Horsekeeping in the Dry Lands

dragon2_200Somewhat ironically as I write this, from here in the Upper Bajada of the Sonoran Desert, it’s grey, cool, and cloudy, and the rain teases us from the south and west. But in a day or two it will be bitterly clear and searingly sunny and hot again, and the wind in this season will wake the dust devils that can take a horse barn apart if they’re suitably motivated.

I moved here from a northern climate–New England to be precise. Barns there are build solid, usually of wood, and designed to keep the heat in during the long winters. In warmer weather the horses often live outside on pasture, which is a matter for constant maintenance: keeping the grass growing and free of toxic plants, and rotating the horses in and out in order to avoid overgrazing. In the spring when the new grass is high in sugars, horses have to be introduced carefully to prevent possibly fatal metabolic problems; once this has settled down, a horse on good pasture needs little supplementation until the grass plays out in the autumn.

For the temperate-climate horsekeeper with access to pasture, summer is when the budget can heave a sigh of relief. With a large enough farm, the winter’s hay comes from the fields, and is put up in the barn loft. Or the farm will make a deal for another farm’s hay, which hopefully will last through until the spring grass.

That’s not to say summer is perfect. Insect life, especially the various biting sorts, absolutely love a horse farm, and will feed on horses and humans and whatever else they can land on. Many carry worms or diseases, some fatal: West Nile from mosquitoes, Lyme from ticks. If it’s a wet summer, horses can suffer from the skin fungus called rain rot or the hoof bacterium called thrush.

Still, it’s the good season, when horse shows and fairs are in full force, and everyone tries to get as much riding in as possible before the cold comes and the snow flies. Then if the horsekeeper has access to an indoor arena, riding can continue, but is much curtailed.

That’s the kind of horse life I grew up with. I learned that a horse blanket is something you put on if you have a fancy horse, but many people don’t believe in them. Water for stalled horses is given in five-gallon buckets, and stalls are fairly small (as small as ten feet by ten feet) and many horses live in them all day long except when being ridden. Lucky horses get summer pasture, but in winter they’re shut up in barns and fed hay.

Then I moved to the opposite corner of the country, and it was like an alien world. There was no grass to speak of; any farm that had it was using massive amounts of irrigation to keep it going, and out here, that’s massively wasteful. Barns might be enclosed, but many were built of metal, and set up to be as open as possible, to let the heat out rather than keep it in. The most frequent form of horse storage I saw, and still see, was the pipe corral with the half-roof.

Arizona BarnOpen, airy, designed for shade and for maximum coolness. No five-gallon buckets there: those who don’t use automatic waterers to keep a constant supply of water available (though there can be serious problems with telling whether or how much the horse is drinking, which is why I won’t have them in my barn: learned that the hard way) use large barrels, 30 gallons or more, or stock tanks that can hold hundreds of gallons.

Horses drink more when it’s dry and hot. Much more. 10-50 gallons a day depending on how much they’re doing and how hot it is.

There’s no break in the hay budget for any time of year. Hay that in the north comes in 45-pound bales often hayed locally–and if there’s a drought or a problem with toxicity, there can be significant problems with finding enough for the farm–out here comes in massive, 90-120-pound bales, farmed commercially and purchased through dealers from irrigated fields a hundred miles or more away, with corresponding expense to cover transit as well as farm and harvesting costs.

The up side of that is that hay dealers maintain a constant if expensive supply, and the quality of the hay, for the most part, is high. We supplement for some minerals that are low or missing, such as selenium, but in general have to feed much less grain and far fewer supplements than we hear of elsewhere. It’s a bit of a tradeoff. Not having to maintain pastures balances against the necessity of buying hay year-round. (And not having to mow the lawn is a nice benefit, though there is an ongoing need to keep the brush whacked back and the cactus under control.)

And of course summer is the rough season here. Triple-digit temperatures Fahrenheit, fierce dryness, violent monsoon storms with lightning and flash floods. Fire season is terrifying; grass fires can burn for miles, and the strong spring winds make fighting them a serious challenge.

Winter is show season and all-day riding season, and even in summer we can ride in the cool of the early mornings or the relative cool of the evenings. We can ride year-round if we play our schedules right, which is a nice benefit. We’re also not nearly as beset with biting insects or ticks, though they definitely exist. Some good fly spray and an ear net for the horse may be all we need even in the worst of fly season.

