One of the joys of having a few acres is for the children to have a pony or horse. Riding can open up a whole new world of activities for children, and also the opportunities that come from learning to care for an animal dependent on you for its welfare. We will look at the basic day to day health care of horses here. For advice on buying a suitable horse, riding instruction and equipment, consult a riding school or local Pony Club.
Most ponies in New Zealand live in a paddock, which is the nearest thing to their natural way of life, but of course they are not free to wander at will in search of food and water, as they would in the wild. It is therefore your responsibility to see that the pony’s essential needs are supplied.
The essential needs are: a safe paddock, with good fences and gates, plenty of fresh clean water, and enough room to move around and have some variety in grazing. Loose or barbed wire, rubbish, sharp items and poisonous plants should all be removed before the pony is homed in a paddock. One horse will require around an acre of grazing land, to feed it year round. Droppings should be picked up daily, as horses will not eat over where they have dunged. Another alternative is to graze sheep or cattle over the horse paddock, as they will eat over and around the horse droppings, but not over their own. This requires good fencing and subdivision of the paddock, so that areas of the paddock can be spelled from horses, grazed with cattle, then rested to regrow. Fertiliser will be required at least annually, to ensure good grass growth.
The paddock should have shelter, both from hot sun and flies, and from cold, wind and wet. This may take the form of hedges (avoid thorny types), large trees, solid wooden walls or sheds. Sheds need to be solidly constructed without sharp protruding fastenings, backing on to the cold southerly winds, and at least 2.5m tall.
Horses are herd animals, and need company, preferably of their own kind. If another horse is not a possibility, then consider a sheep, goat, donkey or quiet cattle beast. The food and maintenance requirements of the companion must also be taken into consideration, for example, sheep need shearing, and cattle cannot eat short grass grazed down by horses.
Your horse or pony should be checked daily. This means catching him/her and removing the cover, brushing the coat and picking out the feet, even if you don’t have time to ride. Take a tidbit when you catch the pony, and s/he will look forward to your visits and be easier to catch. A quick glance out of the window to see that your horse is still upright is not enough of a daily check. Only by close inspection will you notice early signs of illness, lameness, cuts, sore eyes etc.
Horses and ponies, especially when grazed on paddocks with other horses, need worming every 6 weeks. Genesis horse wormer is a good brand, but check with your vet for your particular circumstances. If shod, the pony’s shoes will need the attention of a farrier around every 4 to 6 weeks, and if unshod, the feet will need regular trimming to avoid broken and overgrown hooves.
All horses should be vaccinated for tetanus, and if mixing with other horses, for strangles (Streptococcus equi infection) as well.
Feeding of horses and ponies is specialized, and each horse needs to be fed according to its requirements. Learn to judge the body condition of your horse. Small ponies suffer more from overfeeding, with the risk of laminitis (inflammation of the blood vessels of the feet), a serious concern. A small yard with free access to water and a small amount of hay, with only 1-2 hours access to grass daily, may be best here. Larger horses, or those doing a lot of exercise, may need extra feed even in spring and autumn, to keep them in good condition. The golden rules of feeding can be summarised as: always feed plenty of bulk, either hay or grass, as this is essential to keep the digestive system working properly. Avoid any sudden changes of feed, feed good quality food, and feed at the same time daily. Don’t ride your pony immediately after a feed, and don’t feed or water the pony when s/he is very hot and tired. Cool him down first by walking around. Digestive upsets in horses manifest as colic, or stomach ache. When you have a stomach as big as a horse, an ache in it is a serious thing. They get up and down frequently and try to roll a lot. Walk them around to stop the rolling, and call your vet to give some pain relief as soon as possible.
As with most things, do the basics well, and everything will for the most part, go smoothly!
Now onto another type of animal entirely – poultry! Hens, ducks, geese, and turkeys are all good residents for a small block of land. Check the council bylaws for where you live before getting roosters though, as they are not permitted within the town boundary. Some people object to crowing early every morning! The following applies to ducks as well as hens, the only difference being that ducks require more water, and will need more space or more frequent shed cleaning.
All hens will need to have a safe place to roost at night, out of the weather and away from predators. A shed 2m by 2m by 2.5m high will be sufficient for up to 8 chickens. It should be dry and weatherproof, but well ventilated. Tin sheds can become unbearably hot in summer. Water must be available for drinking at all times, and grit should be supplied. Perches are best made of untreated timber, and 3 to 4cm diameter is preferred. Provide plenty of perches, because the ‘boss’ hen will prevent others perching near her. The floor can be of earth or concrete. Concrete will be easier to clean. Untreated wood shavings or sawdust on the floor will absorb droppings, but will need to be dug out and replaced when dirty (4-8 weekly). If the hens are to free-range, they can be shut into such a shed at dusk, and released again after feeding in the morning. Hens that are to be confined, even for half a day until they have laid, will need more space than this. Hens and ducks will eat most things, but if you want good egg production then it is advisable to feed layers pellets or mash as at least half of the diet. Laying hens need about 160gms of pelleted food each, per day.
Female chickens can be expected to begin lying at around 6 months of age if well fed. The best layers are those breeds that have been developed for commercial egg production, currently Red Shavers. These can be bought from commercial egg producers as ‘point of lay pullets’ (young hens about to start laying) or as hens that have laid one season and would be culled by the egg producer, but will produce quite well in a small flock. Obviously the pullets are more expensive than the older hens ($15 versus $5 approximately). When a hen is about to start laying eggs, her comb and wattles (bits on her head) will become bright red and plump. She will lay one egg every 25 hours, usually in the morning. Thus every so often she will miss one day and lay early the next morning. If nice dry nest boxes with clean hay are provided, she will probably lay in them, but may lay on the floor or make her own ‘secret nest’ if the nest boxes are dirty or insufficient. It is best to leave one egg (or a plastic egg shape) in the nest box to encourage her to continue to lay there. Use rat bait in hen proof bait stations round the hen house to prevent rats eating the eggs.
A clucky hen is one, which, having laid a nest of eggs, decides she will stop laying eggs and incubate the ones she has. She will fluff up her feathers, sit determinedly on her nest day and night, and make a characteristic ‘clucking’ noise. This can occur whether or not you have a rooster present. Certain breeds eg bantams, are much more likely to ‘go clucky’ than others. The best plan with a clucky hen is to let her raise a clutch of chickens. You will need to get fertile eggs, if you don’t have a rooster; these can be ordered through poultry breeders. See Growing Today magazine for addresses. This is a good way to get chickens of some of the more unusual breeds. If you don’t want clucky hens, it is best to select a breed that rarely shows this trait. After ‘going clucky’ and raising chickens, the hen will moult. She will start to lay eggs again in about 3 months, or springtime.