Ends and Beginnings.

White Horse Farm

Over the 13 years during which it was running the Equine Ethology project at White Horse Farm grew and changed.

Perhaps the simplest truth is that those 'conditioners' that evolution has followed in producing the highly adaptable horse also impact study projects. 

The environment of the farm impacted the study in a very holistic sense. Of course it came as no surprise that the physical basics; topography, aspect, rainfall, soil type, pasture species, would exert influence - but it didn't stop there. Other parts of the 'environment' were not so readily predictable. You might think that the economy of both the country and area in which the project was running would have little impact - yet that would only be true if the financial structure on which it was based was entirely independent of, and isolated from, the surrounding economy. And while that may be possible in theory it was certainly not in this case.

For example; project funding was originally reliant on income from beef production. A calf-rearing unit, built to raise surplus week-old calves from dairying did tolerably well over the first couple of seasons. But in the third season returns from sales of 100kg calves dropped below the purchase prices. The conditions that caused this were basically twofold. 

Firstly the NZ meat processing industry was too large, with many un-modernised plants, and was over-extended in terms of bank borrowing. The banks had become very nervous about recovering their lending, and began to take a 'per carcass' levy. This in turn meant that returns to the producer were decreased - and that the 'beef schedule' (list of types and prices) fell rapidly. Secondly Australia was experiencing a severe drought, which caused massive increases in the number of animals slaughtered, and seriously affected the price of beef across the whole Australasian region. The impact of these features of the 'wider environment' on the financial base of the project was immense; going from 'self-sustaining' to 'dependent on borrowing' within a couple of months. 

But it didn't stop there. To provide a new income stream the farm and project were converted to an educational base, registered and accredited with New Zealand's Qualification Authority. Courses in 'Equine Practice' were developed in co-operation with the Equine Industry Training Organisation, and were funded by the Education and Training Support Agency arm of government. After the damage done by the fall in beef values, which had seen all bovines sold against bank debt, the first months were very difficult, yet for some in the local area the perception appeared to be that the project was now making good money. So began a series of untruthful and spitefully laid allegations against me as tutor and joint owner. The primary purpose of these seemed to be to have the funding taken away from us and awarded elsewhere - to more 'deserving' folks among the horse establishment in the local community. That the attacks were ignorant and untruthful was neither here nor there, as a government agency, allocating tax-payers money, ETSA had no option but to set up an official enquiry.

It was not difficult to refute the allegations, all of which were either gross distortions of fact or were based on sheer ignorance, and the result of the inquiry was that I was completely exonerated. Yet the perpetrators refused to state their allegations anywhere other than under cover of anonymity provided by the NZ Privacy Act - and so were able to keep spreading their malice without my having the opportunity to get them into court. Plus ETSA requested that we not defend ourselves publicly so that our students would not be affected. In fact it was arguably very wrong of them to do so - as it was directly in breech of our rights under article 12 of the United Nations charter of human rights that a few people, acting with the cowardice of anonymous complaints and gutter level gossip should have been allowed to destroy my reputation. The damage done was considerable, affecting the project directly through increased costs and decreased interest from prospective students. Courses were finally discontinued, and income yet again fell over.

The damage done to my reputation continued, making it virtually impossible to sell project progeny except at bargain basement prices. 

In fairness it was not only monetary gain that was at the root of the attack. Had I adhered rigidly to teaching the traditional industry methods and values there would have been far less reason for these people to object. It was also very naive of me to assume that horse enthusiasts would be interested in the product of research into animal behavior. This introduction of new research, far from being welcomed with open mindedness or enthusiasm,  was regarded as an attack on the ways of the past. The reactionary response could probably have been predicted - even if the spitefulness of it came as a surprise.

So, to the mix of environmental features in which the project existed was added elements of local and national economy and industry, weather events in another country, social politics, envy and personal naiveté. And in some respects these elements produced greater impact than such things as soil type.

It was a strange situation, in which the horses in my care, and the work to which I was committed, entered into a slightly surreal "Catch 22" type phase. The damage to reputation made it harder to sell, never mind at a profit, numbers increased as my ability to support them fell - until there was no choice but to sell at 'give away' prices just to prevent over-stocking and falling welfare indicators. So a financial downward spiral set in, lasting for several years.

