Saturday, October 24, 2015

Pasture Management, with Sample Schedule

Pasture maintenance is one of my top priorities as a farm owner, and one of the things I knew the least about when I started out. If you are lucky enough to live in an area with good pasture, you too should prioritize its health and learn what you can about protecting it. If your pasture is run down, you may be able to revive it. A well-maintained pasture enhances the health of your land and horses, reduces erosion, beautifies your space, and cuts your hay costs. Pasture management is of course highly dependent on local conditions so check with your local agricultural extension office or cooperative for more information!

My pasture was not established. Before we bought our farm, the pasture was an unmaintained field cut twice a year for low-quality hay (entirely for tax reasons, I believe). The first time I ever mowed it, the grass was over 4 feet tall. My horses moved in over the summer and in the general bustle of the first year, I did not do any pasture maintenance other than mowing and dragging (shame on me, I know).

Sample Pasture Maintenance Schedule

This was my pasture maintenance schedule during 2015:
  • February: "Frost seed" 2 lbs of clover per acre using an Earthway hand-crank bag spreader. In retrospect, I didn't need to do this because the clover this year was more than plentiful. Still, frost seeding is a good tool to know about.
  • Early March: Remove horses from pasture after thaw to allow it to rest and regrow. They stayed in the sacrifice area for a month.
  • Mid-March: Collect a soil sample and send it to a lab.
  • Late March: Fertilize according to the soil test results, in my case with 200 lbs of 20-10-10 per acre. I bought the fertilizer at a large agricultural and landscaping supply depot, and I spread it myself using a Brinly Hardy 175 lb tow-behind spreader. There was definitely a learning curve regarding how to set the spreader, but it did the job well.
  • Early April: Overseed with a quality fescue blend, purchased directly from a seed company. The spreader came out again for this task. After spreading the seed, I dragged the pasture with a heavy chain harrow turned tines down, to rough up the surface and increase seed-soil contact.
  • Mid April: Start reintroducing horses to grass, with small but increasing increments of turnout. At this point the grass was quite green and just needed to grow, which it did! After working up to full overnight turnout (16-17 hours a day), the horses stayed on this schedule until the fall.
  • Early August: Lime according to the soil test results, in my case with a little over 1 ton per acre of agricultural lime. This I did not do myself because pelleted lime is very expensive, so I paid a local farmers coop to come out with their truck.
  • September: Overseed areas where grass had gotten thin over the summer.
I had planned to fertilize in the fall as well, but we had almost no rain between July and October, and I was afraid to spread the granules then not be able to turn the horses out because there was nothing to dissolve them.

I also dragged and mowed the field as needed throughout the year. Keep in mind that I'm in the mid-Atlantic area and elsewhere your timing will be different.

I am no expert and I can't say this was the only way to manage my pasture, or even the best, but I hope it was a good first effort.

Pasture Management Resources

To educate myself on what needed to be done, I used many resources, including:
  • Consultation with local farmers and land management experts, including my awesome arena builder who seems to know about everything to do with land and farm management.
  • Visit by the local agricultural extension agent. This wasn't quite as helpful because he wasn't an equine expert and I already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, but it's definitely something to keep in mind.
  • The internet....yes, you could get lost in the web abyss, but there are a lot of good resources. Here are some links that I found useful enough to save for future reference:
    • Basic overviews, from Fairfax County (VA) government: and
    • Pasture and weed management hub from Penn State University, which includes detailed information on managing specific types of grasses and clovers (click on "Pasture Grasses and Forages" to find that):
    • Intro to fertilizing pastures, from the University of Minnesota:
    • The basics of overseeding, including seeding rates, from the University of Kentucky:
    • The basics of frost seeding, including seeding rates, from Michigan State University:
    • A primer on dry lots from the University of Kentucky:
    • Brief primer on rotational grazing with temporary cross-fences from the University of Kentucky:
  • If you know of any good resources, please share it with the rest of us in a comment! I am always looking to learn more on the subject.

The barn is finally stained!

After months of intermittent planning, the interior of the barn is finally stained! I went with a two-tone pattern, with the aisle a lighter color to keep things bright and the stalls a darker color to (hopefully) hide dirt and deter flies.

