Britain suffered the wettest winter since records began last year and the rain has continued. There is now growing concern that paddocks are struggling to recover and are lacking vital nutrients, even if the grass looks lush.
“The problem is more widespread then we first thought,” said Countrywide Farmers’ nutritionist Andrew Morrey. “It is not just land that has been flooded, but all pasture has had a lot of rain.
“We are finding that, for some reason, the grass doesn’t seem to be palatable. Although there is plenty of it, horses don’t like what they are eating.
“The grass has been so leached that the soil has lost many of its nutrients.”
If you are worried about grass quality, experts suggest you to do a soil test, to determine exactly what nutrients are missing. A soil test costs around £20 and all you need is a trowel, bucket and a bag.
Once a soil sample has been analysed, experts can advise on suitable fertilizers to improve grass quality, which will not harm horses. Some products that have been designed specifically for horse pasture mean that horses can be turned out straight after application.
Although it is now June, it is not too late to improve grass condition.
“We have had plenty of rain, which has extended the spring period,” said Mark Smith from Shire Country Services. “If we had entered a drought period, then it would be too late.”
Weeds taking over
The wet conditions have also caused a glut of weeds.
“Weed control is a big an issue at the moment,” said Richard Robinson, an agronomist (expert in soil management). “Weeds will survive even if the soil is bare and they then smother out grasses.”
The buttercup is particularly prolific in the current climate. It can cause buttercup burn — a soreness or blistering around the mouth due to an irritant the weed contains —and if large quantities are eaten can lead to diarrhoea or mild colic.
“We have had to reseed parts of our field, but the buttercups and moss are taking over in the boggy part,” complained H&H reader Natalie White.
Mr Robinson warns that it is vital to get all weeds under control as soon as possible, before their roots grow too long.
“It is a bit like an iceberg,” he added. “What you see is often only about one-tenth of what is below.”
The best way to get rid of all weeds is by spraying them, but this will mean keeping horses off the grazing for at least a couple of weeks, depending on the product used.
“Now is the time of year — before the thistles and docks go to seed,” said Alan Abel from Complete Weed Control. “After they have gone to seed, it’s a waste of time because they will come back anyway.”
Vital for success
Olympic dressage rider Richard Davison believes that good grass management is pivotal to his horses’ welfare and training.
“It is not a luxury — it’s a vital piece of management,” Richard told H&H. “We have a specific regime in place that includes taking soil samples, rolling, topping, manure collection, inter-grazing with sheep and using SureGrow fertilizer.
“Looking after the paddocks is as critical as any other aspect of horse management.”
There are preventative solutions available, such as improving drainage or using underground storage crates to collect and store water. But the work can only be undertaken when the ground is drier.
“People are very quick to forget when the weather turns,” said Mark Snelson from equestrian groundwork specialist Groundlines.
“This is the time of year to do it. You need to think about it now, even though it might be the last on your mind otherwise, it will be too late. Once you get to September, it starts to becomes too wet again to be able to move machinery.”
Havoc for competitors
The continued wet weather after the winter has also caused problems for venues, which have struggled to maintain ground conditions.
Devon County was forced to cancel its last day (24 May) for the first time in its 119-year history due to safety fears caused by heavy rain.
“Quite exceptionally, heavy rainfall immediately before and during the show turned the car parks into quagmires, to the point where it would not be safe to allow people to park their cars,” said a spokesman. “It was heartbreaking to have to make this decision, but we were left with no choice.”
The eventing calendar has also taken the hit, with Mattingley (2-3 May), West Buckland (3-4 May), Brechin Castle (May 11), Auchinleck (7 June) and West Wilts (7 June)
all being forced to cancel due to the wet weather.
The danger of dredging
Widespread dredging is now under way to try to prevent flooding next year. However, this is potentially hazardous for owners, as hemlock water dropwort — which is highly toxic to horses — can be brought up and left where horses can eat it.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to make sure everything that is dredged up is taken away,” said Countrywide nutritionist Andrew Morrey. “If your land is affected, make sure you contact your local authority to find out when and where they are dredging.
“If you go to work and they dredge while you are out, your horse could be dead by the time you get back.”
This article was first published in Horse & Hound on 12 June 2014