A few days ago an acquaintance of mine was complaining about not having enough time to spend with her two horses.
She said she’d love to be able to keep them at home, but she couldn’t figure out how she’d find the time to look after them.
She explained how she works in the city, and what with an hour daily commute and weekend social commitments, she feels like the horses would suffer.
When I told her that both my husband and I are away from the farm (between commuting and working) for at least ten hours a day, and my horses don’t seem to suffer any for it, she asked me how I do it.
Since she was asking, I thought maybe others might be wondering too so here it is:
How We Look After our Horses Without Having a Whole Lot of Time:
Now, keep in mind a couple of things –
- We only have three horses.
- From the get-go, we set our farm up to be as efficient and time-effective as possible.
I’ve spent three decades or so working in horse barns in one capacity or another. I’ve always prided myself on being able to keep a barn very clean and running like clockwork.
I’m fastidious, industrious, and all of those other “ious” words that basically mean I’m a little anal-retentive when it comes to horsekeeping.
But here’s the thing. When you bring your horses home, and you’re not independently wealthy (read: you have to go to work every day in order to be able to afford said horses), there are a few things that you have to get over.
Like, the idea of having the barn perfectly mucked out and swept up before you start the rest of your day (unless, of course, you like to get up really early, or you don’t have to go to work before noon, or it’s Saturday).
You have to let go of that picture in your head of what the perfectly-run barn looks and feels like. When you don’t have all the time in the world (or even more than a few hours a day) to horsekeep, you have to determine what your priorities are, and where your time is best spent.
You have to look at the whole board. Decide what is a “must” versus what is a “want”, and what is best for your horse versus what is best for you. You also need to take a long, hard look at why you wanted to bring your horse home in the first place.
If it’s so that you can ride and train under pristine conditions and have your horse live in a professionally-managed stable, then maybe you should think twice about moving him home (or plan to marry rich).
But if it’s because you don’t want to wake up one. more. day. without being able to pull on your muckers and pop out to the barn in your pj’s to kiss your horse good morning, then you’re ready to start making some decisions that will allow you to have your dream (and if that means not getting the stalls mucked out until after work – you really have to be okay with that).
Ticking all the Boxes:
When we started planning the set up of our barn and pastures, we did some hard thinking. We figured out what our lives were really going to look like, and how we could ensure that our horses would be safe and comfortable for the ten plus hours a day that they would be fending for themselves.
We had a checklist in mind of everything we felt our horses needed to be healthy and happy, so we started there:
- Room to move
Then we broke it down into those components to come up with an overall view of what our farm needed to be.
Before my Connemara pony, Stella (and her poor little ulcer-prone tummy) came into my life a few years ago, I didn’t fully realize just how important it is for horses to have the option to “graze” (whether that be on actual grass, or free-choice hay) at all times.
In order to fulfill this need, we knew that we had to figure out a way to allow them access to grazing all day.
Eventually this led to the building of a couple of very safe, very sturdy hay feeders that can accommodate either round or square bales, and a lot of research into effective pasture rotation.
This one’s a no-brainer. The big problem was going to be in the winter, of course. We live in Canada, so water buckets frozen solid from December to April is a reality for us.
So we invested in heated buckets, and some good quality, heavy-duty extension cords to ensure the horses would have access to water no matter what the temperature was outside.
The first thing I did when we purchased our farm was to throw away all those years’ worth of barn plans that I’d drawn up. They all depicted your “typical” barn with stalls opening up into a central aisle way inside the barn.
If we were going to be an hour away for ten hours a day, I needed the horses to be able to let themselves in and out based on the weather and their own choice.
We settled on a small shed-row stable design, with stall doors (which would remain open) leading directly into the paddock. This way the horses would never be caught out in a cold rain or the hot sun.
Room to Move
For me, room to move about at will is one of the most important things I can give my horses. Our paint mare, Sunny, who was twenty-four at the time and full of arthritis, really benefitted from being able to come and go as she pleased.
But besides that, moving about all day is something deeply ingrained in the instinct of horses and to me, it didn’t make sense to take this ability away from my horses if I didn’t have to.