The aisle was done with Cabot Timber Oil in Natural, and I'm happy with how it turned out (the ceiling was left unstained so don't judge it based on that):

Aisle before
Aisle after (timber oil with semi-transparent trim)
The interior of the stalls (and the trim in the aisle) was done with Cabot semi-transparent stain in oak brown. I wish I had used a darker shade of timber oil instead! The semi-trans came out blotchy in places and also really thick so that most of the wood grain is hidden. It almost looks like paint instead of stain. It's also still a bit sticky 20 hours after completion and I really hope it continues to dry and soak in. Overall kind of disappointing so far but I'm trying not to stress out about it too much. Here it is:

Stalls before
Stalls after semi-transparent stain
Lessons learned from this experience:
  • Stain your barn before you move your horses in, if possible. The reason I didn't do this is that the deck stain I initially planned to use (TWP) requires letting the wood age for 6+ months before staining. However, I didn't end up using that stain because test patches didn't look how I wanted. The job would have been much better and easier without all the dust, dirt, manure stains, mildew, etc. I also wouldn't have had to plan the application for a time of year when the horses could stay outside continuously for a couple days.
  • Test stains in an inconspicuous area first. I tested six different stains, the first three in a range of colors. The first brand (TWP) was okay but the colors weren't rich enough for my taste so I kept looking. The second (Armstrong Clark) and third (Ready Seal) came out pale, blotchy, and hideous. The fourth one (Cabot semi-transparent in oak brown) was what ended up going in the stalls but I think the painters put on too many coats because it turned out much more opaque than the test patch. The fifth one (Cabot semi-transparent in cavalry) was for the aisle but it was way too yellow and opaque. The sixth one was the timber oil that ended up going in the aisle. I am so glad I tested the fifth one first because it was really ugly and the sixth one turned out quite nice!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Small Farm Layout

Before you even start building your farm, the first major planning step is figuring out where you're going to put everything you need. There are tons of sample small-farm layouts on the internet and in books like Cherry Hill's Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage. Most likely, none of those will fit your property layout exactly, but they are a place to start.

The only obvious thing when I started was where the pasture would go, in the old hay field. I also knew where I wanted to put the gate to the pasture, just far enough up the hill to stay dry. Beyond that, I had to work around a large number of natural and man-made obstacles when choosing where to put everything else (see the "before" map below).

Aerial view BEFORE farm construction, annotated with the property's features.
The first step for me was siting the barn. Once I decided that the old barn was not worth renovating, the obvious location for the new barn was the old house foundation. This was in close proximity to the driveway and the detached garage, which I now use for hay and equipment storage. Its central location also allowed reasonable access from the house and to the pasture, the detached garage I would use for storage, and the arena. Plus it made use of many cubic feet of concrete that would otherwise need to be demolished at significant cost.

As you can see in the "before" map below, the marshy areas and drainage culvert were an obstacle between the obvious barn site (the old house foundation) and the pasture. Therefore I could not connect the pasture directly to the barn via the dry lot, as I would have liked. Placing the barn on the other side of the culvert was not possible without either creating drainage issues by putting it at the bottom of the hill (which slopes up away from the culvert) or placing the barn very far away from the house at the top of the hill. So, the barn would have to be at a distance from the pasture.

To connect the barn and pasture, I added a path that would prevent mud. The topsoil was stripped and stonedust added on top. The path was continued into the pasture where the gate and water trough are, also to prevent mud. It's priceless! The old wooden bridge, which was a total hazard, was replaced with a drainage culvert over which the stonedust path could continue.

I extended the existing fence line visible at the top edge of the "before" map to enclose the entire pasture, with curved corners where possible. When my horses proved to have a taste for tree bark, I had to fence the trees off with small boxes.

For trailer parking, I widened the end of the existing driveway so I could turn around in front of the garage (see this previous post).

The arena was the biggest earth-moving project by far. It ended up going where the old, decrepit barn had been. The area wasn't great for turnout because the septic field was in one corner (obviously not a corner where the arena went), but it was close to the barn and visible from the house for safety. For an explanation of how I chose the site for the arena, see this previous post.

