Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Viability of the "Project Horse"

So it's been a few years and your farm is up and running. You feel pretty good about the care you're providing your horses, and you're no longer drowning in start-up projects. I think it's pretty natural at this stage (if not sooner!) to start thinking about acquiring more horses. After all, you have the space and you can tell yourself that spreading the fixed costs across more horses actually means that each horse costs you less. You're saving money, right!? (Okay, not really, but this is how we horse people think.)

One idea you may have is to take on a project horse, something you will buy, train up, and sell--hopefully at a profit. The recipe for success with a project horse is complex:

  • One sound, sane horse with potential for success in your discipline, acquired for a reasonable price (bonus points if said horse is flashy, but at the very least it should be a desirable breed, size, sex, and color)
  • Minimal-cost horse care/board (here is where it is crucial to have your own farm because it's much less feasible to profit on a project if you're paying $500-1000+ for board per month)
  • Regular doses of skilled riding and training (with support from trainers as needed)
  • Required registrations and competition entry fees, and success at those competitions
  • Good luck so that horse will remain sound, sane, and marketable
If you have all those ingredients, making money on a project horse is possible, but I wanted to relate my experience with this in the hopes that it helps anyone thinking of taking on the same thing. This isn't exactly related to farm management, but it's a topic that does often come up for farm owners.

The Project Pony

I bought Gwen in July of 2018. Here's another tip: if you buy a resale project, you're off to a good start if it's totally adorable! Just look at this cute face and big poofy forelock:

Gwen meets Dominick the Donkey for the first time, in a showdown of adorableness.

Gwen was a green-ish 7-year-old who had been through a couple of owners and was currently at a very small lesson barn where she wasn't quite suitable to the beginner clientele due to her forwardness and sensitivity. As far as I could tell when I first bought her, her pros as a project were:
  • Adorable (see photo for proof)
  • Well-kept and apparently healthy
  • Not too old
  • Clean legs, eyes, etc
  • Good feet
  • Decent gaits
  • Described as pretty unflappable (this turned out to be true)
  • Game to jump (very true!)
  • No apparent vices (also true)
  • Registerable with a breed association
Her cons were:
  • Plain bay mare
  • Too small for most adults
  • Too forward/sensitive for many kids
  • Some holes in her training (rushy canter, no concept of correct contact)
The Project Plan...and Reality

When I bought Gwen in July I planned to sell her within 3 to 9 months. I charted out expected monthly expenses, added in a buffer for unexpected extras, and calculated the price I'd need to sell her for to break even at 3 or 9 months. (I deleted that document a while ago but remember it not being terribly far off reality as far as monthly and occasional expenses.)

The first thing I discovered was that three months was wildly unrealistic. She hadn't been in consistent work when I bought her so I conservatively spent about a month legging her up to avoid injuries. It was a good way to get to know each other too. We spent most of that month on the trails, first just walking and then as the weeks passed adding in trot and canter. She proved to be a phenomenal trail horse--brave, confident without other horses, and very surefooted. My young horse was lame at that time with an uncertain future, and riding Gwen through the woods and fields was very therapeutic.

Nothing soothes the soul like a view of nature through a good horse's ears.
We started jumping lessons after about a month and I learned that although she was extremely game, she was also greener than I expected. She had a lot of scope and could get around a course, but tended to get flat and fast. Jumping lessons proved crucial to bringing her along well. Most of my experience is in dressage, so I don't think I could have added as much value to her without jumping lessons.

At the end of three months, we had just done our first horse trial (starter/elementary-level). She tied for first in dressage and jumped double clear despite some nasty weather and slick footing. I was thrilled with her performance and with how much fun I'd had. That was probably about the time I realized I wasn't selling her before winter, and resigned myself to buying some pony-sized blankets.

In month five we did our first Beginner Novice horse trial (still unrecognized) and she was just as fabulous. We spent the winter dabbling in foxhunting (not her strength...she got uncharacteristically wired) and working on our dressage and jumping.

Pony's got springs! In a demonstration of her scope, 13.2 hh Gwen easily clears a 3'3" oxer during a winter lesson.
In month nine, when spring rolled around, we did another unrecognized Beginner Novice then moved up to recognized, where she still excelled at the jumping phases while turning out respectable (though not usually top-placing) dressage tests. Now I felt like I had created demonstrable value, because in addition to being much much more rideable over fences and correct on the flat, she was logging recognized show miles.

At the end of month eleven I put her on the market and she was sold within two weeks. I still miss her but am thrilled with the home she found, with a smaller adult amateur who is a better size for her and spoils "the princess" rotten.