We set about building a “sacrifice paddock” (ie we sacrificed the grass in a small area to instead turn it into a mud-free space), accessible from the stalls. This is where the horses spend their winters (plus the typically muddy shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall).
The area is about sixty by a hundred and twenty feet, and slopes gently away from the barn. Thanks to a lot of hard work (and literally tonnes of varying sizes and shapes of gravel), the space is free of mud all year round.
We then separated the remaining two acres of grassy field into six small grass paddocks so we could use rotational grazing, allowing the horses to feed on good quality grass from late spring to early fall.
Thanks to the clever placement of gates and a main corridor, the sacrifice paddock can be accessed from any of the grass paddocks, meaning the horses have access to their stalls for shelter and water at all times.
It was a lot of work, but on the plus side, we don’t have to feed hay from mid-May through mid-October.
Horses are herd animals and I do not believe they were meant to live without the companionship of other horses (or at least other animals).
Lucky for us we had two horses at the time we moved them home, and were able to add a third later on. If I’d only had one horse I would have either taken in a boarder, or borrowed a companion horse from a friend.
Our Daily Schedule:
It took us a little while to figure out the optimal daily schedule. It was a big adjustment when we first brought the horses home. I hadn’t had horses in the back yard since before college, and my husband was pretty much an equine newbie.
We set about determining what worked and what didn’t through a long series of trial and error.
Once we got into the swing of things, we figured out a workable six-part agenda for barn chores.
It made things a lot easier to have a checklist to go through in your head, especially on those nights after work in the winter when it’s ten below and has been dark since long before you got home:
This particular order of things works very well in our situation, and we do not tend to deviate from it, with the exception of course being that summer is infinitely easier and quicker than winter thanks to the fact that we don’t have to mess about with rugs or hay.
Also, in summer the horses all tend to do their business out in the fields, and while we do pick up the manure from the fields every single day, it’s still easier than mucking out stalls.
Here’s my schedule for a typical winter day, keeping in mind that almost all of my supplies are kept in the basement of our house in winter to keep things from freezing; also, we haul water out from the house so that comes from the basement as well – we fill up large water containers the night before and have them ready for the next day.
So before I head down to the barn, I mix up the grain, and put the water containers, grain and rugs (if I’m changing them) into the cart and haul them to the barn.
Morning Stables (5:15 to 6:00 am)
- Feed grain (we’ve trained the horses to go into their stalls and quietly wait for grain to come); once everyone has their grain, I close Stella’s doors so she won’t go in and chase Sunny or Q away from their breakfasts.
- Change rugs – I do this right after grain so that I can get it done while Sunny and Q are still in their stalls. Otherwise I find myself chasing them around the paddock at 0 dark 30 to do it, which is no fun.
- Set out hay – Our three horses go through about two and a half bales of hay per day. The majority of it gets split up between the two hay feeders outside, and then I put two to three flakes (depending on the weather) in each stall. I don’t like them to have to choose between shelter and food, and the nastier it is outside, the more hay I leave inside.
- Top up waters from the containers I brought down from the house.
- Tidy the stalls. I don’t muck out in the morning – there’s just not time to do a decent job, and I don’t like to empty the wheelbarrow in the dark because I almost always disturb some form of wildlife out in the back field like a deer, a racoon and even the occasional porcupine. Trust me, it’s best just not to go there before sunrise. But I also don’t like to come home to piles of poo that’ve been ground into the rest of the bedding by horses lying on them during their afternoon nap. So instead I pull the bedding away from one of the corners and chuck all the obvious manure there. I don’t go digging, and I don’t move the pee spot at this point. It’s just enough to keep them from tracking manure all through the stall and lying on it.
- Quickly set the paddocks right. Again, I don’t even get out the wheelbarrow. I put whatever hay has fallen out of the hay feeders back in, and if there are any piles of manure very near the feeders, I scoop them out of the way so the horses don’t stand in them while they’re eating their hay throughout the day.
I allow myself forty-five minutes for morning stables. I could likely get it done in a little less time, but I include time for patting, fussing and listening to horses eat hay, and it all works out.
