Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Stepping off sharply from the rank and file

Look at this gentle face. This is Pie waiting patiently for me to attempt to mount bareback. He is so tall and my ($99) three-step mounting block does not go high enough. So, I have been using a barstool, but it is not safe. More on this another time. Now, to the point of this post...

Here is a lovely Sovereign-boy in the pasture. (He has some sort of mushed dirt mark on his side - it is not a gash or cut!) The horses are turned out all the time now, day and night, 24/7. I have mentioned this new (to us!) program in earlier posts, and promised my dear blogging friend, Kristen, of Sweet Horse's Breath some more details, so this post is my take on the whole situation thus far. This is a work in progress and I don't have it completely sorted yet, but I can share what we are doing and what we have learned to date.

I have come to realize recently, that what I have been doing with horses my whole life, from riding to grooming to horsekeeping in general, is exactly what I was taught to do, with little concern about what actually makes sense to me or to the horse. My evolution as a rider included questioning bits and horseshoes early on (8th grade) but my questions pretty much stopped there. I never really thought about how stalls, turnouts, pastures, nutrition, and/or domestication in general effect the overall health of my horse.

I come from a family who has always owned horses, but when I hear about how the horses were boarded in the past, I have to shudder. Locally, the boarding of horses for recreation isn't too different than the boarding of horses historically for transportation. If you walk up and down the back alleys of my town (below) you see that every house and yard has a small carriage house. Obviously, in the days before cars, the carriage was kept in there, but so was the horse! There was no large fenced pasture for exercise. The horse got enough exercise pulling the carriage. There was no grass for food. The horse was fed grain and hay and water. By 1953, when my mom, at the age of 10, got her first horse, Chaplain, it isn't such a stretch to imagine that Chaplain was kept in a standing stall at his boarding stable. The horses were not turned out at all! The owners came and groomed and rode and grazed them for cool-downs, but the horses were primarily fed hay and grain. They didn't even have water buckets! The barn owner would periodically walk all the horses to a watering trough during the day. This sounds positively barbaric to me.

In 1957 my grandfather bought our farm with 40 acres and a bank barn to keep my mom's horses. You can read that story and see photos here. The horses had nice sized stalls and there was a small paddock built. The horses were turned out approximately 2 hours a day and my mom rode every day. I was born in 1967 so this horse boarding set-up was all I knew as "correct" even though, now, when I think back I feel terribly guilty that they were kept inside so many hours! We fed hay and a sweet feed with molasses that smelled heavenly. We never would allow our horses to eat wet grass. (Now I know that the sweet feed was probably way more dangerous than the wet grass!) Our horses all lived well into their 30's, but we had our share of colic. Working for the large animal vet, I spent tons of time holding the pump and pumping oil into horses at boarding stables too, so I never questioned that the way we were keeping our horses might not make the most sense.

Recently, I have personally witnessed horses at boarding stables who are turned out all night and kept in stalls during the day all year long. They are blanketed in the winter, but kept in pastures that have no trees or shelters. This arrangement makes no sense to me. I have also personally witnessed owners who keep their horses in treeless, shelter-less pastures in the hot summer sun. This also makes no sense to me.

When I requested to foster and retrain two Thoroughbreds from the excellent organization, Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, they recommended that the OTTBs be kept outside 24/7 with adequate shelters. We didn't have shelters at that point so I kept the boys outside 12-14 hours a day and inside huge (12' x 15') stalls the rest of the time. In the winter they were inside at night, and in the hottest part of the summer they were outside all night and inside during the day. We fed the boys alfalfa, brome and a very small amount of grain.

The horses were doing well on this program. They were excellent to ride and their weights and feet were perfect. So why change a thing?

