The summer solstice went unnoticed in the field where Stella nows lives. When you spend 16 hours a day eating there isn't much time for looking at the sun anyway. The first thing we noticed about horses in general is that they just never seem to stop eating. I thought there must be something wrong with them. Were they bored? But no, even in the wild horses will spend on average 16 hours eating grass and herbs. Whether the grazing is good or bad they will spend pretty much the same time eating. If there is loads of grass available to them they will end up getting fat as they just do not stop until they have done their 16 hours. If there is very little grazing they will not graze for longer to compensate and will get skinny. Odd. I'm still trying to get my head around this one.
The rest of the time is divided between standing, lying and grooming. If you think about this they probably don't sleep for very long, and it seems that they don't necessarily sleep at night. They may continue feeding in the dark.
The fact that horses spend so much of their lives feeding means that their necks have evolved to work better when their head is down at ground level. Everything is in optimum working order when the horse is feeding. The airways are fully open and the blood circulation is improved. But if you go to a stable and walk along the row of horses looking out you will see that they are all standing with their heads above their shoulders. They generally only feed for about 1 or 2 hours and the feed may not be put at ground level.
Over the last five weeks, since we bought Stella, I have been reading a lot about horse care and I have been fairly surprised to learn that a huge proportion of horse in Ireland and internationally are living pretty miserable existences. The stabled horse seems to be a very troubled one. Even stables of a good quality do not seem to be able to provide care that even approaches an adequate level. The very nature of the stable makes looking after a horse simpler for the owner but much more unpleasant for the horse. Horses are kept in boxes that may be too small to roll in so as to scratch their backs. They may be taken out for an hour a day and if they are lucky they will get a run in a field. If not they may get a go on the walking machine. In other words they go around in a circle for a while then get put back in. They may not have any contact with other horses and may be able to just look at its neighbours head.
As a result of their confinement they may develop vices which include biting their own legs in order to stimulate endorphins to relieve stress. They may weave about at the stable door and the solution to this is to reduce the space available to them at the door. I could go on. Overall it seems that horses are seen as commodities rather than living beings that need to be allowed to have space, exercise and company.
There are better stabling set ups around where horses may come and go as they please, as the weather dictates but it seems that these are in the minority. I am so glad that stabling is expensive and that we were advised to find a field for her rather than keep Stella confined. At the moment she is in a huge field with trees and shrubs to scratch off and wander around. She has three friends who she seems to be getting on well with and she is essentially her own boss.
Here is Stella with her best friend. I don't know his name but he is a two year old gelding and is very attentive to her. I think he is a bit too attentive but she tolerates him and they are never far from each other.
They groom each other quite regularly. This involves scratching each other's withers - the bit where the mane above the legs. They line up head on and do each other at the same time. This will only last a couple of minutes but is important in maintaining bonds and getting to know each other.
Just before I took this picture I spent about 5 minutes with my hand on her back while she stood completely still. Her lower lip was doing the wobbly thing that signals her relaxation. It seems that given the chance Stella will approach me and just stop eating. I now realise the significance of this gesture! She is giving up valuable eating time to come and relax near me. She starts to have a snooze and I approach her carefully. When she is like this I can lean my head on her or stroke her and she just doesn't move. Today I just rested my hand on her and stood beside her. It seemed enough just to make contact. Her friend wanted to get in on the action too and decided to stop eating and join in on the snoozing. Over about 10 minutes I just maintained contact by resting my hand on her back or her head. Eventually we were interrupted by one a third horse that thought this looked lovely. Stella got a bit irritated and gradually resumed eating.
I have to say that I was extremely relaxed myself after this. Just to stand there touching her without saying or doing anything was pretty amazing. I could feel her as she shifted her weight every so often and as she sighed. I keep having the urge to hug her but I am not brave enough yet and I don't know if she'd even like it so I'll take my time before I try this. I think that we are both learning a lot from Stella and so far the experience of trying to help her has been a hugely rewarding one.
An unexpected bonus is that I am encountering a lot more wildlife than I ever have in the past. There seems to be a family of hares in and around the field. A collection of three of them passed right behind the horses and into the neighbouring field at one point.
When Stella was still on the farm in Bridgetown a fox crossed the field while I was standing at the gate. This guy could be the fella responsible for all the poultry deaths on Jim's farm. With lots of young to feed he/she has to get food from somewhere.
I've seen loads of pheasants and many other birds too. And every day as we cross the meadow we see a hell of a lot of slugs.
Getting back to Stella, we are trying to continue the process of getting her used to human contact. You are supposed to look at a horse's feet every day and so she must let us pick them up,scrape around and check them for stones or other foreign bodies. Stella seems to be fine about doing the front ones but has a bit of a problem with one of the back ones. When she arrived at the farm two months ago she had a large wound on the inside of this leg and so she may still be sensitive about it. We will gradually sort this out we hope. We visit every day and it is obvious that she is happy to have us around. She always sidles up slowly and just eats beside us. Sometimes she doesn't feel like being petted and signals for us to leave her alone but as I said earlier every so often she will suddenly switch into super relaxed mode and allow any amount of contact.
We are happy to take our time with Stella and do not want to push her too much. We hope that in time she will let us do all our grooming and checking without any objection. She is pretty good already but would really rather be left to clock up her 16 hours eating for the day. She still has a bit of catching up to do so I don't blame her :)