The Project Profitability

Although I kept her for longer than expected, I recognize that I got pretty damn lucky with this project all-around. She was super easy to add to my menagerie because she was happy to live outside alone when needed but also got along when turned out with others. She wasn't "mare-ish" at all. She didn't turn out to be chronically unsound or nutty. She didn't have any devastating injuries. I found a buyer pretty quickly once I decided to sell.

And yet, I still didn't make any money. Let me break it down for you. As you may have learned already, I'm kind of a spreadsheet person so naturally I tracked every single expense related to the pony in an Excel document. I didn't factor in my time/labor or any general property-related expenses since she was an "add-on" to my existing herd.

Here is a summary of my expenses:

Pony purchase: $1,600
One year of "board": $598 (yes, you read that right...less than $50/month for grain, hay, and bedding)
Trims/shoeing: $740 (she was barefoot until shortly before I sold her)
Vet/dentist/meds: $2,439 (about $1,000 routine and $1,500 to resolve a specific issue)
Equipment (saddle fitting, pony-sized girth, fly mask, blankets, etc): $690 but I sold some of it with her for $320, so net of $370

Factoring in only the above expenses, I pretty much broke even when I sold her after a year.

However, I spent about $2,200 on shows, foxhunting, and clinics. Obviously those were fun and educational for me but the shows were also required to justify her sales price, which was a good amount above the $1,600 I had spent on the good-natured but green pony.

I also spent about $2k in dressage and jumping lessons during that time. Again, those were partially for my education and enjoyment, but I would not have created as much value in the pony without them. I could have brought her along fairly well on the flat because I have a strong dressage background, but I was getting back into jumping after some time off and both the pony and I really benefited from the jumping lessons.

In the end, I decided it was fair to apportion half of the shows, clinics, lessons, etc to the pony's development costs and half to myself because I was benefiting too. Adding up all the expenses I mentioned above plus half of those costs, I lost about $2,500 on my project pony. I don't regret it at all because I think $2,500 is a small price to pay for a year of fun with a freakin adorable pony, but it's certainly not a good business model. Good thing I'm not in horses for the money!

I can't say I won't ever do the project horse thing again, but I do worry that I wouldn't get so lucky twice. I would also be careful to start with one that I think will be easy and low-maintenance like Gwen, but you really never know what you've got until you bring a new horse home and work with it for a bit.

Just some food for thought if you find yourself wondering whether you can fill that extra stall with a money maker!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Winter Hay Feeding: Round Bales vs. Small Square Bales

I've found sourcing good hay to be one of the most difficult and stressful parts of horse ownership. I'm lucky to be in an area with many options, and I still struggle. I try to choose what I think looks good (nice smell, no apparent dust/mold, no apparent weeds/trash, not too stemmy) but my horses can turn their noses up at stuff that looks and smells perfectly fine to me, even in winter when they have little else to eat. So, I like to pick up a few sample bales to feed before I commit to a whole load. That doesn't work 100% but it's better than relying on my own senses.

Turns out it's not always this easy...
Last year for the first time I tried feeding large bales (round bales or large 3'x3'x8' square bales) in the winter, and it's been a really mixed experience. First of all, round bales or large squares (I'll just use "round bales" as shorthand for the rest of this post) present some logistical problems for the small farm. They're big (duh!) and hard to move. I typically buy one at a time, bring it home in the bed of the pickup truck, and roll it off the truck to wherever I want it. I can even get a whole-bale hay net on there by myself in the process. But, I can't flip the bale onto its end or move it onto the pallet I put underneath to try to keep it dry, so hubby has to help with that part. I also bought a secondhand bale spear for my 23-horsepower Kubota, which works well if I need to store one in the garage for a little while before feeding it. Obviously without a large tractor and specialized machinery, I can't stack them, so if I bought more than one at a time they'd take up a lot of floor space.

The major pros of round bales are the daily labor savings and the cost. It's so much easier to put out a round bale every few weeks than it is to dole out square bales daily, whether I'm putting them in hanging hay nets or hay boxes or just throwing them into the Hay Hut (the easiest option for square bales by far, though the horses do pull some of it out onto the ground).

My first winter, hubby and I built this 4x4 Slow Grazer box. I used to fill this with about 1.5 bales every evening for the two horses and mini-donkey. It's a nice design but honestly a pain to fill. You can't just throw two bales in there because the horses can't eat it well through the grate unless the flakes are separated and fluffed a bit. P.S. Most donkeys, especially minis, should not have unrestricted access to hay for health/weight reasons.
I also used to hang hay in nets on the fence in the dry lot. Here Dominick the Donkey demonstrates that a little no-climb wire can't keep him from food!