Some things I didn’t know when I moved here, or didn’t expect. Or hadn’t thought about.

Yes, there are still flies, and they still bite. Still have to invest in fly spray. It can be helpful to install fly predators: tiny stingless wasps that, released monthly, feed in fly larvae and keep the population down.

Horses still get worms, and need to be wormed. But horse bots, the tiny sticky yellow eggs of which are an ongoing battle where I come from, don’t happen here at all. And fleas only afflict the farm dogs if they’ve picked up a case in town; it’s mostly too dry and hot for them. So flea prevention isn’t a priority, though we test for heartworm and keep an eye out for ticks. And there is valley fever, a fungal infection that can cause serious trouble, and pigeon fever or dryland distemper, and thrush is still a thing.

Heat exhaustion and dehydration are major issues. Water is vital, both to hydrate the horse and to keep him cool.

Sand colic. I had never heard of it before I moved here. So much of our ground is sandy that horses, if fed on the ground, can ingest major quantities of sand, to the point of blockage, which can be fatal. Prevention involves monthly dosing with psyllium (aka Metamucil), which is supposed to bind the sand and push enough of it out to prevent the dangerous impaction.

Horses will grow heavy winter coats though it may be 90 degrees F in October; some have to be clipped, or hosed off regularly to keep them cool. But come November or December, temperatures can plummet abruptly, and there may be winter rains. Then we may actually need horse blankets, because horses have no time to adapt to the change in temperature, especially if it comes with wind and icy rain. But then in a day or two it’s warm again, and the horses are sweating in their heavy coats.

In spring we get the reverse: shedding season, just as in the north, and alternations of heat and cold that challenge the horse, and its keeper, to keep up.

It’s alike in some ways but very different in others. Different priorities. Different advantages, different forms of crisis. Horses are still horses, with the same metabolism and issues, but the land and the climate sometimes need different forms of management.

The fact that horses can do well here is a testimony to their adaptability. With enough water and the right kind of feed, if kept warm or cool in season, they’ll thrive. I’ve been surprised that mine don’t seem to miss freely available grass; the hay is good and they get plenty of it, and it seems to satisfy them.

I’ve even had horses brought in from the Northwest where cool and rain are a staple, who show signs of not appreciating either rain or mud at all. They bask in the heat and don’t seem to mind the sun. That’s been a surprise–pleasant, since I brought them here, and reassuring, because I don’t have to worry that they’ll pine for their native rain forest. Just have to teach them about cactus–always a sharp lesson–and make sure to keep the water coming, both inside and out.

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Horsekeeping in the Dry Lands — 11 Comments

  1. Perhaps the horses from the northeast who bask in the sun are like some people (me included) for whom the joy of sunshine is worth the heat and the drought worries.

  2. I was astonished, when I was researching Robert Scott’s expeditions to the South Pole, that he deemed ponies a good beast of burden for Antarctic conditions. Every scrap of food for them must be brought from milder climes, since there is nothing green in Antarctica at all. Hooves are not really good for snow conditions unless the ponies are trained to use equine snow shoes (which do exist). And of course the ponies had to be shipped by sea, across some of the roughest oceans in the world. (And it was purely his fault that he had an incompetent horseman select ponies that were aged, ill-trained and full of flaws.) In spite of all these egregious errors many ponies did survive several seasons and traveled with Scott a goodly way across the Polar plateau before being shot and eaten.

  3. And then there’s the very tough lesson that I learned in that very tough way–the extremes of the day/night temps, especially during seasonal transitions and coat changes, can be pretty hard on them–handling that proactively with extra food and electrolytes works well, but only if you know to do it *before* it becomes necessary! :/ Prolly the altitude here plays a role in that, too.

    • That’s why I blanket despite the machismo crowd that sneers at me. It’s one way to make sure the sudden temperature drops don’t cause issues. Along with, as you said, constant careful monitoring. And multiple weather apps.

      • I wish Duncan was easier to blanket. I mean, he’s a gentleman, but a lot of money spent and a variety of blankets/sizes tried have never turned one up that won’t rub his shoulders. 😛 So I minimize.

        • Oh, that’s frustrating. I’ve been lucky that mine all manage to fit into something, and Pooka is a total Weatherbeeta 72. If I stick with that and Saxon, he’s fine; good thing because of his Issue with cold.