Well, first of all, we did have two 12' x 24' shelters erected last summer. I watched the horses use the shelters as protection from the sun and rain and ice and snow, so I knew they were comfortable in there. Second, this winter, when I was in Florida, Pie started chewing his stall during his time inside at night. He was not cribbing, but clearly, chewing the barn down out of boredom. He was turned out the same amount of hours that he always was, and was given the same amount of hay as always, but he wasn't being ridden. When I returned, I resumed riding, but I sensed that putting the horses inside at night was not actually what they wanted. I started reading and trying to re-educate myself about the true nature of horses and horsekeeping. I had the most trouble understanding the keeping of horses outside in the winter. My own sense is that a warm, cozy bank barn on a cold winter's night is the place to be. This is not necessarily true for our equine friends and I still am having difficulty believing that because I get so cold in the winter!!! I love Jessica Jahiel's article on the subject of winter horsekeeping:


Also, reading all my favorite horse blogs made me realize that many of you have happy, healthy horses who are kept outside all of the time with adequate shelters. I spent the month of February worrying and deliberating and thinking of how it could all work. Our bank barn is not structurally set up to allow access to the stalls, so the shelters would have to do. Finally, after a vet check and thorough discussion with our vet about our pasture grass, I left the boys out 24/7 on March 16th. Our grass at that time wasn't green and I am watching it vigilantly for any sudden richness. Our rain has held off so they have most of the grass nibbled down. In addition, I cut back even more on their grain while my mom is still giving them the same amount of hay twice a day. After our daily rides, we hand graze them on some rich grass outside the pasture for approximately 15 - 30 minutes since their pasture grass is so sparse. So far everything is working out super well. To my mom and I, who have kept horses in stalls only, this is really a big deal!

My shift in thinking has been further influenced by a book I stumbled upon accidentally. Paddock Paradise: A Guide to Natural Horse Boarding by Jaime Jackson (pictured below) has ideas for encouraging movement within the pasture so as to avoid colic, founder and foot problems. Mr. Jackson uses the behavior of wild horses as his blueprint for the Paddock Paradise design. The book is a quick read and the idea of the Paddock Paradise makes sense to me. I am constantly wrestling with my role in the domestication of my pets. This system seems to me to give the horses "on track" a sense of freedom in a natural environment. In additon, the "track" does not need too much land which makes me wonder if this is the boarding barn model of the future.

I am starting to think about how to possibly set up a Paddock Paradise "track" on our farm. Below, I have outlined our property in green and our existing fencing in dark purple. I used pink for a possible Paddock Paradise track complete with "camping" spots in the protected shaded areas of our field. Mostly, I would like to incorporate direct hay eating during the spring, summer and autumn months, forgoing the farmer baling and selling us our own hay that we carry, store and then re-distribute.

Pie and Sovereign seem extremely happy so far. I bed both sheds with shavings and know from the shavings in their tails that they use their sheds. Instead of cleaning stalls alone in the barn, I spend each morning walking around the pastures (with two horsey helpers) picking up manure piles and scrubbing buckets. I didn't sleep much at first, but I have to say that I am surprisingly reassured knowing that at any time, day or night, the boys are happily munching grass with two nice shelters and plenty of fresh air, hay and water.

Another Jessica Jahiel post about "killing horses with kindness" has brought me much comfort in the decision to try this new turnout program:

As I said before, this is a work in progress. (I know all you cowgirl blogging friends are cracking up laughing at me for making this into such a big deal. Your ponies have been living happily outside forever.)

In my own experience here in my area of Pennsylvania, humans have devised horsekeeping systems that have been around for so long that they are "the norm". Subsequent generations would have no way of knowing that these systems are not what is best for the animal, but what was easier for man. I am trying to move into new territory for me, which is ironically old territory for the horses.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Juliette. I am glad your horses are out now, it seems like a healthy balance to me. My Boy would not do well in a stall. He'd have to have turnout during the day, and not just a tiny paddock, but something that would allow him to wander. He does wander a bit, I walk his pasture and find track marks and poop piles all over. He also does a lot of standing under his tree or near the filly's pasture.
    We also feed our horses their hay in two or more piles, so they have to wander. Also, they are rarely fed near the water trough, so they have to wander to get that. It encourages movement.
    My Boy uses his shed, mostly only at night. He usually stands in the rain or under a tree. But I find the shavings messed up and shavings in his tail so I know at night he lies down in his shed- I'm glad! I keep it nicely bedded for him. Luckily he hasn't been using it much as a toilet! When we had a deep freeze and the mud was frozen and hard to walk on, he spent a lot of time in his shed since it was soft ground. I also had to clean it more! ;)
    Keep us posted on how your boys love their new living arrangements.
    p.s. thanks for the info. about carriage houses- never really thought of them as housing horses!

