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Horses In My Back Yard
Jody Hudson, with Extensive Collaboration From Chris Hudson
HORSE LOVERS: During my thirty years of selling rural land, I have frequently found that folks want some acreage so that they can own and ride horses. They LOVE horses in their own mind but have little if any of the real knowledge or experience necessary to raise one or more horses. Far too often, they have knowledge based on little more than an idyllic dream and that dream based for the most part on romantic novels and movies. This article will give you some basic information which may save you and a horse some bad or even terrible experiences.
HOW MANY ACRES?: If you do want horses; a good rule of thumb in good pasture areas is 3 to 5 acres of pasture per horse, and ideally another acre or two of paddock per horse. The wise Equestrian will thus plan about 6 to 10 acres per horse they want to keep in the purchase of land. The paddocks are smaller fenced pasture areas close to the barn used for training, saddling up your horse or getting a new horse acclimated to his new home.
The risk of injury to animals increases where horses are overcrowded, and competition for food, water and space may lead to fighting. You must provide an adequate number of paddocks or yards to permit incompatible animals to be segregated. The number of horses and their grouping in each paddock or yard must be appropriate for their compatibility and for the ground conditions, taking into account the climatic conditions pertaining at the time.
You also need room for the house, barn, hay storage, tack building and a loafing shed for them to get under when the weather is not quite acceptable to them. In any yard or shelter, each horse must have adequate room to lie down, stand up and turn around. There should be a clean, dry area for the horse to lie down, the surface of which protects the horse from abrasions and capped elbows and hocks. Paddocks which expose horses to items of machinery, equipment or rubbish (especially wire) likely to cause serious injury must not be used.
FENCING: There are numerous types of fencing that are designed for horses. Board fences are deadly dangerous if not constantly maintained. The horses can break a board and end up impaled on it. Wire, especially barbed wire can entangle your horse's leg or neck and seriously injure him or worse. There are several kinds of fences made for horse pasture. Barbed wire and narrow gauge (2.5 mm) high-tensile steel wire, because of their cutting, non-stretching and nonbreaking properties, can cause severe injury to horses. They should be avoided when constructing fences for horses, as should internal fence-stays or posts, which are a common cause of injury.
Fences should be readily visible to horses and properly maintained. The ideal fence for premises designed mainly for horses is the synthetic, strong, flexible, post-and-rail type, with rails treated or painted with nontoxic preparations. A popular alternative, which also provides a good visual barrier, is a single top rail attached to a conventional post-and-wire fence. I like the Australian Sheep Wire fence as it has a grid that is very small at the bottom and larger at the top. The small grid size at the bottom prevents the horse from stepping through the fence and getting tangled. I also like a charged electric wire just above the highly visible top rail to "convince" the horse to not lean over that top rail to get grass on the other side. Such leaning by such a strong and heavy animal is a major cause of fence breakage. There must be no sharp objects projecting inwards.
Your large animal Veterinarian or Horse feed and tack store can help you find the right fencing and an installer that knows what he's doing. Ideally your pasture will have fence corners rounded on a large radius to prevent your horse from injury if he is cornered by another horse or is just running with exuberance and misjudges the distance to the corner. I have occasionally seen a horse on a tether chain or rope, as some people do a dog. Tethering is a practice which has a high risk of injury to horses. It is not recommended and should be used only when other forms of grazing or containment are unavailable and when close supervision of the horse can be maintained. Only placid horses and those adequately trained to accept the practice should be tethered.
FORGET WHAT YOU LEARNED FROM NOVELS OR HOLLYWOOD: Contrary to all the horse stories and films, your horse will not respond to you the same way a dog or cat will. He will respond and perform best when his owner is consistent and has a routine. Forget all those stories about Flicka and Black Beauty; it only happens in the movies.
Horses do have personality but you must remember that they are very big and strong and you cannot make them do anything unless you have convinced them and then they choose to do it. Proper ground manners are a must and the rider must know how to ride. Take some lessons if you are a first time owner. Horses do not like you to hang onto the reins for balance. Learn how to balance yourself in the saddle and to gently guide the horse with the reins. There is no faster way to make a horse "sour" than to pull on his mouth roughly. Learn the horse language; the way to communicate to your horse is through the balance of your body, your seated position, the position of your feet and legs and lastly the position of your hands.
