Wednesday, July 18, 2012


                                                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


Anonymous said...

We are lucky to have 40 acres, but the "real pasture" is at the far end of this long skinny 40 from the house and barn, and to see it I have to drive around the corner and up a ways and use the neighbor's driveway, which I hate to do even though they say it is no problem. The pasture is kind of rough, brushy in spots, has low areas, ditches, a pond, etc. as well as a resident black bear and I have found my oldest horses just can't handle it and prefer being in the paddocks by the barn. Just this year one hards-ass mare, age 21, decided she would join the old ladies in the paddocks. I kind of let them tell me when they are ready.

Laura Crum said...

Anon--That is pretty much what I have done, too. Tried to listen to what my horses want. Gunner seemed morose and somewhat discontented in the pasture, and looks quite calm and cheerful in his corral. Pretty much what you're describing. Thanks for the comment. Its good to know that others make a similar choice.

Val said...

I think your story makes a lot of sense. Horses like social interaction and activities as much as they like open space and grass. If your retired horses look happy and you are happy looking after them, then there is no question; it is the right thing for them.

I have watched a couple therapeutic horses at the edge of retirement. As long as the horse was sound, it was always difficult to determine when they wanted to retire, because they still seemed to enjoy their (mostly walking) lessons. The ones that retired to a home where someone played with them and fawned over them seemed to do very well. Two of my favorites continued working into their twenties and quietly passed away, never having lost their luster or gathered dust. I truly believe they died happy horses despite the lack of big, green pastures.

Laura Crum said...

Val--That's a good insight, and raises yet another question I struggle with. When to retire from riding? Both Gunner and Plumber were retired from riding when their arthritic issues made it uncomfortable for them to do the work I had for them. Both were sound enough for light riding on level ground, but I am mostly trail riding right now and all our trails are hilly. Neither horse is suitable for a beginner, and I only have time to get one horse ridden. So Gunner and Plumber are not ridden. Plumber, especially, at only 23, might enjoy it, I'm not sure. He seems happy enough just being turned out. Its another part of my dilemma.

dunslidin said...

There is a great article in Horse & Rider by Sue Copeland Called "The Three Letter Word" just about this same problem. There is the correct or right way "but" can come into play to make the right thing not work for you. There isn't always a right way, it's really more important that you do what is right for your horse and your situation or at least as right as you can. None of us have a perfect life and our pets probably won't either but that doesn't mean that they don't have a good life.

Susan said...

I think you need to stop agonizing. A large pasture may be best, but you're doing a great job with what you have. Your horses always look happy and healthy and they know they're loved. What more can you do?

Anonymous said...

Pasture is nice if you can get it - in a way that makes you comfortable and keeps your horses safe - but it's not essential. Horses need to socialize, and have room to move and play, and need to be in a situation where they can nibble something - hay if they're not on pasture - on a frequent basis - this is a good substitute for grazing. If I had seniors living with me, I'd want them close by where I could keep an eye on them and be sure they were OK. Your arrangements sound pretty close to ideal to me.

Funder said...

Your horses look perfectly happy to me!

Grass can be too high in sugar and cause IR problems, so I'm not that excited about letting my horse graze free choice. I just want her to be able to move around and at least see other horses.

Laura Crum said...

dunslidin--I agree. Though I may worry a bit (and I thought it a good topic for a post)--I know my horses have a good life. Maybe not a PERFECT life--but then, who does?

Susan--You're right, of course. As my friend says, maybe I just like to worry.

Kate--Those are exactly the conclusions I came to myself; its good to hear them validated by a thoughtful horseman like yourself.

Funder--I am going to display my ignorance here. As I said in the "Things I Do Wrong" post, a lot of my horsekeeping is pretty old-fashioned. Unlike you, and many others, I have not read up on the latest thinking. I know enough to know that by IR you mean insulin-resistant, and I have a fair idea what that means. Translated into my own simple, old-fashioned approach, it means a tendency to founder. So here's the interesting thing. I have kept horses on free choice pasture for years, including times when they got very fat. I have never once had one founder--at least a hundred horses over the years. We kept an eye out for crestiness over the neck or any signs of sore feet--if we saw that, we took the horse out of the pasture. But I can't remember ever seeing these signs in my own horses.

