Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tricks of the Trade

                                               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.


Anonymous said...

I'm not going to disagree with you on anything you do, your horses are obviously healthy and happy. We do stall at night, but in Michigan the winter night temperatures can be brutal, and in the summer the mosquitoes can be brutal. I don't blanket unless the horse obviously has a problem holding weight or keeping warm in the winter. They all (4) go out together in a 5 acre pasture as soon as it's daylight. I've never seen one try to kick another, but they aren't shod anyway.

I do pick manure in the corral where I ride (and keep the pony when the grass gets too sweet). I probably pick feet more than you, but we have seasonal mud that will cause thrush if it isn't cleaned once in a while. I don't pick feet more than once a week when the pasture is dry. I also only groom when I ride, and I don't bath more than once or twice a year, I mostly just squirt water on them on hot days, no shampoo. They have shinier coats than my show horses had.

And I only have teeth done when there is a problem. I used to do it routinely when I was at a big show barn, but that was when my horses were fed a lot of grain, which seems to aggravate the problem. Another thing I don't do more than once a year is worm. I have fecal checks done which always come back negative, in the fall I worm for bots. I agree with you on vaccinations. They've all been vaccinated for rabies and all the major diseases, tetanus included. I don't do boosters unless I think there's a high probability that they will be exposed to something. I don't vaccinate against strangles at all, and won't unless I know they have a more effective vaccine. I've known too many horses that died from what they call bastard strangles. I figure my horse has a better chance of surviving the disease without the vaccine in that case.

If I lived in California, I would probably do more things the way you do. A year round dry pasture or turn out would be wonderful.

Laura Crum said...

That's very interesting, redhorse. I really enjoyed hearing what your practices are and where they are the same and different from mine. I know if I lived in a different climate, I would have to have different ways of horsekeeping. Like you, I do pick up the manure in my riding ring. I also only bathe my horses occasionally--when it's hot, or they seem to need it. And I would pick feet if there was obviously a need--such as balled up mud or dirt n the hooves. Once in awhile a horse will show signs of this--and I pick the feet carefully and watch to see if it keeps happening. It's partly because my ground is very light and sandy that the no-hoof-picking works.

I agree that the kicking problem is far less dangerous minus shoes. And I have had horses that were kept together and never kicked each other. I keep them separate, not just for the injury issue, but also because the older ones need to be able to eat calmly and at their leisure all day long, and it just won't happen in a group situation unless the horse is dominant.

Anonymous said...

I wish more people had a horse set up that let you feed from outside. I have a pair of large hoof shaped scars from being kicked by a draft cross when I was working at a barn to afford lessons. The doctors were so impressed by the hemotoma and thigh fracture that one wrote a paper about it.

Laura Crum said...

Anon--Yes, I feel pretty strongly that feeding from outside the pen is a huge advantage in horse keeping. I have done it both ways (LOTS) and though I was never kicked or injured, I was aware of the potential. And it's just a damn nuisance--basically. Feeding time for me is entirely relaxing. I enjoy the horses' antics--and because they are separated from each other and from me, there is no need to worry that anyone will get hurt.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of what you do, although some of it isn't practical in my situation.

1. I prefer not to stall, but with our severe cold and heat, having a stall as an option is a good thing. In my boarding situation, my only good option is stalling at night with all day turnout - the pasture horses don't have adequate shelter. My retired horses in TN are out 24/7 with shelters.

(I can't figure out how to look back at post while commenting, so multiple comments - sorry.)

Anonymous said...

2 and 3 - corrals. As long as horses have adequate space to move and the ability to interact with other horses, all is well. I like big herds with lots, and lots of space - I think this is ideal despite the risk of injuries - and they do happen, like Red's splint bone fracture. But several horses in a confined space is a recipe for disaster, unless the horses are very quiet with each other.

Picking manure - in my wet and muddy climate, necessary unless you want manure soup. In your climate, who cares?

Anonymous said...

4 and 5 - picking feet and grooming. I pick feet religiously , every day. Again, due to my wetter climate and soil - mud and clay, with lots of gravel and rocks. If I didn't pick, I'd have bruises or thrush in a minute.

I groom almost every day, both because I really enjoy it and my horses do too, and it's a great way to get a read on how my horses are feeling and to check for minor dings and dents.

4. Dawn gets quite a bit of grain - a low-starch, high-fat feed - because she has bad teeth and has trouble keeping on weight. Pie and Red get almost none - just enough for a few supplements - I agree that many people feed too many supplements with no evidence that they do anything. Aspirin for Red and Dawn, raspberry leaves for Dawn - helps with mareishness - and a custom chromium/magnesium/selenium supplement for our area and for improving glucose metabolism. Also zinc, copper and biotin for feet. Red also gets a calming concoction of chaste tree berry, valerian, chamomile and passion flower, which seems to help a lot.

Anonymous said...

9 - teeth. There are many bad dentists, or vets doing dental work - the pain your horse experienced isn't due to dentistry, it's due to bad dentistry. My horses are checked every year and only have work done if needed. My dentist is very careful not to over float - this a major problem with older horses, particularly if power tools are misused. Most people doing dental work on horses - vets or not - are lousy, in my experience.