Those years also produced a lot of spare time, which I was able to dedicate to hundreds of hours of observation and study. And from that the first book grew. A publisher was found, and I was told to expect a contract in the post. Here then was a chance to get things back on an even keel again. But pressure from the industry intervened once more - and the publisher retracted. It was out of the frustration over that sequence of events that the website was born - in an attempt to get the results out in the public arena - and, hopefully, to generate income. Of course there was no spare money with which to pay anyone to build a site - so I had no option but to learn from online tutorials and then do it myself.

The first of those original goals was achieved. Over half a million people visited the site during the next few years, from 102 countries worldwide, including faculty and students from over 1250 universities, colleges and centres of tertiary education in 67 countries. A number of those education providers mailed me to ask permission to use various contents for lecture purposes. In truth this was a fantastic achievement, and one that I'm still quite proud of. But as far as the second goal was concerned the site failed miserably, generating only a small trickle from the flood of users. 

So the project continued. But these financial elements of the environment mix meant that we were running into increasing practical problems. Worming was perhaps the single biggest expense, and, whereas the project had been designed to operate with the mixed grazing of both horses and cattle, the forced sale of the small Limousin cattle herd meant that we increasingly ran into the typical parasite results to be expected from mono-culture. Pasture infestation levels steadily climbed. These were further exacerbated by the mineral deficiencies in the soil, and yet further by the pasture species. Despite best efforts and back breaking work to clear rocks allowing for cultivation and reseeding there was simply not the funds to produce the steady improvement needed. And as it became both more necessary, and expensive, to provide mineral supplementation through hard feeds the availability of cash to spend on fertiliser application diminished also. Effectively the project had become an unsustainable trap. 

Yet there were now two whole families of horses that had been raised so that every individual was supported within groups analogous to naturally occurring social groups from birth onwards. Observations had shown the degree to which these individuals within these groups were closely bonded - and it was inconceivable that they should just be dispersed to whatever fate might await them at the hands of a largely ignorant public. Progeny from the two harem groups had always been intended for sale, but I had a clear ethical responsibility to the adults. Perhaps it would not be so bad to see a horse go into virtual solitary confinement if it had never known any other life - but to take a bonded member away from the friends and family many had known from birth was another thing altogether. What was more it had become very clear that the stallions were especially liable to suffer psychological ill-health and behavioral problems. And this was the second part of the trap: damned if I tried to keep the project running and equally damned if I tried to bring it to an end.

As with all such things fate finally intervenes to force change, the farm was sold under bank pressure, and many of the horses were dispersed. At least there was time to do it as ethically as possible, in which the well-being of the horses themselves was set as the guiding principle - rather than the prices received. Yet this too was debatable to some extent. It would have been fair to argue that the better the prices received the better I would be able to protect the wellbeing of those that remained. I discovered that I am not at all good at martyring one to benefit another. No doubt I would make a pretty poor type of president or commander, as I find the notion of 'collateral damage' to be repugnant. In the end it was the quality of life they could expect in the prospective new home that ruled - so much so that some were gifted where their wellbeing would be best assured.

Finally there was a period during the first 7 months of 2005 during which it seemed virtually impossible to keep going, such was the difficulty of finding leased land on which the horses could be run - and plans were made to go on reducing numbers until they were all gone. It was without any doubt one of the most depressing and hardest times of my life. And throughout a large part of it I seemed even to have lost the trust of the stallions such that even simple management tasks like moving groups from one paddock to another were made difficult. 

So - was it ever 'do-able'? Or was it doomed to failure from the very start by virtue of my not having a sufficiently deep pocket? 

Many of the conclusions that arose from the project were most unlikely to be well received by owners who, for the most part, do not want to be told anything that challenges their ways of doing things. No-one that has only space for one horse, yet has a strong emotional attachment to their horse, wants to be told that keeping a horse alone is unnatural and very likely unethical also. Nor do they want to hear that it is deep and abiding loneliness and the resulting dependency that makes their horse so darned glad to see them. Yet it is absolutely clear that this is the case. Even worse, what if the truth is that many many horses are unwilling to be ridden, do not derive any pleasure from it, would never carry another person if given the option of choice, and are made both unwell and unhappy by the work that is forced upon them. Including the most expensive and highly trained!

