by Laura Crum
There are things that I do differently from most other horse people I know. These things work for me. Most of them have dual motivation. I either think that they are better for the horses or I think they are easier for me and won’t hurt the horses. Sometimes both. The thing is that I have been doing these things for a long, long time (like twenty years) and I’m pretty sure they are fine choices, however odd or incorrect others may see them as being. So today I am going to share some of my tricks of the trade—in case they might help someone else have a happier life with horses.
I want to start by saying that I don’t in the least need anyone else to agree with me. If you do things differently (and most people do) that is well and good. Secondly, I find that the labor saving aspect of my program is very important, not just for my benefit, but also for the horses’ benefit. I take care of five horses all by myself in the midst of a life that is very busy with other things. If the horse care was too time intensive, I would not be able to do it. So my five horses continue to have a good life here partly because I have arranged things such that horse care is not an unreasonable burden.
AND—and this is very important—what I do works for me under my particular circumstances. I have light, sandy ground, and my corrals are very sheltered and laid out on a south facing slope. There is never a time when the horses do not have some not-muddy ground to stand and lie down on. We do not get snow here, or extreme temps—either high or low. Some of what I do probably would not work under other circumstances. So, with that caveat, here are my tricks.
1) First of all, I don’t use stalls. Like all my rules, there are exceptions to this. When Henry was recovering from colic surgery, he had to live in a stall. When a horse gets an abscess in the wintertime (which has fortunately been very rare for me), said horse needs a dry stall. I have a shed that can be converted into a stall with some temporary panels and I can keep it clean and dry. But no horse that does not need confinement for medical reasons is ever put in a stall.
I think the confinement of stalls is very bad for a horse’s health, and maintaining a stall in a reasonably clean fashion takes a LOT of time. It is win/win for both me and the horse to eliminate the stalls.
I keep my horses in large corrals (averaging 40 by 150 feet)—one horse to a corral. They have pasture sheds they can go in and out of as they choose. The horses live there 24/7, free to move about as much as they please. The corrals look like this.
2) I don’t turn horses out together in my corrals. A lot of people will argue about this. I have heard more silliness than I can shake a stick at along the lines of the idea that horses need to live in a herd situation. I totally disagree with this. Horses are happiest if they can see and touch other horses, yes. Horses do NOT need to be kicked by other horses. I cannot count to you the number of serious injuries/fatalities that I know about in horses that were turned out with other horses. It’s a very common problem.
In my opinion the absolute WORST is keeping horses confined and separate from other horses during the night and then turning them out together during the day. This is a recipe for injuries, as far as I’m concerned. I only turn horses out together in a group when they are in a big field—several acres, and the horses will be staying together for a long time. As long as there are no super aggressive horses, this can work just fine.
I have to add that I have kept horses in every way you can think of throughout my life. Turned out with other horses in a big pasture, turned out with other horses in large corrals, in stalls with turnout during the day…etc. I am quite familiar with the upside and downside of all these approaches. For me, my current system works best.
3) I don’t pick up the manure in my large corrals. I clean it up with a tractor once or twice a year. Some folks will think this is awful. In twenty years I have not had one problem that could be attributed to this habit. It saves me an immense amount of time and work. I grew up on ranches where this was the way things were done, and I guess I just accept it. Works for me.
4) I don’t pick feet. Lots of people are going to think this is awful. I never pick feet unless I think there is a problem. If I have a horse that appears to have a foot problem, I immediately pick all four feet and look for signs of thrush or a wedged rock or what-have-you. If I see signs of thrush or any other sort of foot problem, the feet are picked a couple of times a day and treated until the problem is gone. But in twenty years of keeping multiple horses here, I have had maybe two cases of thrush, and maybe three abscesses. I always watch carefully when the farrier trims my horses and ask if he sees any signs of a problem. For many, many years now the answer has always been, “No.” I have had virtually no soundness problems related to hoof care. (Oh and all my horses are very mannerly about having their feet handled.)
5) I don’t groom except when I ride. Once again, there are exceptions. I groom my horses when they are shedding. I groom my retired horses just to give them attention. But I feel no obligation to groom a horse for the sake of grooming. And again, I have had no problems due to this cause.
6) I don’t feed grain or supplements. There are exceptions (again). The older horses get equine senior feed when they need it. By the time they are in their thirties they usually need a lot of it. All horses get trace mineral salt blocks. They get plenty of mixed grass alfalfa hay—the amount varies depending on the horse, and I can fine tune this, since I keep the horses in individual corrals. This keeps weight on most of my QHs quite nicely, including the ones that are working hard as team roping horses. They are shiny, healthy and long-lived overall. Again, works for me.
