One Day in the Life: Horse Farm Edition

Part of what makes a good story better is the mastery of detail–the sense that the writer really gets what she’s writing about, and that for everything she puts in, there’s a whole world of information behind it.

If you’re writing about a horse culture, or about characters who interact with horses, that world of information is broad, deep, and generally, to the modern mind, arcane. Most of what I do on the Horseblog is try to demystify some of that arcana, and show the many ways in which horses can underpin and illuminate a setting. And mostly I do that in article form, as a general “this is what happens, this is how it works, here are some options.”

Tonight however I’m pushing my blog deadline, and I’m fairly dead myself from a full day on the farm. And I thought, why not do that other kind of blog? The kind that adds up to “What I Did Today”? And that’s useful research, when I stop to think about it.

Thinking that way requires thinking of all the things I do as a matter of course, that may seem exotic or unexpected from the outside. And that concentrates the mind and makes the daily routine just a little bit less routine.

Horses live and die by routine. While I don’t have any that will melt down into a colicky puddle if a meal is a few minutes off schedule (and there have been horses like this), I do have to make sure that their meals, and the rest of their schedule, are as regular as possible for the sake of their mental and physical health. I’m a one-woman operation for the moment–expanding to two in a week, and that’s relevant, too–so it’s all on me. I’m chief cook, bottle washer, horse wrangler, and barn manager. Also, by nature and upbringing, Absolutely Not A Morning Person.

Horses, be it noted, are Absolutely Morning People. Also midday and night people. They’re on their feet at least 21 hours a day, and awake for most of that. Prey-animal evolution. They do lie down and will sleep deeply for up to an hour at a time, but usually for much less. And they’ll be awake in an instant at any sign of a predator.

So I was having trouble sleeping because instead of counting sheep, I was mentally rearranging horses in preparation for the new arrival next weekend. Every barn manager knows this form of insomnia, also called the Fine Art of Horse Arranging. My farm is on the small side, and quite compact. Some days, arranging everybody to be safe, sheltered, and properly exercised resembles the solving of a Rubik’s Cube.

But even in a big barn or one with open stalls, there are still the eternal questions: Who can be next to whom, who will fight with whom over stall walls or fences, who gets along in the barn and who gets along in the pasture (not necessarily the same combinations), who needs more space and who can handle less, and is there a stallion in the mix? Because if so, and even if he has his harem in his own pasture, he has to be kept judiciously separated from mares he’s not to be bred to, other stallions if any (though it might be remotely possible if there are no mares to fight over), and probably any geldings (since they are male and he may find them objectionable on principle).

Here I have a stallion who is very much the king, a gelding who used to be his best bud but when his hormones came in he decided he was going to KILL HIM, half a dozen mares including three of his “wives” (to whom he has been bred, though not this year), his full sister (they are not friends), and a young maiden mare whom he may be bred to in the next year or two. There is also the horse we call Pinky, a boarder: a gelding of a certain age who is not friends with the mares, at all, but who actually gets along with the stallion–for values of “gets along with” that include stallion not trying to kill gelding when they’re within ten feet of each other, and gelding respecting the “S word” and his killer hormones. Pinky is large and white. Stallion is tiny, fiery, and brainy. Ergo, Pinky and the Brain.

Ex-BFF gelding and the mares are a herd. Pinky has his own space. Stallion, ditto. And that’s been working since summer. Now we’re looking at adding another boarder, an easygoing gelding who needs some TLC–he has physical problems including laminitis and Cushing’s disease. The question is–we’re already at capacity, and we’ve got every hour of every day scheduled for this turnout or that. Where does he fit in?

So I dragged out at sunup, having concluded that we’ll hope he gets along with Pinky and they can have the night patrol. And if not, we’ll be doing a split turnout at night–on shifts from dinner to my bedtime, and from my bedtime to their breakfast. Variables include hoping he gets along with Pinky in the barn, as they’ll have to be side by side in order to give the stallion his full buffer zone, and really hoping they get along in the same larger space so that their mutual need for lots of movement and therapeutic exercise can be met.

Sunup means horse breakfast. Inspect all personnel to determine that there’s been no damage overnight. Mares and BFF are in barn and stallion paddock. Stallion is in his Penthouse slightly separated from the ladies but in full sight of them–this keeps him calm and lets him think he’s keeping watch over them. And Pinky is in the large turnout.

Breakfast is a cartload of hay and a bucket of alfalfa pellets (for protein and calcium), divided nine ways according to weight (not volume) and apportioned by experience and experimentation to keep everybody in sufficient but not excessive weight and condition. Pinky comes into his day pen, mares and BFF take Pinky’s place on the half-acre where they dine en famille (lots of piles of hay spread in a big circle for them to play musical hay piles). Stallion gets first breakfast in his Penthouse (it keeps him quiet) while I fill many water barrels in stalls and corrals, and clean all the spaces.