If you really want to make money you're best bet is to steer well clear of such ideas and offer the public what they want to hear - rather than what is true. After all there are a huge number of people living in conditions far poorer and more miserable than many horses. Although that does not make a right out of a wrong. And, of course without the pioneering of new ideas and a new vision there would be no change, no development and no real improvement; call horses slaves, admit that our interests come before theirs in all respects, and have done. Which begs the question; is it commercially viable for horses to be kept in such a way that their interests and wellbeing are protected? For several years it seemed the answer was a definite no, and the question sat, like a black dog on my shoulder.

After a couple of years moving from one small block to another the chance of a lease on a good sized farm came up, and although the level of resources on which I could call, both financial and in terms of tools and machinery, was horribly low we had at least to try.

The move to Windhorse Farm took place at the very end of March 2008. In the past few years, when horses were moved onto blocks where constant observation was impossible there were losses; in the first couple of days after leaving White Horse farm two mares became mired overnight in soft ground and died of exhaustion. Another colt was harassed into a fence by dogs, leaving heavy scars. So this time I was determined to do everything possible to prevent anything going wrong. The house and equipment move was taken care of first, leaving us living the last week with the very barest of amenities and comforts, and the horses only moved when I would be able to unload them from the truck and then be there to keep a constant watch during those first, potentially most dangerous, days. The 16 strong family group had to travel some way along a busy road from where they were pastured to the nearest yards with a loading ramp. And, not for the first time during the gypsy years, Storm, the harem stallion, took on the point guard role, checking for danger, controlling the pace so that no-one got left behind and adroitly leading the group along the safest route. All that was required of the four people involved was to act as traffic control and human signposts to point the turns, out of, and then in to, the correct gateways. His conduct throughout was literally faultless, remaining calm and positive, giving confidence to mares, foals and yearlings alike, and co-operating with my requests as if we shared spoken English as a common tongue.

Loading onto this type of transport, where horses are able to position themselves freely without rope restraints is great in terms of their standing as they find best (facing to the rear!) but there are important considerations. Truck and trailer unit like this are divided into compartments, four as a general rule. Each one is large enough for either a couple of adults and a youngster, or a trio of mare, foal and yearling. These trios are easy, given that foal and yearling are a mares own, but choice of adults to travel together is critical. They must be completely socialized and content with each other, or within such a confined space there is potential for a brutal and damaging conflict. I’ve always opted to travel the stallion together with his head mare and her offspring, the theory being that it is she that is most important to him, and it’s worked very well, so we did the same this time, the stallion going first so that he can check out the empty truck and assure himself that all is well, followed by mare and foal. The next mare in order of status goes into the 2nd compartment with her two, and so on.  Finally the last four had to load onto the trailer, prior to the short journey to the 2nd pick-up point, where the four stallions of the bachelor group were to be loaded. And to give as little cause for insult to the harem stallion the mare travelling in the trailer was the lowest status of all—again, in theory, the one he would be least bothered about. Then, in  a similar fashion, the highest status of the four loaded first, followed by his rather anxious son, and then the last two in the next compartment.

 Moving 20 horses of mixed ages a couple of hundred kilometers, including 5 stallions and a rising 4 year old colt is always a challenge, with plenty of room for anxiety. Part of that challenge is to put the anxiety aside while in the process of actually carrying out the task. You can be as stressed and worried as you like before, and after, but not during—otherwise there's a very good chance the horses will pick it up, from body language alone if from nothing else, and react accordingly; transmit sufficient worry to them and it can quickly take on all the characteristics of a self fulfilling prophesy!  And there is no doubt that a patient and considerate driver sure helps. Happily the entire move went as well as could possibly be hoped for, just one very small superficial scratch, and no loss of either dignity or composure—lovely! Both groups went quietly to their respective paddocks, and within what seemed like minutes only were nose down and looking like they’d been there for months.