STABLING: He does not enjoy being locked in a stall every night. He would much prefer the open fields and the starry nights! A three sided shed (preferably with the open side to the southwest) will due just fine. Horses do need protection from the sun and rain. Horse blankets/rugs make us feel better; nature however, has equipped him just dandy with a real fur coat. Those horses that are unlucky enough to be put in a stall every night could probably use a rug unless the barn is REALLY COZY. But, when it is 30 degrees or lower and it is blowing and wet, he does appreciate a stall to eat his grain and hay. And it will save you a lot of cleanup in your paddocks.
PASTURE: Plant a pasture with a mixture of proper grass seeds. Check with the local Agricultural Substation or horse feed supply store for the seed mix. Build several paddocks to keep your horses in for short times, so that you can rotate the pastures and periodically give each one a rest to replenish the height of it's grasses.
Horses are poor utilizers of pasture, compared to cattle or sheep. Most horse pastures contain a large proportion of weeds and "roughs" where horses are the only grazers. Horses will not eat pasture that is contaminated with horse dung. This usually causes the contaminated area to become larger and the grazing area smaller. The pasture growing round the dung patches is usually lush and looks to be the best feed, while the patches in between will look overgrazed.
Where possible, horses should be grazed in conjunction with cattle or sheep. In addition to helping calm the horses; the other species will clean up the "roughs" while also reducing the worm contamination on pasture. Although harrowing can also be useful to spread the dung around, in moist conditions and when the grass is long it may spread worm eggs, making a larger area of the paddock infected. Where no cattle or other grazers are available, it is essential to remove the manure or spread it around regularly during dry periods, when the sun and ultraviolet rays will tend to destroy eggs and larvae.
Your horses will leave some big manure piles around the pasture and especially in the corners. Spread the horse manure out on the pasture with a drag harrow and rake out the pasture corners to break it up in smaller pieces; it helps to keep the fly larvae in the manure from hatching out and bothering your horses.
You will need a manure spreader to spread the manure you shovel out of your loafing sheds and stalls. Your horses will eat a lot of the grass in your pasture -- but you will still have to mow the pastures periodically and you will need to use a weed-eater under and along all the fences. You will need to keep a check out for any plants of the nightshade family as they are poisonous to your steeds.
Grazing animals deplete soil nutrients progressively, which in turn leads to poor pasture quality and growth rate. This should be regularly monitored by soil and pasture analysis. Pasture should be top dressed with fertilizers to replace identified nutrient deficiencies. Check with your State Agricultural Agent (each state has an Agricultural College and Agents attached) to learn to identify soil nutrient needs and to show you how to destroy noxious plants properly. Make certain that there is always plenty of clean fresh water in the pasture and that the water trough is kept dutifully clean!
VACCINATIONS: Your horses require annual booster shots for Rabies, Tetanus, Flu Rhino and Encephalitis, and Potomac Horse Fever. Check with your local Large Animal Veterinarian and maintain a proper schedule of immunizations and regular checkups. Horses also require quarterly worming to keep the intestinal parasites below the danger level.
FARRIER SERVICES: Horses in the wild got along just fine without a Farrier. They ran and romped over vast expanses, were chased by predators and often ran long distances as a herd. But now that they are kept and ridden mostly on soft sandy soil or grasslands -- the hooves need trimming every six to eight weeks. AND, yes some horses do need horseshoes of steel, rubber or some other material. You will be able to tell if your horse need shoeing; if he does he will walk very "tender-footed" and may have cracks and breakage in his hooves. The way he walks, stands and carries himself in general will tip you off to his Farrier needs.
INTENTION: Your intention is of great importance! Horses can feel a fly on their back and they can feel your intent; when you really mean business. They learn in a hurry who they have to respect and who they can play around with -- DON'T be fooled! Set yourself up to win his respect and keep it. Don't ask him to do anything that you suspect will be an argument unless you have the time to make certain that he does it. Be firm. Being firm does not mean beating your horse; it does mean that sometimes you might have to put a chain a little too snugly across his nose to lead him if he walks too fast and gets ahead of you at lead.
TRUST: It is so important that your horse trust you. Please don't abuse him by hitting or kicking him. Trust is necessary for him when you want him to cross a ditch or a fence or take him to water or take him to ride with other horses. Trust is built by day to day consistent care and treatment of your horse; and by not putting him into situations that hurt him or scare him badly.
