by Laura Crum
My post about “Things I Do Wrong” sparked some interesting comments. I was particularly interested in the comments about pasture and keeping horses on pasture (from jenj, I think). Because this has been one of my huge dilemmas. So today I thought I’d write about my “problem” and ask your opinions.
I own a two and a half acre property here in pleasant Santa Cruz County, California, where we are fortunate enough to have a mild Mediterranean climate. I love where I live. Unfortunately, a lot of other people love it here, too, and thus land is VERY expensive. I could barely afford two and a half acres of raw land. Over a twenty year period, I developed it into a nice little horse property. I am allowed to keep five horses here—and I have five horses on the property (no surprise there, I guess). Each horse has a big corral where he can run and buck and play (corrals average maybe thirty feet by one hundred and fifty feet). There are walk in sheds and plenty of trees. The corrals are on a slight slope and drain well, and the fences are pipe panels. Here is a photo taken from the far end of the corrals, showing the pasture shed in the distance, to give you an idea.
And another photo taken from the top, looking down.
My corrals are not fancy, as you can see, but they are big and safe and relatively spacious. But they are not pastures. They aren’t big enough to grow grass if I keep the horses in them. And even when I leave a corral empty for the winter (grass season around here), there is not much grass because the oak trees make too much shade.
Like most people, I thought/think the ideal situation for a horse is to be turned out on pasture, where he can graze at his own whim and run around as he pleases. And though I was/am able to provide run around space, my horses have no grazing in their corrals.
I couldn’t afford pasture land on the (very expensive) California coast, so, twenty years ago I bought a sixty acre pasture in the foothills—three hours away from my home. It’s a lovely pasture—see the photo below showing three of my retired horses turned out there.
When I bought the pasture it was fenced with barbed wire—as are most pastures here in the western United States. I gradually replaced the barbed wire with smooth wire—at no small expense. And for many years I turned my horses out here every winter (grass season here is from November to May in an average year). This worked pretty well—for fifteen years of turnout, we had only one serious problem—when a mare belonging to my friend Wally cut her hock badly, presumably on the smooth wire. My other friend who keeps an eye on the horses caught this within a day, and we hauled the mare home and doctored her and she is a sound horse today. So, so far so good.
But there is a big downside to having my horses three hours from my home. For one thing “I” couldn’t keep an eye on them. And so I worried endlessly. My friend who looked after them is a great livestock person, and, as I said, we had only one real problem in fifteen years, but he lived maybe five miles from the pasture and could only check on them every other day or so. The horses had free choice pasture, sixty acres to run around on, and a stream in case the water trough failed. The fences were good and tight and reasonably safe. But I still worried.
And then… the property next door was bought by someone who wanted to “raise” horses and knew nothing about horses. Almost instantly, it seemed, there was a motley herd of skinny mares, babies, and stallions running around in the field next door, breeding indiscriminately and fighting over the fences with my geldings. Even smooth wire is not safe for that. I removed all my horses and started to run cattle in our pasture, in order to raise my own grass fed beef. And my worry quotient went way down.
But I had more horses that I could keep here at home year round. I ended up getting permission to turn my retired horses out in a pasture maybe ten minutes from my home. The fences were old and partly barbed wire, but the pasture was big and grew year round feed. For awhile it worked well. Despite the bad fences, we only had one serious injury in the ten years I kept horses there—and this was not to my horse, but to the pasture owner’s horse. OK, I was lucky.
But my retired horse herd got older, and it grew harder and harder to take proper care of them in the pasture. They needed supplemental feed and blankets when it stormed, and again, it made me anxious that I couldn’t keep more of an eye on them. Getting out there once a day was all that was practical, with a young son to raise and a job to do and plenty of critters at home to care for.
And my old horse, Gunner, just didn’t look happy. I had to keep him in a smaller field by himself in order to supplement him adequately, and though he could see the other horses, he couldn’t touch them. And his sight and hearing were failing, as he reached thirty. I thought that he was feeling too confused and alone. Some of the other horses were starting to fail dramatically as they aged, and we eventually made the decision to euthanise a couple of them and bring Gunner home.
Today I have my two retired riding horses (Gunner and Plumber) here at home in my corrals, where they get fed three times a day and look really good. They seem happy. Gunner seems much more content than he did in his last few years in the pasture. Plumber seems to be doing fine. And I do turn all the horses out to graze from time to time, though Gunner must be grazed on the leadrope because of his sight and hearing issues.
Gunner being grazed by my son.
Here I am getting ready to turn Plumber loose to graze.
My current riding horse, Sunny, turned out to graze on the property.
Henry mowing the grass outside the veggie garden.
But still it bugs me that my retired horses aren’t turned out in a pasture. That was always my idealized version of retirement (and still is, in some ways). I’ve just learned by experience that unless you live where the pasture is, and have good pasture sheds, that being turned out in a pasture isn’t always as pleasant for the horse as you might like to think—and it can cause the owner a great deal of worry.
My retired horses do seem happy at home with me, and I have made up my mind that I’m not keeping them away from me again. They look better now than they ever did, so something must be right. They seem to enjoy the constant activity and the steady interaction they get here. But I still agonize a bit over the lack of pasture. Of course, I’m a worrier by nature, so maybe, as a friend once told me, I just need something to worry about.
Has anybody else been through these sorts of choices? Any insights on what has worked best for you? Do others of you worry the way I do over whether you are giving your horses, especially your old horses, the best life you can give them? They’ve done so much for me and I really want to do right by them. When I had them out in the pasture, I worried about them more, and they didn’t overall look happier to me than they do now. But still…Any thoughts?
Also, I am taking my horses to the mountains next week for a riding vacation, so no Weds post from me. Wish me luck. I’ll post photos when I get back. Cheers--Laura