Next morning all was still well, but later that day a foal came up lame, and with a grazed cannon to show for it. It took a couple of days of looking before the cause was found, and I guess it just shows that no matter how hard you try danger is always there someplace; in this instance it was a set of post holes that had been left by a contractor after moving a fence line months before. Nothing had been done to fill the holes in after the old posts had been pulled, despite the potential for injury to stock, what’s more the intervening time had allowed the grass to grow over, completely obscuring the holes, and creating potentially leg breaking traps. It took only a half hour or so to locate each one, shovel up a couple of wheelbarrow loads and fill them in, leaving one to wonder why it couldn't have been done by the contractor. Perhaps at one time these dangers were things that were general knowledge among country folk, whereas today’s contractors tend to be specialist machine operators with far less real connection to the land and what lives on it. And maybe I should be grateful that one danger surfaced, since it caused me to look even harder for any others, and in the process find odd coiled remnants of fence wire lurking in the grass, and even the rusting wreckage of a bed frame and other assorted chunks of metal!

What on earth possesses people to dump rubbish like that out in a paddock is beyond me; to find yourself a little piece of paradise and then proceed to scatter junk about seems strange behavior by any measure, but almost every rural property I’ve ever moved to has had it’s share of garbage; anything from a light scattering right up to a whole semi trailer load!

Years ago a half buried piece of a fence so old that it had fallen and sunk almost entirely underground pierced the face of a horse whilst rolling, leaving a deep nasty hole. It took hours to find that old end, made sharp by rust, and sticking almost directly up out of the ground, and the injury has stuck in my mind ever since as an example of just how dangerous even a small piece of metal can be. Such, it might be said, is the fuel for anxiety, but if it’s anxiety that stops a horse being needlessly injured color me anxious, and happy to stay that way!

That bed frame tangle raised a new question; can horses develop a sensitivity to potentially dangerous objects? And having seen so many horses with cannon scars I would have said no, and yet the reason I found that frame was that the grass had been grazed short in a fairly neat circle around it, leaving it not only quite visible—but almost highlighted. Of course it could simply have been a coincidence, or perhaps the iron oxide run-off from the rust gave the grass a extra spice, but it had a very deliberate look to it, as if done on purpose so that the bachelors wouldn't run over the top of it when travelling fast or in the dark.

Those were some of the external threats to the herd’s safety, but there was another, namely internal parasites. The months of grazing the herd on land without any handling facilities had made worming a difficult affair. While you can more easily use an in-feed type wormer with adults, it’s almost impossible with youngsters. And even then you need to be able to separate the adults so that each can be certain of getting the complete dose, otherwise it’s a sure doorway to sub-lethal dosage rates, rapid worm resistance and greater problems in the future. Rather than doing a poor or haphazard job of it the decision was to wait. A further complication was that I hadn't anywhere near as good a knowledge of the area where they were grazing as I’d had in the past with respect to the dominant type of parasites. Generally, so the books will tell you, equine tape worm is not a problem in New Zealand, and I’d hardly seen it at all in the previous 15 years.

There had been some also pressure on the amount of grazing available to the group for some time before the move, from a competing beef farmer using the same block, and that despite continuing to be charged the same rate. So often horses are seen by a large percentage of farmers as being a waste of space, and somehow less entitled to the consideration given to primary agricultural industry species; namely sheep and cattle. In a couple of incidents the horses had actually been moved onto bare paddocks to make way for the cattle, causing a disturbing drop in body weight and condition.

In fact the threat of this happening again, and my near powerlessness to prevent it, had been a major concern and cause of my listing the group for sale for several months in search of an owner better able to guarantee their welfare. It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make, and I’ll be eternally grateful that no sale ever eventuated and the separation never happened. At the lowest ebb, when things looked most grim, a buyer did make an offer, but thanks to my wife, best friend, soul mate and rock through all the trials of these years on the move, we found a way to reject it and carry on a little longer.

My assumption that the loss of condition was merely the feed pressure, compounded perhaps by the naturally low fertility and mineral balance of the local soil, a naturally acidic whitish clay, was wrong. And instead of the herd improving steadily on the new pasture, and abundant good grass, they worsened during the first week if anything.   