  2. Pony Girl - Your happy Boy has been a wonderful influence on me and my decision to put the boys out all the time. Mom has been moving the hay piles around to encourage walking and we have 4 separate water troughs stations so they have to walk around for that too.

  3. Good (no great) thoughts - so much of horsekeeping is "traditional", like most training, and due for a serious rethink. Your road is the right one, and hope your horses do well on the new plan.

    (Love the pretty, sweet, Pie face!)

  4. Juliette, this post was most interesting to me. When I took lessons at a local very nice stable , before I had Lilly, most of the horses were expensive and they had big stalls that they were mostly kept in. I saw the other horses outside on rough board (outside all the time) and felt sorry for them. Boy do I know better now! I have observed Lilly in all kinds of weather for 4 years now in her "rough" board at Bill's. Well, this is not rough for her! In fact, when I have kept her in stall for abscess reasons, it made her a crankypants. She only gets hay and has the sweetest temperament around. You cannot look at Lilly and her buddies at Bill's and think they want for anything. They are happy, healthy and outside every day of the year. I know this is how your guys are and will be wandering free in the weather! YEAY!!

  5. Kate - Thanks for the comment - I worry and it makes me feel good knowing that you think we are on the right track! Pie and your Maisie - the cutie faces.

    baystatebrumby - You and your Lilly and Bill's farm have had such a positive influence on me and my decisions with this new plan. You don't know the amount of times I would read your posts just soaking in all the photos of the turnouts and big field herd and stream for water and all of it! It really is a happy-horse-farm up there in Bear River. Thanks for all the support. You and Bill unwittingly helped me through this transition! Pie and Sovey thank you both too.

  6. Very interesting perspective! I love all the information that you have provided. It's interesting (and somewhat sad) to me that in my experience with show horses there have been quite a few of them that couldn't handle turnout. In fact, I had a couple of horses that we had to "teach" to be turned out and they never did get comfortable to the point where we could leave them out 24/7. Even with Tiny, I'm not sure about it....In theory, I like it, but she's got so many issues with the bugs it seems like she can't handle that during the summer months. Maybe it's just one of those things that gets worse before it gets better and I never get past the "worst." Hmm...something to think about. I'm going to check out that book, too.

  7. I would think in your case, a bar stool would be particularly dangerous because your horses would want to turn around to find the apple while you are trying to mount. :-) Does your neighbor still leave apples on a stool for your boys?

    I cringe too when I think about how my beloved TB was boarded years ago. A show horse, he was always kept in a stall. Rarely did he even have a run with his stall. Gasp. I didn't know any better. I was young and followed what my trainer/barn owners did. No wonder my beautiful horse got navicular.

    Horses are tougher than we think. Misty & Marley don't get blanketed at all and we dropped below -15F at our place this winter. But 25+ years ago, when I moved my TB from California (where he had a heater in his stall) to Kansas (with real winter snow), I was so worried I bought the heaviest, thickest blanket I could...with a hood for his neck and head. That poor horse! But we learn.

    I think the paddock paradise is fascinating.

  8. Once Upon - Yes, our neighbors still kindly leave us apples!

    We do learn. We didn't blanket the boys this past winter and I don't plan on using blankets next year. I will change my plans with blankets and stalls if I run into a roadblock or if their weights change as they age.

    I think the Paddock Paradise might be the answer to Fjord weight watching! Mr. Marley might like that!

  9. Michelle - I do think the show world is perhaps the biggest "instructor" of less natural systems. The bathed, clipped, blanketed, stalled world of showing is all I knew. I am trying to move in a different direction now with the horse's health and sanity in mind. Probably not too many horses in the wild "can't handle turnout". Makes me ask - what have we done?

  10. I was thinking about how nice it would be to have a track system set up here, especially since it's half built already, but the principle of movement works because horses push each other around it from resource to resource. With only one horse, I am not convinced it would stimulate more movement. However, I've been putting ads out that we're looking for an old companion pony, I hope we find one. Then I'll have motivation to make the other half of the track and continue to use the center for hay making. I think the track would work great for your two horses.

