Monday, June 1, 2009

Junkyard, ponies?

"We have a horse that we want to sale. Her name Is Shilo not sure of age. She would be rideable with a little bit of Quality time spent with her.(We dont have that time.) Was ride able when we got her."

*sigh* OK, if you're in Florida and want the link to the ad, e-mail me and I'll shoot it to you. Please do not harass the owner - as always, it makes sense to give someone the opportunity to upgrade this little mare without drama.

Let's expand upon this particular incident and talk a little bit about the basics of keeping a horse at home safely and securely. Particularly in this economy, I think a lot of people are waving goodbye to the boarding stable if they think they can stash a horse on their own property, and if you've always boarded, there is a lot you probably haven't had to think about.

I was like that once. When we got our first farm, I did know enough about horses to demand that the seller replace all of the barbed wire with wire mesh before closing. Still, there were hazards there - uncapped t-posts that almost claimed the life of one of my favorite horses, sharp edges where previous horses had chewed through wood, and a large hole that was eroding off down the hillside that was protected only by a few t-posts and a line of hot tape. And the wire mesh was large enough that horses could and did put their feet through it and cut their pasterns. It was the kind of stuff that many people don't recognize is a vet bill waiting to happen, and I was no exception.

So, if you are thinking about bringing your horse(s) home for the first time, how do you know your home is suitable for horses? Here are some things to consider:

1. Pasture. A great deal of the starved horses in the world got that way due to overcrowded pasture, and owners who did not realize they needed supplemental hay. But what constitutes overcrowded pasture? I remember reading one acre per horse in horse books when I was a child, but those books rarely mentioned that wasn't true for all areas. If you're somewhere like Wisconsin or Western Washington, one acre per horse is indeed enough in the summertime - in fact, you may be able to put more than one horse per acre and still have them shiny and fat with no supplemental feed. The grass is rich and there's enough rainfall that it just keeps on growing most summers. But at the Three Strikes Ranch case, thousands of acres wasn't enough to support 300 horses. The soil was sandy, the grass was sparse, and the horses were starving. Likewise, beautiful pasture in summer may be completely devoid of nutrition in the winter, even if it is not snow-covered.

The best idea is to ask your County Agricultural Extension office for advice. Professional farmers will be able to help you figure out just how many horses your land can support. They can also help educate you about toxic weeds that may exist in your area that you will have to eradicate to make your pasture safe for horses. (Don't assume that because the previous owner had horses out there, it is safe. The previous owner's horse might have ignored a weed that yours will chow right down on!) Past that - use common sense. We should all know that when a pasture is grazed down and looks like it has been mowed short, it's time to hay. Another test is the horses themselves - horses who have enough grass to eat will typically scorn hay. If they dive right in (and it's just grass hay, not always-tasty alfalfa), they are probably telling you they're hungry and hay should be a daily addition to their diet. Finally, of course look at condition. Your mare whose tail is buried between rolls of blubber does not need more to eat no matter what she tells you.

Now, what about if you don't have pasture? How much space does a horse need? Well, I always laugh about that because I've lived in Los Angeles, where a quarter acre is a "horse property" and many horses live their entire lives in 10 x 15 pipe corrals with no turnout. I don't think that's fair to a horse, personally. Short term, during the show or polo season, with other months spent on real pasture somewhere, okay. But not a whole life of that. That said, if all you own is a 25 year old retired show hunter who snaps, crackles and pops his way around at a brisk jog trot on good days, a quarter acre pasture in your backyard with a box stall in what used to be your garage may be just fine for him. Obviously, you'll be feeding hay in that situation, but it's true that many horses do not need "room to run" and will be content with a goat companion rather than another horse. A two year old Arabian in that situation? He'd be miserable and probably get himself into trouble on a regular basis. As with many things - use your best judgment.

2. Fencing! Always a big one. It is an absolute fact that there is no type of fencing invented that some horse will not find a way to kill himself on. However, there are fencing materials that lower your risk. The white plastic fences are great - they will break but injuries are rare. Metal panels are awesome and convenient in that they can be easily moved if you want to change where the horses graze on your property. Three rail wood fence is always beautiful and while a horse can be injured on a sharp edge of broken wood or a nail that has come loose, it is still a very safe choice when well maintained. "Horse fence" usually means stout wire mesh where the openings are too small for a hoof to go through, even a foal hoof, and it's usually terrific when topped with a line of wood and/or electric to prevent leaning. Economical options include electric tape, which tends to break before the horse does (although the flimsier tapes are safer - the stouter stuff may entangle a horse and not break). Where hot tape is used, you may want a perimeter fence of something more solid, like wood or wire mesh, to contain any escapees - particularly if you are on a busy road. Remember that if your horse is loose and is hit by a car, you are legally liable for any injuries or damage (at least in the U.S. - not sure about all other countries).

Most horses can be contained by fence that is four feet tall. Many areas have rules that stallions require fence that is six feet tall. If you have unhandled horses like mustangs that you are working with, five or six foot panels are considered the only smart choice.