Nine horses generate over 200lbs of manure in a night, and I get to move it and spread it away from the stalls. If I lived in a city or suburb I might have a dumpster or have it hauled off to a landfill. In an area with grass, I’d spread it in the pastures. Here in the Arizona desert, it gets spread on the half-acre, where the sun and wind break it down, dry it out, and it works into the soil.

When the stalls and paddock are clean, stallion moves over there and finishes his breakfast–to his mind, second breakfast. He’s very hobbit-like. And I get to go in and have my own breakfast and, most mornings, put on my writer or editor hat and get to work.

Breakfast this mornimg was hastier than usual, and I kept my farm-owner hat on, as new guy’s owner was coming over to help put up a shelter for him over the spare pen. We use portable carports here, for flexibility and affordability. Modular farming. It works for us.

There were also rocks to clear out of the pen, and weeds and brush to cut. It was a long morning and partial afternoon, but the teamwork was good and the shelter went up with minimal fuss. And now we have Penthouse II: The Reckoning, over on the north side where the new kid can enjoy lots of space and his own soft bed.

And then I was ready to go splat, but it was time to feed horses their midday hay and top up their water barrels. Then I could go splat…for a couple of hours. Before it was time to work one of the horses who was moving a bit off and I wanted to run a diagnostic. She was quite full of herself and pretty solidly sound, so the other day’s not-quite-rightness seems to have been an aberration. And then, in this season of early sunset, it was time to feed dinner.

Dinner is hay and grain, with nutritional supplements. Stallion moves into his Penthouse for the night. Mares and BFF move into the stalls. Pinky gets the half-acre and the night patrol, with dinner in the middle where he can stand and look noble and keep a weather eye out for predators.

I had my own dinner after that, and finally caught up with this blog. And when that’s done, I’ll go out for the bedtime check, and make sure everybody’s safe, comfortable, and not colicking or bleeding. Some nights I’ve been up into the small hours on colic or illness watch, or patched up a cut or ding by flashlight.

But mostly I get to throw a last handful of hay to each waiting horse, pet noses all around, and fall into bed. And in the morning I’ll get up and do it all over again. Tomorrow with fall shots and run to the feed store for grain, day after that with shoer and hay delivery, day after that, longish roster of horses to work or at least pay attention to…

And that’s how it is on a small horse farm. Non-horsework gets done in the spaces between meals, barn work, and appointments. Horses rule everything, and everything happens in or around their schedule.

Benefits?  Not needing a gym membership to stay fit. Watching the moon come up between a horse’s ears. Feeding breakfast with ravens as literal railbirds, lunch with bunnies and a roadrunner and a flock of grackles, and dinner in the dusk with an owl watching gravely from the tree by the house. Shooting stars at bed check. Peaceful sound of horses munching hay. Coyotes singing in the desert.

Next week it changes, a bit. New horse. New boarder. New routine, built on the old. We’ll acclimate the new guy and deal with changes in the dynamics of the existing crew, as they adapt to another horse on the property.

I expect the ravens will offer commentary. The grackles certainly will. And the stallion will still be king. That’s how the world runs in these parts.




One Day in the Life: Horse Farm Edition — 7 Comments

  1. Your introductory sentence applies to everything a writer puts into the story:

    Part of what makes a good story better is the mastery of detail–the sense that the writer really gets what she’s writing about, and that for everything she puts in, there’s a whole world of information behind it.</blockquote?

    Which is why it is so easy to tell when a writer is faking it, even about subjects the reader may not know all that much about herself — and very particularly when the reader does know something or a fair amount. As with horses, music is another area that writers obviously fake. A favorite way is to string together three musical terms to 'describe' what musicians are doing, while evidently not realizing that the three terms contradict, are out of period. mean something else within various periods — and the most obvious of all, that no musician or music writer would ever write a sentence with those three terms strung together.

    Love, C.

  2. Your description of what it is to have working horse farm — or any working farm for that matter — is the foundation of a lovely novel, Breaking Gentle, by Texas author, Beverly Lowry.

    Love, C.

  3. This lovely post reminds me of Horse Camp, which is a real eye-opener for the writer who has to include horses in her story, but never gets to see them. Anyone who assumes that horses all get along with each other, have no moods or personalities, is not far from horse-as-car-with-legs syndrome.

    • The more we know about animals, the more we realize that they have lives and thoughts and personalities, too. It’s just human arrogance and obliviousness that lets us think they don’t.

  4. Pingback: Things You’ll Find Interesting November 26, 2012 | Chuq Von Rospach, Photographer and Author

  5. That makes me tired just reading it…… my six live out in the same 2 acre pasture, get fed one bale of hay per day in the morning, spread so they don’t kill each other over it. Evening check is me standing at the top of the pasture, counting heads to make sure they are all still there, counting legs to make sure they are still standing on all of them and I’m done. Gets a little more complex in competition season, when one or more may get put up for the day with supplements, then turned out at night. But I go out of my way NOT to feed at the same time each day, so they do not get panicky if the food is five minutes late. It is also true that there are as many variations of horsemanship as there are horseman!