If the weather is cold/wet enough, I hang a few nets in the run-in shed. Here are Z and Mr. F sharing nicely (not for long, I'm sure). I always hang one more net than there are horses, and spread them out so no one has to fight for hay.
With a round bale, I also get some peace of mind knowing that the horses always have plenty to eat, even if I'm working late. In the rare event that I go out of town, someone else can care for them with minimal labor.

I have also definitely saved some money feeding round bales. Here were my average hay costs per horse per month from December to February by year (the horse count doesn't include the mini-donkey because he eats relatively little and has been a constant--sorry Dominick!):

2014-2015: $101/horse/month (small squares...I don't think I fed the best hay this first year, out of ignorance, which is part of why costs were so low)
2015-2016: $156/horse/month (small squares)
2016-2017: $157/horse/month (small squares)
2017-2018: $152/horse/month (small squares)
2018-2019: $94/horse/mo (round bales supplemented with 4-12 small squares per month)
Dec 2019: $59/horse/mo (round bales supplemented with 6 small squares)

The cost savings look great, but unfortunately some of my horses haven't maintained weight well on round bales and a lot of each bale goes to waste. They're just not that enthusiastic about them and they seem willing to starve themselves to some extent. Some people say, "If they get hungry enough they'll eat them," but I'm not willing to let my horses lose weight and condition just to save myself some work and money.

One of my Thoroughbreds four days before I put out the first roundbale of the season.

The same horse, noticeably thinner after being on a roundbale for a month. Interestingly, this weight loss was despite dramatically increasing his grain from ration balancer plus 2 lbs/day of rice bran to 7 lbs/day of Triple Crown Senior. It wasn't a very cold month either. And he was out of work for a couple weeks so he should have needed fewer calories!
Update 1/24: After less than 2 weeks back on square bales, the Thoroughbred's ribs are already less visible. His workload and grain ration stayed the same.
In my case, none of this lack of enthusiasm is due to the horses wasting the round bale or it being exposed to the weather. I use a Hay Chix round bale net to keep horses from pulling the hay out to use as a bed or toilet, and a Hay Hut to protect it from the elements. (Side note: if you just have to pick one, I think the Hay Hut does more than the net. Also, although it's quite expensive it's much more durable than a net. Mine had some quality control issues like holes not lining up, so I think it was a bit overpriced, but it has done its job. If you're lucky you might be able to find one used at a significant discount. Also, if you have horses with shoes it's not safe to put a round bale in a net without something to keep them from stepping in/on it. I did this for literally 24 hours once when I was in a bind, and I witnessed one of my horses getting tangled and panicking.)

I think the waste and weight loss are caused by a combination of two factors:

1) Horses seem to believe that hay has an "expiration date" once set out, even if it's protected from the weather. If you have more horses they will eat the round bale fast enough that it doesn't reach the expiration date (and hopefully some are on the less picky end of the spectrum and willing to clean up what the princes and princesses won't touch). With only two to three horses, I've found that a lot of each bale gets left behind and goes to waste.

2) Round bale palatability, in my experience, is lower than square bales. They seem to eat 80-100% of most square bales but only about 60% of round bales. (Some of the ~40% they don't eat has probably reached its "expiration date" but I also think some of it was unpalatable to begin with. Even from the beginning of a new bale there are mouthfuls that they will taste then let fall out of their mouths, or move out of the way to get to the choicer parts.)

Usually after two weeks it's hard to tell if the hay level is going down at all. I untie the hay net so they can pick through it more easily, but that hasn't done the trick. The longest I've left one out was a month, and at that point they weren't eating it at all. After two weeks or so I'm typically wondering if they're eating enough and worrying about them losing weight. My horses will eat about 30 lbs/day each of square bales, so a 600-lb round bale should only last about 10 days with 2 horses if they're eating at the same rate. The fact that a round bale lasts me weeks and weeks means that a) they're just not that into it and b) they're not getting the nutrition they need.

After 3 weeks, there is still a LOT of this second cutting orchard grass round bale left! I untied the net to let them pick through it more easily in the hopes that they'd eat more, but they still never finished it.
Part of the problem might also be that it's harder to evaluate quality before you buy. Unlike with small square bales, you can't grab one to try or break it open to see how it looks inside. I recently ended up with a round bale that my horses would barely pick at, and there was no good way to get rid of it. If you place your round bales out in pastures it's not a big deal to just leave it out there to rot and move on to the next one, but I put mine in the dry lot so leaving it there would ruin the expensive stonedust footing. Having to deal with a massive pile of uneaten hay every few weeks partially offsets the time/labor savings that make round bales attractive in the first place.

