Alpine Pony Tracks

Restar Mountain Shelley III on track

Shelley on track

For many years after I moved to the high mountains of Colorado, my pony herd included numerous youngsters.  During the winter they would lead the rest of the herd on romps around their paddocks, giving everyone some exercise.  More recently, my herd has aged, and they haven’t been moving as much.  When the ponies are on pasture, they get plenty of movement just by the nature of grazing.  But for the majority of the year they are not on pasture.  Because movement is so important to equine health, I’ve been investigating ways to get them more exercise. Track systems look interesting,  as popularized by Jaime Jackson’s Paddock Paradise and as used by Joe Camp of Soul of a Horse fame.

So far, my particular situation has not shown up in examples of track systems, so I’m still pondering how to proceed.  For instance, I must deal with deep snow in winter.  In addition, I have stallions, and I want the track system to be useful for them as well as for less management-challenging members of the herd.  And then there are the moose to contend with.  Many track systems utilize electric fence on step-in posts.  My experience with moose and electric fence with step-in posts so far is that while moose are certainly able to jump, they prefer to walk through electric fence if it allows them to.  They will respect high tensile wire, but it requires solid corner posts, not step-ins, and in our rocky ground, setting a single post for this sort of fence can sometimes be a multi-hour job.  So I’m still pondering how to proceed.

I have, however, been able to answer one question by implementing a track system of sorts in our alpine environment.  The idea of a track system is to encourage movement by spreading out feeding and moving feeding areas as far from water and minerals and shelter as possible so the equines have to move from one to the other frequently during the day.  Fencing is typically used to restrict travel to the longest possible route between places of interest.  An exterior fence line is often supplemented by an interior one close beside it, creating a ‘track’ similar to a race track, hence the label ‘track system.’  (There are of course many more details involved in creating a true track system.)

In the winter, my ponies don’t use their entire paddocks because of deep snow.  Of course by not using their entire paddocks, they’re not moving as much, which is the problem I’m trying to solve.  I began by spreading their hay out further than usual, until I hit on the idea of actually spreading it along the exterior fence of the paddock.  Yes, it was work for me to walk the first time through the deep snow, but, lo and behold, after the first day, a track was installed!  The ponies packed the snow into a navigable path that they now keep open because I keep spreading their hay along it.

One question I had about track systems was how far apart the fences should be for herds who have constant pushing matches when hay is present.  The fences need to be far enough apart to let ponies pass each other on the track to get to the next pile of hay without getting kicked or pushed into the fence.  In my research, ten to twelve feet was given as a typical track width, but that seemed awfully narrow to me when I thought about ponies getting pushed around.  By spreading the hay through deep snow and watching the pattern of packing of snow, I learned that indeed twelve feet was about the width needed.

When there is less pushing and jostling in a herd, the track stays about three feet wide through the snow with occasional ‘passing lanes’ of the same width.  Only occasionally is there a ‘cut-across’ traversing the paddock from one side to the other through the deep snow.  Instead the ponies go around and around, just as people with conventional tracks observe.  And just as people with conventional tracks have stated, it is incredibly satisfying to see the ponies using the track.  They are more fit and have better attitudes.  They even seem to prefer being fed ‘on track’ rather than the old way, which I admit to reverting to when I am in a hurry or too tired to walk the track myself spreading hay.

We have just passed mid-winter, so I have several more months to ponder how to implement a track system on open ground.  My experience so far suggests that erecting a step-in electric fence inside my largest paddocks might work since the moose have already learned they aren’t welcome there.  I will continue to look for inspiration from other people’s experience, though it may turn out, as so often happens in my life, that my ponies can help me find the right answer again!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book The Partnered PonyPractical considerations like track systems fill an entire section in my book The Partnered Pony, available internationally on Amazon and by clicking here where author royalties are higher.

About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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