis), so again it might be more dramatic for other horses. Their fitness is so-so. I have not had a great deal of time to ride them (particularly Bruce) and they are somewhat fat and lazy - however, everything is relative. They are not flabby, and I occasionally see them canter over a mile.  I have two horses boarded on the track, who were previously kept on a drylot and fed grass hay. They are noticeably more muscled now, and Dakota, who is usually hard to keep weight on in winter, is still looking great in mid-November.

We had an unusually good year for grass. Lots of rainfall, and lots of weeds, too. Of course, to a Fell pony, weeds are just another form of feed, anyway! I was pleasantly surprised at how much grass I actually had in the pasture by late summer, once I had mowed all the weeds. I'm sure that the rest the land got, due to the track, really helped with this.  Of course, all this grass has also contributed to the ponies' fat condition, and I think the best way to manage this will be to increase the horse population somewhat. We need to use caution, though, as we will probably have less rain/grass in most years.

Grazing Cells and Behaviour
This is the area where our track system differs from most. Call me old fashioned, but I actually believe that horses are meant to eat grass. Not rich, dairy cow grass, of course! But good high fiber "native" stuff, complete with weeds and interesting forbs. On our Colorado dryland pasture there is quite a bit of space between the clumps of grass, too!  I still need to do research into grass varieties and their carb levels in this area, but it will take time to track this information down, so I am following my instincts that what they are eating is okay, and so far so good.

I have divided the pasture into 16 grazing cells (so about 10 acres each) and we move them on a monthly basis. This does not mean that the entire pasture is cross fenced, though. We put up a temporary fence around the current cell each month. It can be done in a day, and although it's a bit of work, it leaves the rest of the pasture for riding, which is great! The grazing cell is opened in the evening and closed in the morning. During the day the horses live on the track. A big chunk of the track was originally a farm road, and on one side a county road, so not much grows there. Other areas have quite a bit of grass, though. I expect most of this will be killed off over time, as will a lot of the weeds in the fenceline.

It is probably due to the grazing that the horses don't move as much as I had hoped. However, it is also due to the grazing that I can afford to keep horses at all!! Now that the track is fully open, they are making at least one full circuit a day, with a bit of going back and forth thrown in. During the hot summer months, they got into a routine of simply coming in from the grazing in the morning, and spending the best part of the day in the loafing shed. I found this really interesting, as we are always told that horses are trickle feeders who shouldn't go without a snack for more than a few hours. Yet they were voluntarily going for 8+ hours without eating, even though there was food available on the track. I'm hoping, however, that they will not do this next summer. The area of the track that we recently opened has quite a bit of shade, so that may give them an alternative.

There will probably come a time when some hay will need to be fed on track, at least during the winter. I have created some places to hang small holed hay nets, such as on a row of electric poles. My aim is to create lots of places to hang nets, so that they keep moving to get the hay, and hopefully the active hay stations can be changed from day to day. I hope that I can situate them at a height where I can hang the nets up from horseback. However, I'm not sure how that will work out if the horse I am riding, laden with haynets, is being followed by a hungry crowd! Maybe I will just collect the empties this way!

A simple haynet hanger on an electric pole.

Luckily I have a row of these along one side of the track!

It has been an interesting exercise getting the herd off the grazing cells in the morning, along the track and into the yard for their bucket feed. I believe that they will pick up more of a routine in time, but it has been time consuming and required quite a bit of patience and a good sense of humour on my part so far. The routine I am trying to achieve is simply that they come off the grazing in the morning, the gate is shut, they are fed near the water trough and spend the rest of the day on the track. What could possibly go wrong?

Sometimes it has gone well. In the summer, they were usually thirsty in the morning, and often came in to drink, then got fed. I nipped out and shut the gate and everybody was happy. Some variations on this are:

-  I go out to get them. Sometimes they come quietly, and if I'm lucky I even get to ride one back to the yard. That's especailly welcome right now, as the grazing they are currently on is at the opposite end of the property. I'd rather ride the mile or so than walk it!

- Other times they don't come so quietly and some horses will decide to run around. Usually not the ones I like to ride bareback. Unfortunatey, the ones I like to ride sometimes decide to leave without me if catching the others takes too long.

- They decide that the track is spooky, because it looks different due to frost, snow, wind, etc. They get stuck and need patient help to make it to the yard.