Giant pile of uneaten hay that needs to be moved before I can place the new bale (which, by the way, is easier to unload if it's turned 90 degrees so you can roll it off the tailgate). 

I ended up dragging the pile of hay out to the field to decompose, which is probably more stress than I should put on my round bale net regularly.
I'm perfectly willing to consider that I'm buying sub-par round bales, but I've gotten them from a very reputable supplier that I've bought square bales from for a couple of years. I've tried to find other sources but so far the strongest endorsements I've gotten from any friends are "okay but we've gotten some bad ones" and "my horses ate one but not the other"--not exactly confidence-inspiring. I also wanted to try putting out only half of a 3'x3'x8' at a time, but I haven't been able to find any of those this year (and the one I tried last year was not well-liked by my horses anyway). For at least the rest of this winter I'll be going back to small square bales thrown into the Hay Hut daily, for my peace of mind and the horses' health.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

If One Donkey Is Good, Two Are Better!

Dominick the Donkey has been part of my herd pretty much since I brought my horses home, in August 2014. I found him on Craigslist and brought him home from an unsanitary horse dealer's lot where he was living in a large concrete pen with a couple dozen other equines, picking straw and hay out of muck piles. :-( Amazingly, despite coming from a bad setting, he had obviously been well cared for in the past because he was in good weight and had healthy, well-managed feet.

For 5.5 years, Dominick has enjoyed being one of the gang with the horses. Unfortunately, horses and donkeys (especially miniatures like Dom) have very different nutritional requirements. My large, hard-working horses do best with free-choice forage, whereas Dom needs his intake limited. In the summer this is easy because the gang comes into the barn for the day to avoid the heat and bugs, where each stall/run is stocked with the right amount of hay for its occupant (full hay nets for the horses, and a single flake for Dom). Overnight while they're turned out on grass, Dom wears a grazing muzzle.

Winter has been a bigger challenge because full-time turnout with unlimited hay is easiest for me and healthiest for them, but makes it difficult to manage Dom's weight. He tolerates a muzzle 24/7 but I hate that he doesn't get a break from it, and even with the muzzle he tends to come out of winter fatter than he went in. I can't separate him from his horse friends to give him a break from the muzzle either because he will freak out alone, even if they're still in sight.

So, I finally decided to cave and acquire a buddy for Dom, so that he can be dry-lotted with a friend and appropriate forage while the horses are turned out 24/7. Which leads me to...

Welcome home, Lancelot!!!!

Mr. F says, "Mom, I don't know if you realize but there's a small gray thing in my stall..."
Lance came from a wonderful Maryland rescue, Lost and Found Horse Rescue, which despite its name rescues primarily donkeys. He is about two years old and was born to a feral herd, so although Ashley at LFHR has done a terrific job getting him healthy, he is still very timid around people and easily frightened. Thankfully he is also highly food-motivated so every evening I hold a bucket with some Triple Crown Senior and while he eats I scratch and groom him. We're also working on giving to pressure and leading properly, because right now leading involves me luring him from one place to another with a bucket of grain. Thank goodness he loves his food!

After only a couple of days together, Dom and Lance are sharing a stall and a hay net. I think they will be inseparable before long! I also think Dom will be a good influence as Lance is already getting braver around me while he watches Dom approach fearlessly for treats and attention. I love that Dom will have a friend his size to play with because he clearly enjoyed playing with my yearling a few years back, but hasn't had anyone who will play with him since.

What I've learned from this is that although donkeys are wonderful, they are not ideal companions for horses unless you can limit grass/hay or separate them at least part of the time. When I first got Dom I was stalling my horses during the day in summer and overnight in winter, which worked well for him, but as my horse management practices have evolved I've had to adjust my donkey management too. I hope that having a buddy brings Dom joy and helps keep him healthy for years to come.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Cleaning Saddle Pads

Confession: I suck at keeping horse gear clean. At shows I tend to hope that most people will be focused on their own business, and any dirt or stains noticed in the show ring will be attributed to the warm-up. I always manage to bump against some dirty, greasy part of the truck or trailer while wearing my white breeches. I tend to just buy cheap white show pads and breeches so I don't feel so bad when I ruin them.

But as a generally neat and tidy person, I don't want to be that slob. So, I've recently been experimenting with some different methods of cleaning saddle pads and here's what I've learned.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Okay, this one thing makes a huge difference! After each hot summer ride, turn the hose on full-blast, hang the saddle pad upside down on a fence, and spray the dirt and sweat off the underside of the pad before it dries and hardens. I also use a Strip Hair groomer to flick off the hair. Leave the pad out to dry in the sun. It should be soft and relatively clean in a few hours. If you add this to your daily routine, your pads will stay cleaner and go longer between real washes.

