Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rethinking Horse Housing

My hubby has already started looking at barn builders’ web sites, but I’m not so sure I even want a barn to house our herd.  I want a place to hold hay, a place for our tractor, but a barn with stalls for the horses?  Maybe not.

When we started in Bentley Creek, there were no pastures, and the back of the barn that would be transformed into our modest stable was just an empty space.  Well, it wasn’t exactly empty, since it was filled with lots of junk related to a previous owner’s car body shop business.  Over the years, we built two run-ins at either end and three lovely stalls with window bars and sliding doors.  The horses each had her own small paddock, and they could go in and out as they pleased. Mostly, they chose “out.”

Having a space where the horses can go in or out as they please is a priority.  I don’t believe that confining horses to small, indoor spaces (i.e., stalls) for long periods is healthy for them, physically or mentally. 

However, this horse-housing arrangement carries a heavy work load.  Admittedly, it’s nothing that most horse owners don’t experience.  Each horse has her own water bucket, and this requires a lot of water carrying (not to mention the hours I spent installing all the individual, ground-fault protected receptacle outlets, so those buckets could be heated).  Each day, we shove the wheelbarrow in and out of the stalls, cleaning manure, then roll it laboriously to the manure pile (which, fortunately, gets removed gradually by gardeners over the summer).  When the ground is soft or snowy, this is very rough on the back.

The biggest benefit to the current arrangement is that each horse gets her own food, unmolested by the others, and they can’t hurt each other.   These are significant advantages.

However, at the other side is the labor.  I’m starting to rethink horse keeping in this manner.  I would rather have chores be as easy and fast as possible, so the time I spend with the horses is quality grooming, riding and training time, not wheelbarrow time.   In addition, I want to spare my and my husband’s  bodies from the constant, heavy work so we last longer.  Plus, I would like to know they have food and water, even if my husband and I are delayed at work.  I’m often haunted by the image of them standing there, waiting for their food, their stomachs rumbling, if I can’t get out of work at the usual time and it’s too late to call the horse sitter.

Our new home does not have a barn.  It has a one-sided, roofed structure, large enough to protect our equipment and also provide shelter to the horses.  It is large enough to drive the tractor and manure spreader through.  It has plenty of outlets for heating large water troughs.

I don’t like the fact that it is not closed enough to keep snow out, so the ground in the shelter gets muddy, and I’m going to work on improving that.  However, I do like the fact that we can clean manure without a wheelbarrow, but shoveling it directly into the manure spreader, or by using the front loader or some other tractor implement to collect it and move it (we are still learning about tractor implements).

I love the fact that there are frost-free spigots all over the place, from which I can easily fill a big, communal trough.

So, I’m going to try it this way: The horses will be housed together.  They will have free access to the shelter and to the pasture.   This weekend, I’m going to close off a sacrifice area in the pasture, so they don’t trash all ten acres during this mucky time of year.  It will be a large area though, larger than they currently have in their individual paddocks.  Free choice round bales will feed them until the grass comes in, plus they’ll get the supplements I feed to balance the hay.

My concerns: Hudson the Queen will bully the others, preventing them from getting their share of hay and shelter.  Hudson is a 15-hand, half-draft, half-paint who goes about 1300 pounds and rules the herd.  She is a mare that might be best housed alone.  We’ll see.  She’s not dangerous in her leadership, but she is an absolute dictator.  If necessary, I’ll pull Hudson out from the others and make an alternative for her.

Here's Hudson, scattering Starlight and Dee like bowling pins.

My other concern is the reappearance of all the little dings and scrapes that the horses inevitably get when they are housed together.   These usually occur when they are all bunched up in a shelter and one of them says, “Run!” and they all try to escape at the same time.  Someone always ends up with a scrape on her hip or leg that requires a little cleaning and medicating, and it takes forever for the hair to grow back.  It’s not serious, but it’s a wound, plus, it’s ugly and I would rather they not get banged up frequently.

But I think the benefits of this arrangement will outweigh these concerns.  I’m going to start this way, at any rate, and we’ll see how it goes.

Oh, and those barns my hubby keeps perusing on line?  I’m going to gently try to redirect his attention to arena contractors.

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