Evening Stables (5:30 to 7:00 pm)
My husband and I carpool to work most days. He picks me up at around four, which puts us home around five. By the time we get into barn clothes and feed the cats, we’re usually heading down to the barn around five-thirty.
We basically follow the same routine as in the morning (grain, rugs, hay, water, stalls, paddocks), with the addition of fully mucking out the stalls, and thoroughly picking out the paddocks.
I’m very lucky that Hubby likes to help out in the evenings. With the two of us, we can get everything done in about an hour (again, factoring in time for fussing over the horses).
If I’m doing evening chores by myself, I count on an hour and a half, and sometimes a bit more if the horses have spent a lot of time in their stalls through the day due to nasty weather or whatnot.
So three hours a day or less looks after all of our horses’ basic needs. When I look back to when I was boarding them at other barns, I would easily have spent far more time than that each day just getting to the barn to visit them.
We only had Sunny and Stella at that time, but they were boarded at different barns that were about an hour apart (and each one was almost an hour from my house).
Finding time for the little things (like riding):
Luckily the months that take the most work just to get the day-to-day done are the same months that, in Canada at least, are not-so-hospitable for riding, unless you have an indoor arena (which I don’t).
Once the time changes, I’m invariably looking at doing both morning and evening chores in the dark. Riding, except on the occasional nice weekend, is just not in the stars for me from November to April.
While the Monday to Friday grind pretty much never changes, weekends open up a whole new world in the winter months. I actually get to see my horses in the daylight, and this is when I find time for a lot of those “little things” that don’t tend to get done during the week.
Everyone gets a good grooming, the buckets get a good scrubbing, and if the weather cooperates, we sometimes get lucky and do a little bit of ground work in the paddock or hand-walking around the outside of the fields.
This is not really an issue for me. Throughout my entire youth, my horses always had the winters off. I actually think it’s really good for them. Also, I’m a wimp about the cold, so some extra time spent curled up inside the house in front of a nice fire with a good book is never a bad thing.
Coincidentally, just about the time that I’m ready to put my foot back in the stirrup, the time changes, the days start to get longer, and the footing starts to get solid.
Life gets a little less difficult in the barn yard in those months – the horses are spending more time outside, we’re starting to introduce them to grass, and because it’s getting warmer, well, things just seem easier.
In the summer, due to those pesky little things like heat or bugs, it’s best in our area to ride either before breakfast or after supper. So finishing up barn chores around six or seven, then hopping on for a ride, is a perfectly acceptable way to spend the evening.
Why this system works for us:
The biggest issue for me has always been that the horses need to be able to be pretty much self sufficient for a large part of the day. I can’t just run home on my lunch break and put them in if it’s storming out.
Some days my hubby or I will get tied up at work, and I don’t want to have horses waiting (or worse, running) at the gate, frantic for us to get home because they’re hungry.
When they have hay in front of them twenty-four-seven, they don’t really think about grain time til they see us show up with something in a bucket.
On weekends, we can get up in the morning, do the chores, then take off to the beach until suppertime and the horses don’t even miss us (not that we do that a lot. But, you know, we could).
Thanks to a lot of planning, trial and error, and absolute fussiness over things like paddock rotation, good paddock footing, quality hay and safe fencing, our horses are happy as clams from morning til night whether we’re here or not (and so are we, because we don’t have to worry about them).
I hope this helps a little with your planning, and with determining whether having your horse at home could actually work for you. I’ll tell you what – yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, you have to do your homework and make things just so, so that you can be sure your horses are living their best, happiest lives.
But when you do get to pop out to the barn in your pj’s to kiss your horse on the nose just because you can? That makes it all worthwhile.
Pam Levy is an equestrian blogger and the creator of The Horse and Human Wellness Project, a blog that chronicles her quest to create a stronger connection with her horses. Pam has been riding since she was seven, and in love with horses for as long as she can remember. These days, she’s living her dream on the small farm she owns with her husband in rural Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast. Their herd includes three horses (Sunny, Stella and Q) and two cats (Jack and Arthur). Visit The Horse and Human Wellness Project blog or Facebook page.