For a deep clean, try a pressure washer
If you have a farm, odds are you have a pressure washer. If not, you should! They're incredibly useful for cleaning pretty much everything...trailers, buildings, concrete floors, horse brushes, you name it. (Not the horses though!) I recently broke mine out and sprayed off all my saddle pads with just water. For some of the pads, I found the results almost miraculous.

Look at this Euro Eventer pad! I washed half of the underside and was so amazed at the results that obviously I had to take a picture. The crazy thing is that I don't use this pad often at all, so the dirt was old and well set. It had also already been washed in the machine. This is not fresh dirt coming off. Amazing!

I tried both the 40-degree and 25-degree nozzles. The 25-degree one was probably a little much and I did notice damage to some of the cheaper pads afterwards. If you go this route, be careful, start with lower pressure, and test it on your older or less-expensive pads first.

I soaked a few pads in Oxy Clean for a couple of hours before pressure washing and didn't really notice a difference between those pads and the others.

For tough stains, try Fels Naptha soap
You know those dark boot stains right behind the girth? Try pre-treating them with a bar of Fels Naptha soap. The old boot stains I treated with it didn't come out completely, but I was surprised how much things improved. I can't wait to try it on a fresher stain!
Boot stain before Fels Naptha soap

Same boot stain after Fels Naptha soap
One pad from beginning to end

Show pad before cleaning

Show pad after soaking in Oxy Clean and pressure washing with just water

Show pad after pressure washing, spot treating with Fels Naptha soap, and machine washing on the deep clean cycle with bleach and hot water. It's not perfect but it's definitely a lot more presentable. If I had washed this right after use I think the results would have been much better.

I don't feel like I've mastered this because that white show pad is still not sparkling clean. How do people do that? Other things I'd like to try are spraying new pads with Scotch Guard before use and washing show pads immediately after the show (duh).

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

My Resident Foxes :-)

Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with farm management!

We have always had occasional fox sightings on the farm, including a wonderful morning of watching a momma fox pounce on mole after mole in the pasture and take them back to her den. This winter, for the first time, two foxes have been hanging around regularly enough that I see them several times a week. I've seen the horses watch them race through the pasture. I've seen them flee from the dry lot when I go out to feed the horses. I've surprised them in my barn aisle a few times coming back from a ride. One even jumped out of the Hay Hut as I approached one cold, rainy day! (I've also found bunny halves in my manure pile, but I can live with that.)

A couple of days ago I walked out to the barn to tack up for a ride and saw a furry red blob in the trees behind the barn. I ran back inside for my camera and crept up again, snapping some pics before going out to the pasture to catch the pony.

Unfortunately I scared him/her away walking out to the pasture, but once there I couldn't believe my eyes...the second fox was also curled up in an adorable red ball, in the pasture with the horses! I felt pretty guilty disturbing their nap time (the pony was lying down too!) but I had a jumping lesson to get to.

I really love seeing them and hope they stick around. I have no idea if they are a mated pair but I do hope there are cubs in the spring!

End of summer update 9/14: No cubs. :-( I saw our resident fox, Basil, every single day all spring and early summer but then one day he disappeared. I didn't see him at all for 4-6 weeks and was pretty worried he had gotten hit by a car. Then one day he was back in his usual spot by the stream! Then gone again. I know he comes around at night (we have a trail cam) but we don't see him regularly anymore. Maybe next year!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Snow Days

Snow is beautiful but it certainly creates some challenges for horsekeeping! I consider myself lucky that here in the Mid-Atlantic we usually only get a handful of significant snowfalls each winter. Although that does mean that rather than sticking to a set routine, I get to agonize anew every time over how to manage the horses and handle the aftermath!

Although I started out keeping my horses in during the day in summer and in during the night in winter, with the construction of my dry lot I can now stall my horses as little as possible without them demolishing the pasture. So the past couple of winters I've avoided stalling almost entirely by closing them in the dry lot overnight and opening the gate to one section of the pasture during the day. This has worked out really well, as it significantly reduces my chore time (especially in the cold, dark mornings before work, when all I have to do is open a gate) and allows the horses to be out moving around as much as possible. Knowing that they have a shed to retreat to in bad weather, I never have to worry about them. I love love love my dry lot! (See more on its construction here.) As well as being generally useful and wonderful, my dry lot gives me more turnout options during snowy weather. In this post I discuss the factors I consider when managing my horses during snow and cold weather.