EQUINE DENTIST: Horses need dentists too! At least once a year, some horses require to have the equine dentist "float" his teeth. This removes sharp edges so that he can chew his food properly and be comfortable with the bit.
GROOMING: Horses love to be brushed and bathed. Spend lots of quality time with your horse when you first get him and each time before and after you ride him with gentle loving hands and lots of brush grooming. Pick the stones and dirt from his feet before and after a ride to keep him from getting bruised feet. Check him for ticks after any ride in the woods or tall grass -- especially in warm weather. Keep all your tack clean and the leather saddle-soaped and lightly oiled. Wash your saddle blanket after each use and rinse his bit well too. He doesn't like a hard, dirty blanket on his back or a crusty bit in his mouth. Keep your brushes clean too, rinse, wash and pull the hair out of them periodically.
NUTRITION: Nutrition is a powerful factor in the life of a horse, just as it is our own. Often a problem horse can just be suffering from some nutritional deficiency. Often a horse that is "cribbing" that is chewing on his stall or on the fence has a nutritional deficiency. This should be handled quickly as the swallowed wood splinters have obvious danger to your horse. Horses need vitamins, roughage of course, minerals, protein, oils, carbohydrates, enzymes and trace elements in their diets to be at their best in health, behavior and attitude... and sometimes even if they are getting the correct food they may not be digesting it to get the proper use of the nutrients... just like us.
Horse Hair Analysis is a very useful tool to find the realistic needs of your horse. The hair is a long term record of the horse's nutritional health and the analysis will tell the most accurate story as to what your particular horse needs... or what he is getting too much of -- especially if he is ingesting some sort of toxic substance.
TRAILERS and TRAILERING: For most people learning to trailer your horse is mandatory. If you are fortunate to purchase a place far out in the rural un-populated areas, especially if you purchase property on a long dirt road or network of such roads -- you may be able to do a lot of riding without trailering. You will still likely want to have a trailer eventually, so that you can take your horse to a trainer, pick up another horse, or take your horse to join a friend for a ride.
There are several types of trailers; they are of many sizes from small to huge. Some of them even have owners quarters or a groomsman's room adjacent to the horse section. There are the horse carrying motor home style vehicles too. For highway speeds and to go any distance, it is best to use a large towing pickup truck specialized for such use. The best are the dual tired big pickup trucks called Duelies. You then get a big sturdy support hitch mounted in the pickup bed and the trailer has a long hitch stalk that projects into the truck bed. This type, called a goose neck trailer with a 5th wheel hitch, will give you excellent stability and a shortened turn radius. It is also virtually impossible to have a trailer disconnect from the truck -- which is a worry with pull-behind trailers.
Before you take your horse for a first trailer ride; you should ride in the back of the trailer, while someone else drives the truck, so that you can experience the cornering and braking calamities that the horse will experience. Some folks put leg wraps on their horses when trailering to help protect the horse more from accidental braking, cornering, or bumping. After you have ridden in the moving trailer yourself, take a few practice runs with you and the horse -- so you can see what the horse is experiencing as a driver drives, turns and brakes. And it would be a good idea to next have someone else ride with your horse while you drive. One of my friends had a good technique; she put a long stem wine glass on the dash of her truck and filled it with water. She then learned to drive without spilling the water or turning over the glass. Personally I think it is a great technique to practice.
You also need to keep the trailer clean, especially keeping it free of hay dust and dirt. Remember when the trailer is underway and if the vent windows are open, whatever hay and dirt there is inside will start whirling around in the trailer. Keep everything well tied down inside too; falling, and swinging articles in the trailer can spook your horse and cause him to jump and hurt himself.
Service the trailer at least once a year. Check the brakes, tires, tire pressure and all hitch welds and bolts carefully. Make certain that the floor is solid. Practice driving, backing and turning. Practice using the mirrors. Mirror use is difficult to learn and of utmost importance. With proper mirror use however, you can easily back your trailer into a space only a few inches larger than it is.