The funny thing is that two Morgan horses were turned in to the same field where I kept my old horses for ten years. These Morgans foundered every spring--on the same pasture. My QHs NEVER did--despite getting fat. I keep wondering if its breed related.

All my QHs were of working breeding--foundation, cowhorse, and running. No halter horse breeding. All of them (hundreds of horses over the years) did fine on alfalfa. None of them foundered turned out on grass. They were used for ranching, trail riding, cutting, roping...etc (not endurance--I've heard you say alfalfa doesn't work that well for endurance). Its interesting to me. Many others report the IR problem on grass or not doing well on alfalfa. I've never seen this in my own herd.

A Morgan owner once told me that she saw a lot of founder but no navicular and ringbone to speak of (the lamenesses that often trouble QHs). An Arab person said they had bowed tendons but no navicular. Anyway, I keep wondering if these issues are linked to breeds. Any thoughts on that?

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

Agree with Funder.

I'd rather have not enough grass than too much. (Which is good because I don't have any)

The IR issues connect with another topic you mentioned in your things you do wrong post. Keeping a horse barefoot.

Metabolic issues (often caused or worsened by too much access to grass) can express themselves in foot problems leading to endless cycles of "corrective" shoeing, lameness and potentially laminitis.

Balancing diet - supplements that complement hay, not too many rich concentrates, controlling access to grazing at certain times of the year...

Sounds complicated, but I really see it as an opportunity to positively affect our horses health.

Look at our companion animals, and the human population as well. Diabetes and other metabolic issues are becoming epidemic for all. I personally know of half a dozen dogs that have to take insulin in my tiny community. I've cared for a number of horses that were IR or had Cushings.

There is something fundamentally wrong with many of the processed food options out there and our health plus the health of our animals is suffering because of it.

Sorry for the novel. ;)

Laura Crum said...

Calm Forward Straight--I agree with much of what you say, especially about the processed foods. We raise our own beef as well as eggs and much of our vegetables and fruit. I think processed foods are very bad for us.

But...hey, after much shoeing, and also running many horses barefoot when they didn't need shoes, I have NEVER lapsed into those negative corrective shoeing cycles you describe. Some horses have worn shoes, some shoes and pads, but their feet did not deteriorate. All were able to go barefoot for turnout later in life. I've never had a horse founder, including plenty that were turned out 24/7 and got pretty darn fat--but not cresty. And here's the deal--horses in a "natural" state had access to as much grass as they could eat. They were fat in the grass season and thin in the off season (and, of course, barefoot). So I find it somewhat ironic that many barefoot enthusiasts are so concerned about limiting grass. Doesn't seem to go with the all-natural barefoot picture.

Again, my curiosity goes to WHY my horses don't founder on free choice grass. They don't end up with chronic foot problems when they're shod, either. It can't be anything I'm doing because lots of people do the same thing I'm doing and have problems. It must be related to the type of horses I have. Or that's the only thing that makes sense to me.

Anonymous said...

Popping back in here. I am beginning to think that there is some link to how a horse was conditioned and worked in his younger years to how well they fare later. Or in other words, a horse that actually did some regular hard work carries some resistance to becoming IR into his later years. No proof, just some observations. And of course there is a genetic factor too. I think you just have working lines that have stood the test of time for good reasons - namely good genes! I also think letting the pasture green up and get so many inches tall before turning the horse out is asking for trouble, even if you start with short periods of grazing and build up from there. Much better for the plants in the pasture, but much worse for the horse.

Laura Crum said...