Good dental work can make a huge difference since the TMJs affect the whole body of the horse.

Anonymous said...

10 - vaccinations. We've got a lot of insect-borne diseases here, as well as rabies in the area. I wouldn't disagree in principle on an elder horse, and try to minimize vaccination reactions by spreading things out. Pie is especially sensitive to vaccinations.

I'd like to see some decent studies showing that a lower frequency of vaccinations would be effective, but big pharma has little interest in that.

Anonymous said...

11 - couldn't agree more on lungeing - there are people who do it every day with their horses and I think they're asking for trouble with joints, etc.

Also, I try to bathe my horses with shampoo at most twice a year - not almost daily like some folks do - I think this preserves the oils in the coat and helps with weatherproofing and skin health. I do rinse when they're hot and sweaty.


AareneX said...

Much of what you do, I also do.

Feeding from outside the pen, yes. Since I only have one horse, and since she's a Dragon, I prefer to interact with her and boss her around at least twice each day, so I go into the pen to feed. However, when I'm gone, my neighbors can feed "over the fence", which is safer for everyone.

Grooming before a ride, or when I've had a crummy day. It's not frequent, otherwise. Exception: early spring when the bugs are biting, and Fee needs extra scratching!

Vaccines, we do yearly because she's a frequent competitor and out in public a lot. Otherwise, maybe not so much.

Loneliness: I wouldn't do this with most horses, but Fee prefers her own company. There aren't even any neighbor horses now, they've all left. She does have two goats for company...and me. Stockholm Syndrome can be very useful at times.

Stall: it's a place to escape the rain and the swamp bugs. She could stand outside instead, and sometimes does. But she chooses to sleep in the stall--that's where the bedding is mashed down.

As I've said before, my horse is not typical. I try to give her choices so she can choose the situations she prefers, and that works well for us.

Laura Crum said...

Kate and Aarene--all very interesting observations. I know you both to be very intelligent, thoughtful horse owners, and it is good to see how you view things.

Obviously if you board, your options are more limited, so you have to choose the best available situation. And in a more severe climate, stalls make a lot more sense. I also really agree with Aarene's point that all horses are different. I have kept a single horse before, and it does cause the horse to bond far more strongly with the human--which can be a good thing with some horse personalities. And some horses don't mind being alone.

Kate--I would like to see a LOT of studies about vaccines, and not only studies that are aimed at big pharma's best interest. I have a friend who has her dog's bloodwork done every year instead of giving the rabies shot, and the dog's resistance to rabies is quite adequate--for eight years running since the last shot. It makes you wonder how much we may be over-vaccinating both our animals and ourselves. I have seen some vaccine reactions that really scared me--I don't talk about this much because it's such a loaded topic right now, but I think there is a definite downside to over-vaccinating.

Laura Crum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lilyrose said...

Interesting stuff. I say whatever works best for your situation-go for it. I live in AZ so some of my horse keeping differs from yours. We currently have three geldings and a mini donk on two and a half acres. We only have two dry turnouts. One is 160x90 and the other is 100x60. Most of the time they are all in one or the other turnout together. There is a large 20x20 cover in the middle of one of the turn outs for shade. They all get along very well, rarely see any aggression from anyone. Mostly just ear pinning if someone steps out of line. They do like to play-with the mini donk being the instigator most of the time. :)
We do have a six stall pole barn. The stalls are large, 16x16. We always keep two ready to go if needed. But mostly we use the others for hay storage.
We feed mostly grass with a little alfalfa. So we do have to move the mini donk out as he cannot have any alfalfa. He's already too fat. We are not big on supplements. But we do give them a rice bran/beet pulp mixture when they are at a ride or being used heavily. They always have access to salt blocks in the turn outs.
They are all barefoot so picking feet isn't an issue. We just pick them up to check them regularly, mostly to make sure there is nothing weird going on. They get regular squirting with the hose, especially in the summer heat. But only shampoo about twice a year. Grooming before being ridden, not much else.
We do fecal checks on them and haven't had to deworm for several years now. We do vaccinate because my hubby takes the horses to endurance rides. He does boot them for riding. The trails here are pretty hard and rocky.
I have used the same vet for well over ten years now, so he knows my horses pretty well. He always checks their teeth, but rarely needs to do a float. Maybe were are just lucky?
Twenty five years ago I did a lot more. But as the years have gone by, I have discarded a lot of stuff that I didn't see really being necessary for my horses health or happiness.

lilyrose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura Crum said...

lilyrose--You sound a lot like me. I think horse keeping has to vary depending on location and what the horses are used for. I just thought I'd put my own practices out there-- as a way to inspire thought and discussion. My horses are barefoot, too. The one horse that is still used for team roping is shod in the summer months and barefoot in the winter.

Val said...

Interesting post.