WHO IS THE BOSS?: If you don't watch out -- your horse will TRAIN YOU, for instance... I knew this lady who trailered her horse to various lessons and rides... but he knew he did not have to get into the trailer until the third attempt each time. First she would lead him to the trailer, he would stop and she would pet and coo to him. The second time she would coax him a little more with carrots and baby talk. When that, of course, didn't work either (he liked that sweet talk and especially the carrots) she would try the third method. By now she was a little tired and frustrated with him, she wanted to go home or get on with the lessons; so she spoke firmly, put the chain across his nose, tightened it a bit, and... he'd get right on. But he always knew that he didn't have to get on until the third technique -- besides he would miss his carrots and sweet talk if he got on the first time!
Here's another one. Some horses raise their head and clamp their teeth and will not accept the bit. I have seen people strike the horse about the face or swing the bridle and hit him -- this only teaches him that the bridle is a mean, scary piece of equipment and that he'd better raise his head up out of your reach for his own protection. The solution to bit shyness takes a while; it will take a little patience, some sweet talk and some sweet syrup on your fingers. Play around with his mouth with your fingers and let him wear the bit awhile when he is in his stall to eat and drink. Put it on him sometimes while you are grooming him too. Make sure that the bit is adjusted correctly for tightness in his mouth and that it is the right size and style. And especially be certain that when you ride him that you are not always holding tension on the reins, using them when you should be only giving body language directions, sawing them back and forth from left to right or in any way being rough on his mouth.
MOUNTING YOUR HORSE: Training your horse to stand still as a statue while you mount is a MUST! If your horse likes to walk about while you try to mount up -- have someone hold him while you get up and properly placed in the saddle. Once you are mounted -- sit well in the saddle with an erect posture, take a deep and cleansing breath and sink into your saddle with poise and assurance before you start off with him. Take time frequently with just you and him; when no one is around, mount him inside the pasture or paddock fence and just stand there in the saddle with him for several minutes. Then after quite some time, ask him to walk. Of course you will need to spend the time needed to train him to stand quiet and still while you are on him. And you must each learn the particulars of how to open the pasture gate while you are in the saddle.
RETURNING FROM A RIDE: There is always the temptation on your horses part, to run back to the barn at the end of a ride. He will be tempted to trot instead of walk; canter instead of trot; or run instead of canter. Be careful or you will be allowing him to learn or to think you are teaching him to run home. If you persist in this permissiveness you may eventually have a runaway horse each time his head turns toward home.
When you do return home; come down to a walk well away from the barn and let him cool down well as you near the barn. If you are cantering in and he wants to go faster, break down the gait to a trot and if needed down to a walk even if a long way from the barn. If he won't walk calmly but wants to jig and go sideways or tries breaking into a faster gait -- you need to spend some time in the paddocks and school him to walk and trot when you tell him too. If you still have trouble; get help from an outside equestrian or a trainer.
BUYING YOUR HORSE: When buying a horse be aware that what you see during the purchasing meeting with the horse -- is what you will have when you take him home. He is most likely on his best behavior at the barns and paddocks where he lives, so when you remove him to take him to your place you are likely to get worse behavior not better. Unless you are a very experience rider with some good horse sense, you should purchase an older, settled horse for a first mount and then as you improve get a younger more spirited one.
Look at the teeth to detect age and condition of the horse. Horse newspapers have lots of ads and some advice. There are auctions for horses too; once you find out about them you can get on the mailing list and visit a few before you buy. Classified ads are a very good sources of horses for sale.
When you go to look at a horse to purchase; take along an honest and reputable person to help you with that purchase. A good saddle horse should cost you from $2,500 to $5,000. A trained horse can cost much more but may well be worth the cost. Specialty horses of course -- Arabians and Thoroughbreds for instance can cost more than a nice home or in some cases more than a nice shopping center. You don't always get what you pay for... but you can count on paying for what you get.
Watch for conformation (shape and bodily proportion) in the horse; which can be learned from books and then there is Attitude -- this is the same as for humans. If the horse has a bad attitude it's hardly worth owning at any cost. The horse should be checked perhaps even x-rayed by a Veterinarian. This is called Vetting a horse; done in a pre-purchase exam. This usually costs about $300 to $500. A lot of lameness can't be seen with the eye and will only show up with strenuous training, or during work or competition -- just when you can't afford it. ===
Happy Trails and best wishes to a lot of good horsin' around for all you readers who want horses. Horses can bring out the best and the worst of a person and give you endless hours of pleasure, exercise and frustration. But most horse owners and lovers wouldn't have it any other way.