Anon--The only time I can remember having a problem with founder was when I was a kid and my uncle turned several geldings into an ungrazed and very lush pasture. We watched them carefully, but one did eventually get cresty and a bit sore-footed and we took him out. The old horsemen will tell you that a horse can get fat but if he doesn't get cresty over the neck he won't founder (from pasture). I've found this to be true. I have always immediately removed any horse from the pasture who even started getting cresty. But yeah, it puzzles me a little why I haven't had these IR problems after so many years of turning horses out--both my own horses and many others belonging to friends and family.

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

Laura -

Genetics seems a likely connection, as well as anon's comment about what kind of work load the horse had in their youth. That just makes sense to me.

I think pasture management must be important too - something I failed to mention, and am not very knowledgeable about.

Also - when I said I cared for horses that were IR / Cushings let me clarify - I was barn help. They were owned by someone else. I noticed some of the symptoms and passed along that info to the owners.

If you've never been to Rockley Farm's blog - she has a wealth of information there on this topic. :)

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

You know, I think the interaction is more important than the pasture. You're getting them a chance to nibble on some grass, but really, as they get older, the grass is not always going to be the best for them.

The seniors want to be able to have company, I think. The senior mare in the barn (39 years now) lives in a stall with a chain across the front so she can supervise everything. I think the ability to move around easily, have food and water in a predictable and safe site, in a safe setting is what our seniors need. It's what makes the horse feel happy and safe that matters.

(for example, Mocha, the stall princess that she is, likes some turnout but not all day turnout)

Laura Crum said...

CFS--I have occasionally looked at the Rockley Farms blog. Correct me if I'm wrong (and I very well may be), but my impression was that this blog was in the shoes-are-evil camp. This is pretty far from my own experience, so I tend not to read such blogs regularly. My own experience has been that I prefer to run my horses barefoot, but I have found shoes useful and practical many times. I have never, that I'm aware, caused my horses feet to go backwards in any way through shoeing. I give a lot of credit to my farrier, who has been my farrier for nearly thirty years. That said, I HAVE seen and been around many, many horses that had thoroughly messed up feet due (in my opinion) to weird shoeing practices.
I will check out the blog you mention again--thanks for the suggestion.

Joyce--That was exactly my experience with Gunner. He didn't seem to feel safe in the pasture any more. He worried. Here at home, with horses close by and people around often, with food and water easy to find (he's on free choice hay), he seems much more relaxed and content. So that's a great observation--and honestly, one I never realized until recently. I just thought old horses would be happier turned out.

Alison said...

Laura -- you need another renovation so you can quit agonizing. Your horses are lovely. We have TONS of pasture and grass every year, which as others have mentioned, has its problems. In the spring especially, it's hard to regulate eating time so the fat pony gets penned up so she doesn't founder. I don't know which is worse--driving by a pasture and spotting a fat pony that's obviously foundered or driving by a bare lot where the horse's ribs stick out. Now I am agonizing!

Kerrin Hoban said...

We have 16 horses (right now) on our 11 acres . We turn the entire herd out for a few or many hours each day and they are in large corrals/paddocks in groups (some singly) the rest of the time and for feeding. No grass, they have decimated it on 90% of the property, but they do start eating green apples when they appear, and by the time the apples are ripe, 95% are gone.

My 28 year old mostly retired mare has her paddock gate open 24/7 so she can go wherever and do whatever. What she does mostly is stand near a friend. (Sometimes she chooses a different friend.) Occasionally she puts herself in with a friend at feeding time and stays with him overnight. She is perfectly sound and gallops with the herd when it is loose, but chooses to confine herself when her friends are confined. She prefers friendship to pasture.

Calm, Forward, Straight said...


I'm not really worried about what "camp" people may or may not be in. Information and knowledge are good things.

To me, shoeing is not a black and white issue. For some horses, barefoot is better. Not easier, but better.

jenj said...

Laura, I faced this exact choice with Cash. I had him at a wonderful retirement facility - he had 10 acres of lovely grass up to his knees, and three other older geldings to hang with. He was check and fed 2x/day and brought up several times a week for grooming and fly spray, but still, after about 6 months, he sort of went feral.