Although I wish I had the time to fuss over and groom my horse everyday, with a 1-year old in tow that it no longer an option. So my streamlined horse care approach has evolved quite a lot. No grain, because Harley is able to maintain his weight on hay and hay pellets when he is not working five days a week (only one or two light rides per week these days, but I will take it! ) and a ration balancer because he is not eating a fortified grain. 24/7 turnout, which is not new, with the same buddy all the time. I think horses get into trouble when they are separated and then reunited for turnout. He eats outside in a trough, so no stalling at all, and I barely groom him because it makes him cough. Showers are the best dust-free cleaning strategy for him, but I rarely use soap (once a year). My dentist is awesome and Harley has an overbite which predisposes him to hooks, so I have to have the dentist out regularly, but even he said that Harley is good for another 15 months. Feeding him on the ground (no hay racks or raised feeding buckets) helps slow the hook development.

As a boarder, I am required to vaccinate and worm on schedule. Manure has to be removed from the paddocks because the flies are pretty bad in the summer.

No time for lungeing right now, but I used to like it as a change of pace, since I rode him all the time. However, I did not run my horse off his feet. He was expected to carry himself and move in balance on the line which is possible. I had to (re)learn how to lunge to get it right.

Now, if I can get my horse to self-trim, I will have it made.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks for your insights Val. I do try to keep the fly population down--what works for me is fly traps. I put them out early in the year (late April/early May) before the fly population gets going. It has made a HUGE difference in how many flies I have on my place.

EvenSong said...

Laura, it's pretty clear from the discussion so far that a lot depends on one's circumstances: geographic location, soil type, own or board, age of one's offspring. ;-)
But the fact is we can all discuss it rationally. We don't feel the need to "follow the crowd." Partly because we all have enough experience with horses to have learned what works best for them, and for us.

That said, I have fourteen irrigated acres, divided into seven small pastures. The barn has five over-sized (option for one more) run-ins (two had a past life as foaling stalls, 16 X 18). Each opens to a paddock/corral, most about twice the size of the smallest 70 X 70 one; each of those opens into at least two, often three of the pastures, for rotation purposes. I see the definite advantages of metal building/fence materials, but that is out-weighed for me by the fact that I can build and repair wooden things myself, but I don't know how to weld.
I have three of my own chunky Paint mares, and board four more retired horses, whose owners feel they deserve grass and buddies for the rest of their lives. (Modeled on a VERY small scale after the place where Kate's retirees are.). They're mostly in pairs, depending on compatibility. My old mare "babysits" the old Arab, as he is nearly blind, and some of the others like to push him around.
I do give a ration balancer, as our pastures are a little inconsistent in quality. In winter everybody (but the 34-year old, toothless Arab) gets high quality, locally grown Timothy hay, in hockey net slow feeders. I add a teaspoon of loose salt to the "un-grain", in addition to white and mineral salts blocks always available. I keep some finer grass hay on hand for the old guy, and he gets senior mush twice a day. He and one other with arthritis get a joint supplement.
Also skip feet and grooming unless there seems to be an issue. We're on the "dry side" of Washington state, so have very few problems. Barefoot trims for everybody every 6-7 weeks. I worm three times a year, but am debating using fecal counts to limit even that. I do ask for basic vaccinations, unless contraindicated, because my competition mare could bring something home with her.
We pick manure in the run-ins and paddocks at least once a day, because that's what our "city" owners expect. And drag the pastures a time or two each season.
I get just as bored as the horses with circles, and they all have plenty of room to self-exercise, so the only lungeing I do is to check my mare's frame of mind, before I climb on and head out.
We're just getting started with the boarding (other that the old guy, he's a friend's and has been with for awhile), so things may evolve a bit as we go...

[Having just written a book here, I might add, for Kate, that at the top of the comment page, you should find a place to click on "show original post."]

Laura Crum said...

Evensong--I envy your pastures. If there is one thing I would change about my property it would be to have at least one small pasture where horses could be turned out on grass. I do use my property this way by turning the horses to graze out along the driveway and riding ring (with the front gate shut), but I must be home and paying at least some attention, as I do not want them going in the hay barn, or up near the houses or shop...etc. So it is not as nice as having a pasture.

The metal fence panels and the uprights that form the buildings have not once needed any repair in twenty years. That is not to say that they never will, but they have been pretty great so far. The only thing that has needed replacing is the wooden posts that support the metal fence panels. Should have used metal posts (!)

EvenSong said...

You might envy my pasture, but I covet your trees!!

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I'm rather like you, Laura, not intervening when there isn't any need. I do a few things that you won't need to, like picking out feet because we have flinty ground.

It does surprise me how some people interfere by stabling their horses when the weather is nice, rugging them when the weather isn't foul, bathing them and so on. However we do have a significant horse population here that needs protection from biting insects, and these do get stabled or rugged on summer days. Still, they are a minority amongst those kept inside on a nice day. Mostly it's for human convenience.

I do find that my mare seems happier now she is turned out with three others in a big field. The four have a nice dynamic. Living together can bring about better manners. Of course care was taken only to put compatible horses together, and certain individuals are kept alone for good reason.