Track Systems and Horse Herb 'Gardens'

Track Systems and Horse Herb 'Gardens'

This feature is soon to be published in the British Horse Society (BHS) member monthly magazine. It has been put together by Claire Tew who carries out PR work for Carol Hughes of Equibiome. Thank you to both of these lovely folk.

Horse herb gardens and track systems might sound like strange ideas to some horse owners, but for others they are integral to the way in which their equine companions are living and thriving. One such owner is Stuart Attwood, founder of Total Contact Equine Solutions. Stuart, also known as ‘the planty man’, is passionate about keeping his horse Chiron, a nine-year-old Standardbred, in a natural way to encourage movement and foraging behaviour, as well as socialisation in a herd. 

Said Stuart: “Chiron came to me as a ‘failed’ trotter at three years old without a horse passport, his past before this is unclear. He has the sweetest nature and I originally thought of him as a perfect equine assisted therapy horse. However, I stopped ‘doing’ this as it felt like something I was ‘doing’ to the horse rather than for his good.  “Now he’s a recreational horse and if what I think we’re going to do together one day doesn’t actually happen then we just do something else instead.

Chiron is not an ‘ill’ horse as some can be so he must have a good immune system; he doesn’t suffer with laminitis, mud fever etc. and gets abscesses only very rarely. I credit his good health to the track system he lives on and his access to a wide variety of plants and herbs. “In essence a track system is a fenced off area in the landscape that the horses move around. It is highly individual in design and can depend on the natural features in your area – hills, streams, banks, ditches, hedges etc. – and the track will have wide areas for ‘loafing’ around on the part of the horses as well as narrow pathways to keep them moving. It will probably have a shelter of some kind for the very hot – or cold and wet – days, a water supply, feeding stations, limited access to ad-lib grass, well thought out planting for health and foraging, a variety of surfaces for the horses to walk on and yes, mud is a surface and they don’t mind so long as there are other places that they can get to that aren’t too muddy!  “You may start off with a set design and range of track assets/areas of interest and activity but you’ll want to develop these as funds become available and your imagination and understanding of the system develops.” 

Stuart has observed many benefits of the track system over the years including better limb health as horses are moving more, better foot/hoof health due to the restricted access to grass and specific planting on the track, as well as movement across a range of surfaces.  “The track system is a better regime to cater for the horse with health conditions such as laminitis, PPID, intermittent lameness issues and navicular syndrome as planting for health, limited access to high sugar grass pasture and gentle exercise all help these conditions,” said Stuart. Other benefits include a more socialised herd with a distinct hierarchy that they all understand – some may challenge it from time to time but that tells you something of the herd dynamics and the horse development and is nothing to be worried about (its natural!). The track system often results in a herd more able to be out in all weathers too – their coats are made to drip water away, to keep them warm in winter and they’ll shed it when needed and grow it when needed.  

A typical feeding station used here is an old apple bx from a local orchard. It can be moved around to make the herd ‘search’ for food and to stop one area being ‘trashed’ with old hay. In other areas the hay is left in small piles directly on the ground (if the weather is not too windy/rainy) or in nets hung from trees and fences or even posts banged into the ground.

One of the biggest draws of the track system for Stuart is gut health as he has been interested in the work of Dr Carol Hughes who runs the ‘Affluent Malnutrition’ Facebook page for a number of years, and Stuart was one of the first people to use Carol’s microbial analysis of the hind gut testing service [provided by Carol’s company EquiBiome].  Said Stuart: “Chiron’s gut health is good – confirmed with the EquiBiome test, and this leads to all other health situations. I’ve not used a chemical wormer for about four years now as his worm egg count has always been low to medium. “I was an early adopter of the EquiBiome test and I accepted the recommendation that Carol gave in terms of using one of her supplement packs until it was gone. Chiron’s overall gut health wasn’t too bad – I think that’s the benefit of horse track living coming out. I had a re-test done in early 2019 and his gut health had improved greatly and the only recommendation was to supplement with Milk Thistle seeds which I do now every other month to keep on top of things. “When it comes to introducing beneficial plants to your horse’s diet, you need to do your own research into what will be good for your individual horse. It all depends on the needs of the horse. For example, laminitic horses will need a different set of choices to a horse with a compromised immune system.”  

Stuart’s top ‘planty things’:

Yarrow: Decreases wound healing times / reduces bleeding – including deep wounds / antiseptic / inhibits bacterial growth / calms a fever / anti-inflammatory / pain relief / lowers blood pressure / aids digestion / mild sedative / helps to heal eye complaints / insect repellent / a gentle wormer / draws out deep infections / brings up mucous in respiratory illnesses / 

Hawthorn: Relaxes the arteriole walls and so lowers blood pressure / can strengthen the heart / balances out blood sugars / helps circulation / has anti-inflammatory properties Willow (many varieties available): Leaves can help digestive disorders / woody parts can help with pain relief and cold/flu like symptoms Cleavers: Lymphatic cleanser and helps to remove fluid form the body / may help kidney health and skin issues / helps to heal gastric ulcers and shrink tumours and cysts

German Chamomile: Aids digestion / anti-microbial / anti-inflammatory / strengthens smooth muscle (gut and heart) / is a relaxant / gentle wormer / helps to fight many infections

Milk Thistle (and controlled growth of other plumed thistles): Helps to balance blood sugars / a liver detox / good for skin conditions / aid to digestive inflammation Dandelion: Removes excess fluid form the body / stimulates detoxification / lowers blood sugar

Ribwort Plantain: helps to reduce urinary and digestive inflammation / treats gastric ulcers / is an astringent so helps to heal cuts and wounds and stings, slightly antiseptic

Nettles: Helps to clear uric acid and so aid arthritis and joint issues / reduces blood sugar / stimulates detoxification / has anti-histamine properties / high in Vit C

Chenopodium (Fat Hen): Can regulate blood sugar

Said Stuart: “The above list of planty things is a good place to start – many can be grown on / broadcast sown from seed which is available in roadside verges, field boundaries etc. However, those from the Willow family are easy to grow on from ‘whips’ (thin branches) taken from a host tree and other things, like those from the mint family (Wild Mint, Spearmint, Peppermint mainly – garden mint is often too strong for many horses), Chamomile, Oregano and Basil may need to be purchased but can then be used as hosts for root cuttings as they develop freely.  “A good place to start is to identify what is growing in the area and then collect seeds or cuttings from those but be ever mindful of the conditions in the Countryside and Wild Flower Act as permission may need to be sought first before collecting. If they’re growing in the area then the chances of propagation in another pasture/track is good. “Normally once plants have established themselves then most are self-sufficient. I will prune Dog Rose/Rosa Rugosa, Hawthorn, Dog Wood once a year to encourage new growth and Willow whips need to be soaked in a bucket of water for a week or so to start the rooting process off as they have their own in-built rooting hormone. Many of the planty things will need to be protected from the horses until well established so they survive the attention they’ll get and also from rabbits, deer etc. if this is a problem in some areas. Mostly though I broadcast sow, plant and leave well alone and let nature do its thing. Many wild flowers and native grasses will take a year to grow and a few plants like Yellow Rattle seeds need to have a deep frost before they will grow – putting them in the freezer normally works well. Some of the more popular wild flowers need a poor soil type to thrive and drainage is important for them as well.”