Things worked out so that I eventually brought him home. Like you, I have only 2 acres (land is expensive here too!), but instead of corrals I have a track around the perimeter of our property. The boys go out together and tend to do a lot of walking to get from one hay pile to the next. I do have pastures, but they are tiny. When the grass is good, the boys get to go out for maybe 3-4 hours per day. When it's dry, they don't go out at all. During last year's drought, they didn't go out on grass for over a year - but they still had their track and were out 24/7.

Cash is... a different kind of content here. He asks for butt scratches. He's always the last one in the barn at night, hanging over the gate and hoping for a treat (which he of course gets!) He enjoys special lawn-mowing privileges, and illicit snacking in the hay storage. A friend of mine has "adopted" him, rides him gently 2-3x/week, keeps him groomed and shiny, and brings him endless carrots. Saga is his BFF and Cash loves him. Is one situation better than the other? I don't think so... they are different, yes, but he is happy in both. I truly believe that's what's most important!

Laura Crum said...

Alison--You're right--I really don't need to agonize! I guess I thought it was a good subject for a post.

Kerrin--Its really interesting that so many others find that their old horses really like hanging out with another buddy--company seems to be the number one need.

CFS--I totally agree with what you say. I guess I have sort of gotten a bad taste in my mouth from reading so many blogs where the blogger bashes "iron shoes" as something terribly negative, while going on and on about all the soundness problems their horse is having. It has left me feeling a tad defensive (I suppose you noticed). And, of course, I feel that "information" is kind of a mixed bag. I have heard a lot of "information" that did not seem accurate to me, based on my own longtime experience with horses. But the statement that "shoeing is not a black and white issue" totally resonates for me. I'll listen attentively to anyone who starts with such a statement rather than bemoaning the evil of iron shoes. Thanks for the good insight.

jenj--That's what it came down to for me. Does the horse seemed happy? Gunner seemed happy in the pasture in his early 20's, but later looked not so content. Now, in his 30's he seems more content to me here at home. And I am SO happy to have him here and see him many times a day and care for him. He certainly looks better than he did the last year in the pasture. So I think its been a good choice.

AareneX said...

As you and others have said, it's all about keeping the horse happy.

Some horses would rather be with other horses than interact with people. For them, a big open pasture with some buddies and a creek and a bunch of grass and somebody to look over the fence and count ears twice a week is probably ideal. For the pocket-pets who thrive on brushing and interaction with people, the pasture would be sub-optimal and a spot near the house where somebody could talk to them and share pancakes on Sunday morning would be much better.

I think we get into trouble when we try to figure out what's best for "horses" instead of what's best for an individual horse. It seems to me that you have done a good job making choices for the horses you have!

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--I think that's the best comment yet. My old horse, Flanigan, on the left in the pasture horse photo, LOVED being turned out. He did not love being fussed over by people. While Gunner and Plumber like attention and having people around. Just like people, horses are all different. I would hate a retirement home with lots of social interaction, and wish to remain a hermit in my little house until I die. But many older people thrive on the socializing. Thanks for pointing out the obvious!

lytha said...

I have to give you the German perspective on this. Since space is so limited here, pastures are often rented. It is common for even riding stables to rent extra fields nearby to keep horses in during the Summer, which makes it rough on the boarders/leasers who have to walk a mile to get a horse. There are battery-powered electric fences all over our town in any extra bit of land. The horses' owners cannot see them, and often these spontaneous electric paddocks are quite remote and *no one* can observe the horses. As you know, keeping horses at home is a great rarity, I only know 3 private owners who do this (who do not own riding stables, just homes with shelters). These temporary horsekeeping areas always go away in Autumn, when horses are put on sacrifice areas.

Laura Crum said...

lytha--Thanks for giving the German perspective on horsekeeping. I am fascinated by your horsey adventures in Germany. I spent one summer in Europe and loved it, but I, too, noted the lack of small private horse properties.