So, having, not so patiently, waited until the worst of the stress from the move had passed they were wormed. Rather than risk making their first visit to the farm yards a negative one the group were brought in on two different occasions, merely moved in and out again, and then given a small feed in order to establish a positive attitude before being taken back to their paddock. Some wormers seem to have a particularly foul taste such that they engender particularly strong resistance—and create a real attitude problem towards follow up dosing, so you certainly wouldn't want it to be the first memory associated with coming in. I’d already taken enough liberties with their good natures by trimming all the mares feet for the first time in a good while, something that had not been possible for far longer than ideal.

In order to target as wide a possible range of parasites a combination type wormer seemed like the best choice, rather than one with only a single active ingredient that might kill some while leaving others. And of course with the tendency for horse wormer to cost far more than the same ingredients with a picture of a cow on the bottle it makes sense to shop around a bit. The all-round best option was Equitak Excel Multidose by Bomac, containing a combination of Abamectin, Praziquantel and Oxfendazole, and the adults, whose memories of wormer flavors past were somewhat mixed,  actually seemed  surprised to find the taste not at all bad! For the youngsters this was a first experience of being wormed, and rather than risk a fight and the use of force I used the cattle drenching race, but left them lose in the race corridor without rope or restraints. With a good deal of patience and the determination that it should take as long as it might, all voluntarily accepted the syringe in to the side of their mouths. Just three of  the youngsters reacted strongly against being pressured in the confines of the chute, and from past experience I know just how long lasting the negative impact of pushing them too hard can be. Two were a rising year old and a rising two year old from the same mare, both of which seemed more than ready to struggle violently if pressured further, which needed thinking about, and some patient work over the following weeks to overcome, and one other, a rising two year old filly, just became rapidly very emotional. Unfortunately her brother was in front and it seemed best to let both loose immediately rather than risk her becoming more upset while I wormed him. So 12 of the 16 were wormed, leaving 4 to provide ‘control’ dung samples for FEC purposes.

The following morning inspection of dung piles showed larger numbers of Anoplocephala (equine tapeworm—see picture above) than I’ve ever seen in any country where we've kept horses; quite a surprise. What I had been seeing with the unthriftiness of the group was in fact Anoplocephaliasis, created by the mixture of pressure and parasite combining to produce a potentially serious imbalance. Little doubt then that there could also be some mineral deficiency to correct. Even after the group have had access to a multi-mineral block they still show an above average interest in chewing on some old tree stumps in the paddocks, which suggests that there is still a lack of copper to be dealt with—a typical side effect of parasite imbalance.

Post worming FEC testing of the herd confirmed the success of treatment, with all 12 wormed horses returning a zero count. Of the four not wormed the egg count scores varied from 440 e.p.g through 740 and 940 up to 1500, but in all four samples there was only a single tape worm egg, the rest being strongyle type. I’m going to monitor the lowest result, that of the rising four year old colt closely, but if the 440 stays steady it would be tempting to allow that level of balance to persist, rather than intervene. And although the 1500 result doesn't appear to be causing any problem for the filly in terms of condition loss it will certainly be creating a higher level of pasture infection than I’m happy with. Daily socializing sessions are already paying off, and will allow worming of the three sooner rather than later, although so far two (below) are still the least interested of all the youngsters in interacting.

It’s remarkable that the least friendly two are from the same mare, although mum is as open as any of the mares. She also has a full sister in the group whose foals are among the most friendly and inquisitive. Strange that identical breeding should produce such a different ‘default’ attitude to people. There is however a difference in maternal behavior between the two mares, La Bamba and Amber, particularly during the first week or so after foaling. And with La Bamba having moved over to autumn foaling for the last few years the most recent example started on the 17th May, with the birth of a chestnut filly foal.

For the first 4 days it was impossible to get more than a passing look at the foal, literally any pressure, no matter how slight, such as too intense an inspection, or other horses moving too close, had ‘Bamba moving in a display of controlled anxiety. Of course the constant exposure to the rest of the group means that the foal steadily learns that other horses are to be trusted rather than feared, but the same is not true of people, who retain an association with that early anxiety. No doubt in a intensive breeding set up where there were as many people as horses, if not more, the outcome would be different, perhaps leading to a foal better socialized to people than to horses.