7) I don’t walk in the corrals to feed. This is a funny one. I have worked on a lot of horse ranches. I have had to walk into a pasture full of young, half-broke horses more times than I can count, and distribute buckets of cubes into individual tubs as the horses vied for the chance to eat. I know how to establish boundaries and get the horses to respect my space and all that crap. I also think it’s a dumb battle to fight. I once had a really gentle reliable bay gelding (Burt) who simply could not help himself when it came to food aggression. Not just me, but a couple of very handy cowboys were unable to train this out of Burt. The solution was simply to feed from outside the fence. It taught me something. When I built my own place I made sure that all the horses were fed from feeders I could access from outside the corrals. No more walking through the mud and/or fighting a pointless battle with those horses who have the food aggression issue. (And by the way, I could ALWAYS drive Burt off his feed if I needed to—and there is no horse on my place that I cannot walk into the pen with as I’m feeding, or catch in the middle of a meal.) It just works better in so many ways if you don’t have to walk into the pen to feed. So much more enjoyable and relaxing for both human and horse. And I like to pick my battles. I don’t like to fight over nothing. Or get mud in my boots for no good reason.
8) I feed three times a day. This is one thing I do that’s MORE labor intensive, not less. But I am usually able to arrange my schedule so that I can do this, and I think it’s really good for the horses’ overall health and happiness.
9) I don’t do teeth unless I see a problem. Pretty much everyone is going to disagree with this. But here’s the deal. I have many times in my past had an older horse’s teeth done because the vet said it was needed only to have the horse seem uncomfortable chewing for not just a few weeks but for months afterwards. I began to be very wary about this. One day I asked a vet I really trusted what he thought about doing the teeth on older horses and he said, “If a horse in his teens or twenties seems to be doing well and shows no discomfort, it’s better to leave the teeth alone.” This totally validated my instincts and I have adhered to this principle ever since. When I buy a horse I have the teeth checked and get the vet’s opinion. If he/she says the teeth need work, I usually do it. After that I watch the horse. If all seems well that’s it, as long as the horse is past ten. I have several times noticed a horse seeming uncomfortable chewing and at that point I call the vet—the horse’s teeth inevitably need doing. And when they are done, the horse is better. This approach works well for me.
10) I don’t do vaccinations on older horses unless I see a problem, such as a disease going around in our area for which there is an effective vaccination. I do/did vaccinate younger horses, especially when they are being hauled. All of my older horses have been vaccinated many times in their life—I think (and my vet agrees) that the downside of vaccination reactions/complications outweighs any potential benefit from giving the vaccines. And yes, there are serious potential problems/complications that can result from vaccines. My vet actually told me that he wished more of his clients with older horses would take my approach. If a horse is injured I give a tetanus booster. The one horse on our property who does get hauled to events (Wally’s Twister) gets yearly vaccinations.
11) I firmly believe that too much forced exercise--particularly circles, whether lunged or ridden, and particularly loping in circles—is just as detrimental to a horse’s long term soundness and thus his longevity, as not enough exercise. Confined horses need to be exercised, yes. But those constant circles are very hard on horses, both mentally and physically.
12) All my buildings and fences that the horses interact with are built of metal—as far as the horses can reach. I use pipe panels for fencing and the pasture sheds have metal uprights. This is one of the smartest choices I ever made. It saves an incredible amount of time and money not to be dealing with wooden fences and buildings. Many horses chew wood, and even if you don’t have a wood-chewing horse on your place, wooden fences and buildings deteriorate over the years.
So there you are—a dozen tricks of the trade that make my life with horses better for both me and my horses. These are practices I’ve come to after forty years of horsekeeping. Again, nobody needs to agree with me, but if any of my little ways helps another horse person, well, that’s a good thing.
You may ask how I came to these beliefs/way of doing things. The answer is careful observation, and trial and error over a lot of years. For the first twenty years of my horse keeping life I religiously picked feet every time I got a horse out. And then I started keeping my horses together with my friend Wally. Wally never picked feet unless there was an obvious problem. And what do you know? His horses didn’t get thrush or other foot issues. I was getting older and that hoof picking wasn’t my back’s favorite thing. I decided I’d give Wally’s approach a try. If I had started to have thrush issues or any other foot issues, I would have gone back to the hoof picking. But it turns out I never did. Lesson learned.
Most of my other “rules” came about in a similar way. I once did things the way most horse people that I knew did them. I gave the recommended vaccinations to all my horses, I fed whatever supplements the vets were currently keen on, I loped lots of circles on my horses…etc. It was only after many years of paying attention to what I saw, both in my own horses and in other people’s horses, that I came to these conclusions. So far these practices are working very well for me. I would encourage others not so much to follow my ideas, but rather to think for yourself. Just because people around you do it one way does not mean that this is the best way for you.
Here is an example of what I mean. When I was in my twenties, all the vets recommended straight alfalfa hay as a “perfect diet” and also recommended we supplement with wheat bran to “prevent colic.” And I faithfully did this, as did most of my horse owning friends. Nowadays almost no one thinks straight alfalfa is a good diet, and wheat bran is said to contribute to stones. See why I don’t jump on whatever feed bandwagon is fashionable at the moment?
I want to add that in my lifetime of owning horses I have never lost a horse who was younger than 20. I realize that this is partly luck. But I have had several horses who made it into their thirties, and I think my track record as a horse-keeper is pretty good. So, though you may not agree with my practices, you might want to recognize that they don’t seem to be doing any harm to the horses I care for. But please feel free to argue with me, or provide some tips of your own in the comments. I’m always open to hearing other points of view, and I learn a lot that way.