Horse comfort: Some people tend to project their temperature preferences on their horses. "If I'm cold with a sweater and coat on, Dobbin needs a heavy blanket and a hood and to stay inside tonight!" Keep in mind that horses are designed to handle cold weather much better than humans. Their respiratory system, digestive system, insulating coats, and sheer muscle mass all enable them to be comfortable outside at temperatures that would leave most of us wanting to curl up in front of a cozy fireplace. They may even be warmer outside moving around than stuck in a small box in the barn. Keep in mind that if you do turn out in cold weather, it's very important that they have shelter from rain and wind as well as ample hay to fuel the internal furnace.

As far as blanketing, while I do own turnout sheets and medium-weight turnout blankets for each of my horses, I leave my unclipped horses naked unless they actually need clothes. As temperatures start to drop in the fall, I monitor their comfort every chilly morning. If they seem happy and comfortable, I let them stay au naturale. If they are running around to stay warm, huddling in the shelter, losing weight, or shivering, they need to be blanketed appropriately! (Too much blanketing is, in my opinion, worse than not enough because the horse can sweat and then become dangerously chilled.)

Mr. F may look cold with his frost-tipped mane, but he's happy, healthy, and in great weight. He hasn't worn a blanket in two years, since he retired and stopped needing to be clipped. He's turning 23 this year and I will continue to evaluate as his needs change with age.
On the other hand, I found my pony shivering this fall, even before I clipped her, and she now basically lives in a medium with a hood. Although she's half Welsh, she's also half Thoroughbred and tends to be a little more sensitive. She also needs to gain a few pounds so I don't want her shivering off any calories. Plus she has a bib clip now to reduce sweating during work. All of these things mean she needs clothes, and I'm happy to provide them!
Of course, the clipped ones are blanketed proactively because I've removed one of their main natural defenses against the cold. Just last week I purchased an off-track Thoroughbred that came up from Florida and is clipped to the bone, nose to toes. I happen to own a heavy turnout blanket in his size and he may be the first horse on my property to ever wear a heavy, if temperatures drop further. (Usually it doesn't get cold enough here for heavies for unclipped or partially clipped horses, though I might very rarely layer sheets and mediums if necessary. In fact, last night the weather surprised me by dropping to 12 degrees and he was still comfortable in his medium with a hood.)

This won't apply to those poor people who don't have a long-ear in their life 😉, but Dominick the Donkey also gets blanketed during winter precipitation because as a desert animal, his coat lacks the waterproofing oils of the horses. This leads to adorable morning scenes like the icicle donkey below:

Footing: A bigger risk in my mind than cold horses is horses running around on dangerous footing. Again, fresh snow is not usually a big deal, especially if it's a nice, powdery, dry snow. The horses love to play in it!

Nothing like fresh powdery snow to help show off that nice big trot...

...until you take a bad step and faceplant in a drift. Okay, he's not the most graceful horse in the world but he came out of it with no harm done.
Unfortunately here in the Mid-Atlantic our snow is more commonly the wet and heavy type that balls up in the horses' feet and then hardens into lumpy ice the next day. You also have to worry about the underlying dirt or footing being disturbed by hoofprints and then freezing into hard lumps, or thawing during the day to leave a layer of mud that's "slick as snot," as my farrier would say. I tend to shoe my horses with rim snow pads and turn out no matter what, but I fully understand why many people will keep their horses inside in this type of footing. A nice compacted stonedust dry lot does help, but even that will be pockmarked with hoofprints when it gets saturated with melting snow.

The sand-and-stonedust mixture in front of the shed is saturated from the melting snow, and by morning it will be frozen into hard lumps. I've already picked as much manure as I can but don't look too's not what I'd call clean! 
Water: I am extremely fortunate to have a heated Nelson waterer in the dry lot, so I really don't have to worry about this anymore. But if you don't have a heated waterer and it's cold enough to snow, obviously it's cold enough to freeze your water buckets or trough! If your area gets to the 30s or below in the winter, definitely try to run power out to your pastures so you can plug in trough defrosters or large heated buckets. It won't make the water warm, but at least it will keep it flowing and the horses hydrated! I used to use this 16-gallon bucket from Allied Precision, which was the perfect size for two large horses and a mini-donkey to use for 8 hours a day. I preferred it to a large trough because it would be close enough to empty by the end of the day that I could easily dump it, unplug it for the night, and start over with fresh water in the morning.

Cleanup: I pick manure from the dry lot daily to prevent it from mixing into the stonedust footing and ruining my expensive investment, and picking manure from snow is THE WORST! So when there's significant snow, I sometimes do keep the horses inside overnight just because stall cleaning is a million times easier than the old poop-ball-in-the-snow treasure hunt. And as bad as that is with fresh snow, just wait until the snow partially melts then refreezes, encapsulating the manure in a shell of icy sludge and cementing it to the ground! At that point, you need a metal pitchfork and sometimes a sledgehammer to chisel it out. Once the snow melts, I have to do some tedious extra cleanup to prevent the now-soggy manure bits from mixing into the footing.