In Amber, the related mare, there is no similar ongoing anxiety as with her sister, even though she is younger and has a lower status in the group. Amber’s two current ‘followers’, 7 and 19 month old fillies, are the first of all the youngsters to come and greet me with gentle nose contact, and have no fear of me. Above: Amber’s filly Gypsy. Below: a huddle of youngsters, all vying for attention and contact.

In fact with all the youngsters apart from Bamba’s I have only to stand about in their paddock for a ring to form, all amiable, curious and ready to interact. Even the oldest of the progeny, a 41 month old colt that has never had any training other than a polite ‘how are you’ from me is open and very friendly.(below)

Over the last 10 years or so a good bit of work has been done on oxytocin, sometimes now referred to as the ’trust hormone’. Tests suggest that increased oxytocin levels inspire a greater degree of trust, and, with the sensitivity of horses towards scent, it’s easy to see why we might speculate as to whether some of those people that horses appear to trust have a slightly elevated natural level of the hormone. And, in an effort to see whether the shy youngsters in the herd react I’ve sourced a small amount of oxytocin spray. It’ll be some time before I’m able to set up conditions where it can be tested, and with winter now in full swing delays seem highly likely while we wait for dry weather!

TRUST IS POWER - Lao Tzu, 2500 BC

Like the old White Horse farm the contour of Windhorse farm is gently rolling, ideal for growing good bone and promoting athletic ability in young horses. The paddock sizes are large, the majority of fences in good state of repair and with very little barbed wire to be dealt with either by removal or electric tape ‘highlighting’.

An added benefit of this being in many ways a ’2nd chance’ is that I’m forewarned about those things that I didn't get right first time around. First, and I think most important, is the issue of mono-culture. In nature the occurrence of an eco-system in which there is only one species is virtually unheard of, it is diversity that underwrites the sustainability of an ecosystem, ideally producing an ecology in which each inhabitant contributes in some way to the balance of the whole. Of course the idea is far from new, if anything it is something that both western and eastern cultures have either chosen to ignore or have carelessly  forgotten, as if it was of no consequence. Many pre-agricultural cultures built an awareness of this interrelatedness of life into their stories and myths, often containing a wisdom that was derided as fanciful.

One good example is that of the North American Prairie Dog, as much for the beautifully simple eloquence with which it was expressed as the truth it embodies. In 1950 US government officials proposed the extermination of the Prairie Dog on parts of the Navajo Reservation, the aim being  to protect the roots of the sparse desert grasses and maintain grazing for sheep. The Navajo elders objected, insisting that ''if you kill all the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for the rain.'' Under the illusion that they knew better the officials went ahead with the eradication anyway, and in doing so turned the area, near Chilchinbito, Arizona, into a virtual wasteland. And yet the extermination continues. Ironically one reason given for it was, and is, the protection of domestic livestock, the horse in particular, from broken limbs in Prairie dog holes. Yet unlike the earlier example of old post holes these holes are very clearly marked by the mounds that result from their excavation, and according to environmentalists that have researched the issue: “The myth that cattle break legs in prairie dog  holes is just that: myth. After years of asking ranchers this question, we have found not one example.”

The result of this eradication has been to deprive the ecosystem of an essential feature: drainage! And without the diligent ground-turning soils became compacted (as many do under the weight of heavy machinery) and all but impervious to rain, with resulting serious run-off and disastrous erosion.

"Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

Chief Seattle—1854

As time goes on it’s becoming more and more obvious that many of our attitudes and approaches to things have to be rethought. Environmental change is no longer a distant worry somewhere on the horizon of our consciousness, it’s actually here at our doorway. Whether you believe in global warming as a product of man’s interference, or that it’s simply part of a natural cycle, or a middle course in which it’s a mixture of the two doesn't alter the fact that change is here. Perhaps if our leaders had been more concerned with the potential threat posed by such a change, instead of whether they were going to get re-elected next time, or their cronies at the top of the military industrial complex were going to keep raking in the cash by the bucket load, we might conceivably be further ahead, both in monitoring and devising solutions. As it is, despite the writing being clearly on the wall in letters as high as the sky for the past 20 plus years, we are still at the stage of arguing about whose fault it is, and who should pay the clean-up bill.                                         

As long ago as 1986 there were signs that the trade winds were becoming less and less reliable. For hundreds of years navigators had been able to plan voyages around the globe, knowing that they had merely to be in a particular port at a particular time to pick up a virtually free ride to the next continent. That it was no longer dependable should have triggered a deep sense of disquiet among a great deal more than a few handfuls of people here and there.