-  Some come in by themselves but the one or two they leave behind decide to panic and run up and down the fenceline of the grazing cell whinnying, seeming to completely forget where the gate is, or how the track works. Sometimes I have to go get them, sometimes a herd member will go back for them, sometimes they break the fence and make their own way. I get to fix the fence.

-  They come in really early in the morning, get their drink of water and hightail it back to the grazing cell. Or, they come in, I feed them, get to doing other things and forget to go shut the gate. Doh!

All these problems are exacerbated by the occasional arrival of a new horse or two. Probably, if I had a completely stable herd things would have settled down by now. Problems also tend to arise when they go to a new cell. Either because the gate is a long way from the previous one, or because the new grass is more interesting than water or bucket feed. It will be the end of next summer before we make it all the way around the pasture and begin to visit grazing cells for the second time. By that time, I would hope that the stable core members of the herd will begin to have a good influence on movement of the others and things will get a little easier.  I can already see that the herd leaders would prefer to keep everyone together.

What Next?
With a project this large, it is never really finished. It would be nice to vary the surface of the track. The first phase of this will probably be the addition of some road base or rock in areas that get muddy, such as the gateway we use for the car most frequently and the area around the water tank. As much of the track is compacted sand anyway, it is pretty abrasive already, so I don't feel the need to texture it a great deal for the sake of their feet.

We need to create more places to hang haynets by trimming back some dead trees, and perhaps putting in a few posts in places. I really like the idea of many, many different feeding stations to keep them moving. I also have plans to create some more play obstacles on some areas of the track. Hopefully these will add some interest for the horses in their living environment, too.

We are noticing that the bark on some of our elm trees on the track is being nibbled, so we may have to build some barriers around these. Elms are one of the few trees that will survive here without water, so they are precious - both for their shade in the hot months and because they break up our emply landscape a bit. 

The IntelliTwine will probably have to be replaced in the coming couple of years, too. However, we haven't yet decided whether the fibreglass posts will stay or not. It's a balancing act between cost, safety and practicality.  

Was it Worth It?
Absolutely! Dryland property like mine can get into terrible condition from overgrazing and erosion caused by horses feet. Even relatively large pastures tend to go downhill rapidly with only a few horses on them. Instead, I am seeing my pastures, which were previously overgrazed, improve dramatically. This will save me a lot of money on hay in the long run and probably allow us to run a few cattle, too.

All the fencing was hard work, but it is great to see the horses moving freely and enjoying the whole length of the track. Not to mention quite a feeling of achievement.


  1. Great write up again Kris. Love all the fencing stuff, really helps me realise how to manage things if I had the opportunity to do this with our herd. Fab that your land is improving over such a short time too. How cool is that ;-)

  2. Kris, this is a fascinating read. It struck me how well you write, and thought I'd throw out the following idea. I'm currently reading a bundle of email exchanges of a RT friend who's beaten cancer, and she wants to turn her experiences into a book, so I'm editing it for her. It strikes me that this also has that potential - think about it. We can talk about once you have a mike !!!!

    On the subject of fencing; I noticed yesterday that one of our guys has been paying too much attention to the uprights of the round pen, and one or two posts are broken - but hey, it's so soggy out there, it'll be fairly simple to extract the left over piece in the ground, small blessings.

  3. Shelley - We were very lucky to have a wet year for the first one! However, the benefit has been felt a great deal more because the horses were kept off most of the land. A lot of really yummy grass went uneaten, but hopefully that has allowed for some good root development and self seeding.

    Sue - I'm very interested in your offer, as I have been thinking quite a bit the past few weeks about a book. I will email you! Good luck with your other two ventures (editing your friend's book and pulling fence posts in the mud!) Ah - life's rich tapestry!


  4. Kris,
    Thanks for sharing your track experience. It's interesting that your grass is working for your Fells.
    I'm dealing with 2 Insulin Resistant Tennessee Walkers that are much improved now that I'm soaking their hay--but it's a real pain when the cold comes.
    After 2 days of soaking hay, my mare, Jasmine, lost her sore feet--hurray! The high mountain valley hay has too much sugar for them. And I'm sure that the mineral balancing I've done since I had the hay tested has helped as well.
    Keep up the good work and I hope you keep sharing it with us.

  5. Thanks for the reminder about barbed wire, I just had the pasture cross-fence and something was nagging at me about the fencing, it was the barb-wire, I going to buy some of white caps you have and get the other item that pushes out on the fencing.
    Thanks so much. elayne