What's the only thing that can make cleaning manure in the snow more difficult and annoying? A stubborn ass standing between the manure and the muck tub!

This is as clean as it's going to get for a while.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Short-Term Hay Storage Shed Design

One of the things I've noticed about farm life is that every solution comes with new problems. That's the pessimistic way to put it I guess! What I mean is that whenever I make an improvement that I think will make my life easier or my horses' lives better, it inevitably comes with new, smaller issues that need to be resolved. For example, when I started rotating my pasture I found that although it was very good for pasture health, no horse traffic in an area for weeks at a time encourages wildlife to move in, so I find myself filling rabbit holes more often. (No groundhogs yet, fingers crossed.)

Here's another example, and the topic of this post: I installed a dry lot to save the pasture in bad weather, get the horses out of their stalls, and save myself labor as far as turn in/out and stall cleaning--and now I've found that there are more things I need to do to make that work. Specifically, I need somewhere to store hay near the dry lot.

Building hay storage into the shed wasn't very practical because of how the shed is sited (on the far side of the dry lot, abutting the field). Last winter I stored hay for turnout on a pallet covered in tarp, but that system doesn't work well in warmer weather when the hay is more likely to get moldy. I decided to put a 4'x8' shed with double front doors near the main gate to the dry lot. That should leave room for a couple pallets of hay (my goal is to keep a week's worth), a couple bars for hanging spare (dry) blankets, and a few hooks for miscellaneous things like feed bags.

I'm fairly handy and have a lot of tools, so I thought building it myself might be an option. I found these instructions that seemed pretty straightforward. To estimate cost, I added all of the materials I would need to a Home Depot shopping cart, which quickly reached almost $600, not even including the roof and doors! I decided that once I factored in those things and the opportunity cost of my time (and inevitable frustration as something didn't go as planned), maybe the DIY option wasn't worthwhile after all.

I spent a day shopping around online with little success. Many lower-cost options are metal, which I don't want for hay storage due to lack of breathability, and many wooden ones were too big (starting at 8'x8'). Finally I emailed a local place where a friend had bought a very large and extravagant shed a few months back. I was in luck! They had a 4'x8' lean-to style shed with the exact configuration I wanted, and it was even painted green with off-white trim, to complement (or at least not clash too badly with) my light-green-with-white-trim run-in. Including tax and delivery, it would cost $1,090. As much as I didn't want to spend that, it was only a few hundred dollars more than the DIY idea would cost, and I wouldn't have to kill an entire weekend building the thing.

Over the weekend, I chose a level site near the gate and prepped it by stripping the topsoil with the tractor. This was much easier than I expected, as my tractor is only 23 HP. Apparently the ground was just the right amount of soft for the job, without being wet or mucky. I tidied up the edges a bit with the shovel and retired to the house rather proud of my hour's work!

Dominick the Donkey provided expert supervision during site prep.

The hole ended up being 18" longer and wider than the shed, which is what the internet recommends (so it must be true, right?). It was about 6-7" deep. I was aiming for 12" wider and 4" deep but my tractor skills aren't all that refined.

The next day, the local landscape supply store delivered a load of CR-6. I was originally planning on ordering 1 ton but since I got a little overzealous with the tractor, I decided 2 would be safer. It was about $30 per ton plus a $30 delivery fee, so around $90 total.

After the stone was delivered, I spread it around in the hole with the tractor bucket, then leveled it roughly. I wet it down to aid in compaction, topped it off with a bucketful of stonedust from my stockpile (handy stuff!), then drove back and forth many times, checking level once in a while. I think a plate compactor is recommended but this shed is relatively small and has its own 4x4 base and skids, so I was a little casual about it.

The newly delivered shed sits well on the little base I made it:

Inside I have two pallets for hay, hooks, a blanket rack, and some miscellaneous stuff I like to keep out near the field:

The light just under the eaves is a battery-powered motion sensor light I screwed into the wall so I can see what I'm doing in there. I have a few more of those lights scattered around the farm, like near the gate to the pasture, and they come in handy.
Since hay was what I'd be using from the shed most often, I positioned it so I could access it without having to open both doors. There's actually a second stack of hay to the right too, so I can fit 6 bales easily and 8 if I want to stack to the ceiling.

I was sure when I first wrote this post 1.5 years ago (whoops!) that a family of coyotes or something would move into it and cause yet another problem for me to solve, but so far this shed has been problem-free! It has even withstood some really high winds, despite the fact that I never got around to anchoring it like maybe I should.