When the arena builder was here he also excavated a corner for me and built a retaining wall and ramp so that I could push a wheelbarrow right up to the side of my manure dumpster and tip it in. (Before, I was using a small muck bucket and physically lifting the thing five feet in the air to dump it. Not great for a person with back problems...) There was only one logical place to put the dumpster with this setup, where there was already a corner with a steep slope above it. That ended up being maybe a little too close to the barn as far as flies and odors go, but it is convenient for chores, especially in the snow. I have never smelled the manure pit from the house, thank goodness.

Halfway through my first (awful) winter I added a small stonedust dry lot behind the barn that the stalls now open onto. It allowed me to rest my field in early spring to let the mud die down and the grass grow. Now two of my boys (Dominick the Donkey and my 2-year-old) have full-time access via their Dutch doors, which are almost always open to the dry lot. They use it to play, roll, see me coming from the house at dinnertime, etc.

During the winter I also added a CR-6 pad for my pasture Slow Grazer box. The horses liked it so much that they spent all day creating mud around it. The CR-6 helped a lot. Picking manure off it is a terrible chore though, especially when everything is frozen, so I plan to cover it with a layer of stonedust before winter hits this year. I put the pad far enough into the field to give clearance for horses to go around it and each other, but not so far that it was a pain to check/refill or that it would require destroying a patch of really good grass (the stuff by the gate is always a little thin).

As you can see, transforming this property into a functional small horse farm involved a lot of different improvements! However, the result is well worth it and I'm not sure I could have done much better given my constraints. (If you do see something you think could be improved though, please leave me a comment! I'm always on the lookout for good ideas.)

Aerial view AFTER farm construction, annotated.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Keeping Hay Away From the Mini Donkey

One challenge raised by keeping minis as companion animals to horses is maintaining the minis at a healthy weight. Many of them simply cannot handle as much turnout and hay as horses can. This is especially true of mini donkeys, who evolved as desert animals. This post discusses the methods I tried to allow the horses access to the hay they require without overfeeding the donkey.

Dominick the Donkey dominates my 2-year-old horse (Little R) by sheer force of personality, tiny flying hooves, and long grumpy ears. (This despite R outweighing him by probably 900 lbs and almost being tall enough to step over him...) Therefore, if he wants Little R's hay, he will take it, and R will stand there and watch him eat it. I keep hoping the poor baby horse will learn to stand up for himself a little, but no luck so far. In the meantime, I have tried a number of things to keep the hay out of reach of Dom and in reach of the sweet, spineless horse.

1.  Hanging hay out of reach

This is the most obvious solution, because of the height difference (duh). The first thing I tried was hanging R's NibbleNet out of Dom's reach. This worked to stymy the donkey, but I wasn't happy with how it forced R to invert his neck in order to eat. Also, if you have a taller mini or a shorter horse, you may have to hang the hay so high that hay dust will fall into the horse's eyes. After a while R started leaving hay in the net every day when he used to clean it out, and I wondered if the angle was making it difficult for him to eat, so I decided to try some other options.

High-hung NibbleNet.

2. Physical barriers

My second idea was to try to block Dom's approach to the hay somehow, so that he couldn't get close enough to eat it. My main concern with this was doing it in a manner that would be safe for R, who can be a little klutzy. So, I first tried mounting a corner feeder underneath a small hole hay net:

Corner feeder as donkey shield.
Not big or wide enough, drat!
One physical barrier that I didn't try is a homemade corner feeder. The idea behind this, pictured below, is to make it tall enough for the horse, but not the mini, to reach down into. I decided not to try this because Little R has a habit of pawing at his food and I was afraid he would hook a leg inside the feeder, but it seems like a neat option.

If you want to try this one, you can find instructions about a quarter of the way down this page from PATH International (CTRL + F "corner hay feeder" to find it quickly). It looks very easy to build and does not require many materials.

Corner hay feeder, photo from PATH website.
3. Extra tall Slow Grazer

This option is the winner so far. Over the winter I put together a Slow Grazer box with extra-tall sides (I used a wider pressure-treated board for the base to increase the height). This allows the horses to eat while keeping Dominick out of the buffet. I resisted putting the box in R's stall at first because he likes to nap and, like I said, he can be klutzy. Outside the stall wasn't a good option in the summer heat and humidity, because R would have to stand out in the sun all day and rain/humidity would cause the hay to get moldy. So, I eventually decided to try it in the stall and so far so good!