  11. lytha - I think Baasha will love a track system and (!) a new pony friend. I do think they need "a herd" to get the track moving. Our Sovey-Boy is a great pusher. He doesn't let Pie stop to graze too much as it is, before moving them both along to another pasture.

  12. Ohhh I've been waiting for this post! I find this SO fascinating b/c I too, was raised with stalled horses, no pasture, clipped coats, shoes on, sweet feed, etc etc.
    When I first found Laz, he was literally dumped at the place I was riding which was pasture board. Although he was a calm boy and enjoyed his pasture time, I moved him to where we are now for a few reasons: 1. he was really skinny, 2. I moved him to a place where the BO had years of experience/knowledge so I could learn for us both and 3. I wanted a stall area with turnout for my comfort being his pasture board where I was at had no shelter, no trees and about 50 horses on 5 acres-yuck.
    Anyway, with Laz's current situation he has 24/7 turnout with access to his stall for shelter being that is his only shelter. He loves it. His weaving-non existent unless he is being bratty and wants hay for the 2 minutes a day he may not have it. His body looks better and his mind is better, happier and I'm sure it's only doing good for his OTTB mind and legs to wander all around all day. He choses to come in his stall when it's windy and really cold I've noticed but I would say, he's outside 99% of the time.
    I know Pie and Sovey are loving this set up!!! I'm curious about how it continues. I always worry about thunderstorms for some reason. Eek. But like you, I think I'm casting my fears on to them. Somehow, nature does know best and sets them up for what works
    So I'm most curious about the hay vs grass feeding. Laz can't have too much grass being laminitic (although his was not caused by grass founder, it was chemical or drug derived) but do Sovey/Pie get hay along w/ grass? All day? Spread out to encourage the grazing movement? I supposed that is what the track path is for too. Wow, so much to learn and I love love love that you are documenting this for us all! Thank you!

  13. Kristen - I am so glad Laz is doing well in his turnout situation. He is a happy boy!
    Pie and Sovey have their pastures nibbled down to a safe level now. They do have access to all the hay they want, but they don't eat all that we give them because the grass is so much more interesting. We do spread the hay out. When I fence in the Paddock Paradise, I am going to have to introduce the hayfield slowly - as in 1/2 hour increments - but then the track system should work to encourage the movement to keep over-eating away. That is the plan - I will watch everything like a hawk though! From what I understand, the Paddock Paradise is a solution to horses who suffer from chronic laminitis, the reoccurent founderers, and the chubby "grazing muzzle" group. Touch wood, we don't have any of the above, but I still think it is a desirable system because it mimics their natural tracking movements. I will try to keep you posted!

  14. I'm impressed that you are considering it for yours which are not in the "grazing muzzle" group.

    Let us know!

  15. Growing up, I had a pony who spent his days on a rope tied to a stake in the ground. He mowed our backyard, the neighbor's yard, and my grandfather's yard on a rotating basis all spring and summer. At night, he was in his 5x10 stall (plenty of space for a pony to turn around) which was harbored inside the old garage.

    Of course, now my ponies have run in shelters attached to small paddocks (20x20, or smaller when I divide them), and during the day they get some turn out time in the mud pit of winter or pasture in the summer.

    I'm always amazed at how adaptable horses are. Mine ran wild at one point in their lives, yet they transitioned beautifully into domestic boundaries.

  16. Fantastic Post Juliette!

    After only having Wa for 4 years...I have found, after one year with her being "pasture boarded" and having a "Run in Shelter"..she was the happiest there...better mind for riding and her weight was great. I set the profile for that barn(got kicked out doing it) and they rented my space for double the money! It works...they love the freedom of coming and going and less handing(for boarded horses).

    You are soo on the right track...and I imagine it may be difficult to change time in theories..but, you see through the other bloggers and the wonderful books you've scoured. Horses Need Freedom, they are not needing human comforts.

    We only bring the horses in for the winter more to save the land(though if I had my druthers...PEA GRAVEL the water trough area and gates and such)And to rest it for hay and grazing later. We have some dry lots and some rotation places.
    Otherwise...24-7 out they go!
    Though, our stalls are open too...with graveled paddocks..so they never are shut into a stall. Seems to haver made a huge-o- difference in my mare.
    I never will subject her to boarding again now.


Thanks for taking the time to visit Honeysuckle Faire!