Friday, June 29, 2018

PVC Strip Doors for Stalls

I love that my horses can go in and out of their stalls at will, but one problem with having the Dutch doors open all the time is that rain and snow sometimes blow in. If I had shelled out for a real overhang on that side of the barn (major regret!), that might not be a problem. But the overhang is only a few inches and adding one now would be a huge, expensive project so I looked for an alternative and found out about PVC strip doors. You may have seen them in warehouses or walk-in freezers.

Purchase and Installation

I purchased "PVC stip doors" from Hoover Fence. It cost $145.53 for the mounting hardware and enough strips to cover each 4' wide doorway. The strips have little holes at the top that you use to hang them from the mounting bracket. It only takes a step stool and a few minutes to put them on or take them off. When you first get them, you trim them to fit the height of your doorway (a pair of sharp scissors works just fine, no need to mess with utility knives). I made sure to cut mine just short enough that a horse couldn't step on a trailing end and rip the whole thing down. You should install them so that they overlap each other a little bit.


Since my horses had never experienced strip doors before, I acclimated them to the strips slowly. I added once to each side first so their barrels would just brush against the strips. I led them in and out of their stalls a few times to make sure no one was going to freak out. After a few days I increased it to two on each side and then three. That left only a small gap in the middle that they could stick their noses through (as you can see in the first picture below). After a few more days I added the final strip so that they had to actively part the strips with their noses. My horses never showed any anxiety about the strips, even the very-cautious donkey who took months to decide the Bar Bar A waterer was safe to use, and I probably could have put them all up in just a day or two if I had wanted.

R sticks his head through the gap in the strips that I've left to acclimate him to walking through him.

Even the donkey, who is super cautious about new things, figured out the strips pretty quickly. (Pardon the poo, but that nose was too cute to not photograph!)

You can see in the photos below how the strips reduce the amount of rain blown into the bedding (this photo isn't super-dramatic but there's definitely a difference, I swear. If it's super windy and the rain is blowing sideways from east to west (my stalls face east), some rain might come in, but nowhere near as much as when the strips aren't there.

You can kind of see the darker bedding that got wet when the rain blew in.

With the strips installed, the bedding is totally dry.

One benefit I hadn't given much thought to was keeping the stalls a little warmer in the winter. Horses handle cold very well and my part of the country (the mid-Atlantic area) doesn't get cold enough to be a problem, but frozen water buckets and things like that are a pain. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the strips make a significant difference in the amount of ice in stall water buckets after a cold night.

I removed some of the strips from one stall as an experiment. The bucket on the left came from a stall only half-enclosed with PVC strips. The bucket on the right came from one fully enclosed. You can see a big difference in the amount of ice in the buckets.

I have had issues with undesirable birds like starlings trying to nest in my barn every spring, so it occurred to me that the strips might help with this too. My aisle and aisle windows are not screened off in any way, so birds can still get into the barn and I have seen them fly around the stalls looking for a way out, unable to get through the strips. If you have a major bird problem and want to enclose all of your doors and windows, PVC strips could be part of that plan.

A few times I have seen undesirables like horseflies and wasps trapped inside the stalls though, and unlike birds they're not generally smart enough to seek another way out, so that's one thing to consider.


The first full year I had the strips, I found that they were not advantageous in the warmer months. Not only do they occasionally trap unpleasant insects inside the stalls, but they also block the breeze. So, I typically put them up in the fall and take them down in early summer, when I start to feel like they're making the stalls stuffy. I do wish I had them up sometimes during summer thunderstorm season, especially when the rain blows sideways and soaks a large portion of the stall!

Cleaning and Storage

The strips do get grungy over time from the horses walking in and out (especially if you have a dusty donkey--it cracks me up to see the strips for his door totally clean at the top and filthy at the bottom 3 feet). Also, if you take them down for part of the year you'll want to clean them before you put them away.

The good news is that cleaning them is easy. Because I make all my purchase decisions based on Amazon reviews 😇, I bought a bottle of Meguiar's vinyl cleaner. I drape the strips over the fence of my wash rack, wet them down with the hose, don some rubber gloves, and turn the strips transparent again. One spritz of Meguiar's goes a long way, and it allows you to easily wipe off most of the grunge. I think one bottle will last quite a few years.

Hopefully I don't need to tell you which side is before and which is after!

You don't want to fold the strips up for storage because they will develop creases where they're bent. Once mine have dried in the sun, I roll them up and put them in a box in the garage until fall. (Note: a box containing strips for three stalls is surprisingly heavy!) I try to hang them up again before winter sets in because if it's too cold, the ends of the strips tend to stay curled.