Ditto fossil fuels. We've been talking about them running out, and the need to find cleaner less polluting forms of power for decades now, with little by the way of change. Most cities are full of massive gas guzzling 4 wheel drives, euphemistically known in the UK as ‘Chelsea tractors’, and horse owners as a group are far from guiltless. Perhaps we do need a 4 liter engine wagon to tow our horse floats, but should we be using the monstrous beasts to drive down to the shops? And if we needed any more notice of the shortsightedness of our politicians then the bio-fuel issue should be more than enough. It was pretty obvious that should the profit to be had from bio-fuel crops become greater than those from basic foodstuffs the poor were liable to get the consequences in the neck. Combine the impacts of the two, climate change and crop changes for bio-fuel, and the outlook for increased levels of starvation amongst the worlds poor was bleak, which is what we are facing right now; fewer acres dedicated to growing staple feeds, increased rainforest clearance for the growing of bio-fuel corn, low yields of cereals and rice due to drought or flooding, massive escalation in cereal costs.

I’m sorry if this sounds a little like a rant, but the plain truth is that horses do not exist in a vacuum, this is the context within which we own horses. Increased grain prices are already contributing to the pressure on owners, and an increase in the number of horses made surplus to requirements by owners inability to pay for supplementary feed. As the price of oil increases on the world market the profit to be had from corn means that less ground is available for grass crops, so hay and silage prices increase too. In short it is becoming more and more difficult to keep large animals ethically, and the pressure on everyone that has land under their care, whether owned or leased, to use it responsibly is that much greater. And just as I’d argue that ethical use and management of horses requires a  holistic philosophy, so too does managing land. Wouldn’t it be a peculiar kind of hypocrisy if we were to consider the welfare only of the horses, rather than of the land and any other animals kept on it– including the ‘footprint’ in terms of the greater environment? So logically that has also to be the challenge here, to design a 140 acre sustainable multi-species eco-system in such a way that every occupant is able to live in harmony, with the 5 freedoms as overriding principle.


1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst - by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.

2. Freedom from Discomfort - by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.

3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease - by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.

4. Freedom to Express Normal  Behaviour - by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.

5. Freedom from Fear and Distress - by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

I’d be less than honest if I pretended that I hadn't felt overawed to some extent by both the challenge and finding my feet on a new property and in a new area; getting the pieces to fit is certainly a complicated task, requiring a great deal of thought. And it’s taken a good while longer than I would have guessed if I’d been asked a couple of months ago. On one level it really has been very odd, here we are, re-united with the herd, on a beautiful piece of land, and instead of being infused with a new lease of life the reverse happens, and I have to fight my way out of a mind-boggling downward spiral — plain bizarre! Or maybe not. Maybe it was the emotional/spiritual/psychological, call it what you will, equivalent of a snake shedding it’s skin? There certainly is a theory that depression, widely viewed as a singularly negative condition, can also have a positive function; to make you question your belief system and personal mythology. The idea is that excessive and ongoing stress provokes the change in state, which in turn leads to a re-think of lifestyle producing less stress in the future. Whether all this is true or not the upshot has definitely been a kind of mental stock-taking, a kind of “ok here we are, now what the heck does it all mean, and where to from here!” And I’d guess it’s not too hard to see how the process would need to have produced a certain amount of firm ground before anything useful might get done or written; which accounts for the 'break in transmission' that occurred.

Windhorse Farm

Since this was written a lot has happened - Windhorse Farm turned out to be just another transition, although one that offered a huge opportunity for learning and the development of a multi-species harmony. The owners decided they wanted to sell, and we've moved onto a far smaller place with just two horses. Was it all worth it? Only time can answer that - perhaps by sharing the knowledge it will have been.