Also, consider whether you will want an enclosed riding area. If you are used to riding at a boarding stable in the arena, riding in the field may be a huge adjustment for yourself and your horse. You might want to at least add a large round pen to the property as a place to start out if your horse is having a spirited day. And I know many of us have done it (guilty! guilty!) but riding in the field with loose horses really is not a good idea. Sure, they are grazing and ignoring you...until something spooks them and everybody bucks and runs, the one underneath you included. If you only have one large field, create an area where you can pen up the loose ones while you ride, like a smaller panel corral in one corner of the pasture.

3. Shelter. Depending on climate, your horses may not need much. They need some kind of roof over their heads and a windbreak. Horses may not use a shelter you provide, but it should still be there, and large enough that every horse can go into it during inclement weather without fighting. Two small shelters may be better, for this reason, than one large one. Stalls and a barn are not necessary - even in very cold climates, most horses can do well with a three sided shelter and a quality waterproof blanket - but if you do have them, be sure they are safe. Old dairy barns tend to have low ceilings and while they may work for ponies or small horses, your Thoroughbred is likely to crack his skull on them. You want the barn/shelter roof to be at least a few feet higher than your horse's ears when his head is up and he is looking at something. Doorways should be wide and if horses can freely come and go, narrow doorways that permit only one horse at a time tend to lead to injuries. Concrete floors tend to be a recipe for disaster - horses can easily slip and fall - but the good news is that rubber matting can often be acquired cheaply - check out sources for used industrial conveyor belts as well as estate/foreclosure farm sales.

4. General safety. If you are a parent, you have had to learn to "child proof" your house, removing many hazards that would never have struck you as having potential for danger before you had a baby. It is the same with horses. You need to walk your entire property before you put horses out on it. Look for ways to get hurt! Holes can be filled in with gravel. Old pieces of wire, beer bottles, cans, and trash should be picked up. Sharp edges on sheds, barns and fences need to be removed, hammered flat or filed off. Cap your t-posts if you have them - t-post caps are SO cheap, far cheaper than a vet bill. Super glue them if you have a mare like mine who removes them for fun! Old moldy grain or hay left by a previous tenant or owner must be removed - you can always burn it if they just left you a big nasty pile of it, but don't ignore it - odds are one of your horses will try to eat it. Literally anything left in a pasture or turnout area is something a horse can and will get hurt on - whether it's a farm implement, a junked car, a coil of wire, an old car battery, pieces of brick - pick it up and get it out of there.

We've had a blog previously about fire prevention - read it and take it seriously (including the comments - there were many good pieces of information added!). There are few worse fates for a horse than fire, and it is something no owner ever truly gets over. DO NOT let anybody smoke in your barn. I don't care if they're your husband, mother, or the President. This is a topic where you need to channel your inner bitch. Make it very clear to your family that cigarettes stay far, far, far away from the horses and the feed.

5. To separate or not to separate? Let's say you have four horses. Two are in the middle of the road, one is the alpha bitch, and one is the wimp. You have five acres of pasture. Do you separate them into two groups or not?

First question, does the alpha just maintain her "bubble" or does she chase? The horse who chases his or her victim should be separated from any wimpy horses, or someone will go through a fence resulting in a lot of expensive drama if not a dead horse. Second question, are the horses similar in weight or does the wimp need to eat separately or differently from the others? One solution for a group that is out together where some get grain/supplements and others do not is feed bags. They work great and ensure that the wimpy horse gets all of his grain. Third question, how is your pasture put together? Five open acres usually allow four horses to avoid each other as needed, but if the pasture is heavily wooded or oddly shaped with places that a horse can get cornered, this may not be the case. In general, it is usually best to err on the side of caution when you have this situation - particularly if you work all day and are not home to intervene if trouble starts.
Last question - age. Your thirty year old probably needs to be with someone kind or another thirty year old. If you were ninety, would you want to spend your day running from a teenage delinquent hell-bent on kicking you in the ribs? Use common sense and your horses will be fine.

Those are some starting points. You also want to look at how much work it will take to maintain your horse(s) at home and whether or not you have the time to do it. Think about issues like manure removal, keeping a fresh clean water source in all kinds of weather (draining out hoses in your mud room is SUCH fun, particularly at 6 AM before you go to work!), and who can "horse sit" if you go on vacation or have a health emergency.

There are few things cooler than being able to walk out at midnight in the summertime and hug your horse (I did that so much the first year I had them at home!), but not every property is right for horses.

Now, someone please go upgrade that poor paint mare!

As promised, an extra Featured Rescue horse today! Let me show you one at TB Friends in northern California. I love Joe, he cracks me up - "There was a stallion with bad legs, and Willie Nelson should do a ballad. All the foals with the same ugly legs. " No shit, AMAZING how that happens, isn't it? Thank you Joe for breaking the cycle of bad legs and making him a gelding!

Anyway, I suspect this one is going to FLY out Joe's door because it's what about 90% of you want but I'll show him anyway 'cause I think he's lovely. This is Go Go Dancer. He's four years old, 16.1, off the track, loves people and appears to be sound. So if you want him, contact Joe at