The extra tall Slow Grazer thwarts Dom and for some reason empowers R to pin his ears and drive Dom away if he gets too pushy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Finishing Stall Walls

My barn was designed with way too many nooks, crannies, ledges, and protruding wooden beams inside the stalls. It's something I didn't think about much before but I now drool in envy over stalls with completely flat walls. Neither of my horses are terrible chewers and thankfully they can get lots of turnout, but all the protruding boards and edges are so tempting that they've taken some chunks out anyway. To put a stop to that, I am going to make the walls as flat as possible by adding boards or plywood between the header and the kickboards (rear of stall) or door/grille frame (front of stall).

Here are some "before" pictures:

Update 8/24: I've finally started framing out the recessed spaces and adding pine boards purchased at 84 Lumber. In-progress photos are below.

Close-up of new boards. Pardon the poor lighting!
Framing only on left; new boards in place on right.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

De-Grass-ing the Outdoor Riding Arena

After a few weeks of disuse and a lot of rain, my 8-month-old ring suddenly tried to turn into a lawn. Even though I dragged it! This post chronicles some of the things I did to combat this grass, which turned into a monthlong battle.

1. Grooming

I started by dragging the arena twice in one week, using a chain harrow with the tines pointed down. They were both nice long sessions with a variety of patterns. This met with moderate success. Some of the grass was uprooted. I know this because after dragging I spent half an hour picking clumps of grass out of the footing and trying not to lose too much of my rubber. However, I initially thought dragging did a much better job than it did because it does flatten the grass and cover it with dirt. A couple days later, it popped up again! Clearly this would require more than dragging.

Look, problem solved!

Back to the drawing board.
2. "Biological controls" (i.e. donkey grazing)

Nope, this didn't work (he trimmed the grass without uprooting it) but it sure was cute!

3. Hand-weeding

I never felt this was a particularly good option for the large amount of grass that was growing, because there just aren't that many hours in the day. However, I do it with the edges on a regular basis so I did try it with one corner. It took 45 minutes to do about 4 feet in each direction from the corner, and I didn't even get all of it because I ran out of steam. The other problem was that some of the roots had worked their way down into the base of the arena, so pulling them up also pulled up chunks of base! Eek. My conclusion is that weeding by hand may be useful as a regular maintenance measure, but cannot solve a problem that's gone as far as mine has. I think when I do pull things by hand, I need to kill the roots and release their grip on the base first. Which brings us to...

4. Chemicals

After the failure of the dragging and weeding, I bought a 1.5 gallon sprayer from Tractor Supply for $10. Hoping to avoid harsher chemicals, I first tried a homebrew of vinegar, salt, and dish soap (ratio is 1 gallon vinegar : 1 cup salt : 1 tbsp dish soap). At first I thought this was magic because within 12 hours the grass turned dead and yellow. However, it never seemed to spread to the roots and a week later it was all greening up again. By two weeks out it was almost indistinguishable from the untreated areas (and my sprayer was still full of persistent soap suds). We had a lot of rain during that time so maybe in a drier climate it would be sufficient.

One day after application, the vinegar spray seems like a winner.
8 days later, the grass is turning green again.
I finally resigned myself to the full-on chemical solution: glyphosphate (the active ingredient of Round Up). I bought an off-brand, Compare-n-Save 41% concentrate, a gallon of which costs $27 and supposedly makes 85 gallons of spray, because it was far more economical than Round Up. It mixed easily (aside from the added soap suds) and doesn't have a noticeable odor.

It took weeks to actually get the spraying done because we have had so much rain. Every day I had time to spray, they were calling for thunderstorms and I didn't want all my time and money rinsing off with the rain. When I finally got it done, the application process was rough. It took about 5 hours in three sessions for me to spray the entire 66'x198' arena, including the edges. Lugging the sprayer around with the carry handle or the unpadded shoulder strap got old fast, and sweeping the wand back and forth caused some repetitive stress pains (which seems really pathetic, I know). I think down the road I may want to invest in a backpack sprayer or, better yet, a tow-behind for my tractor, but I couldn't say no to the sprayer I have for $9.99.

After the glyphosphate killed off all the grass, a few sessions of dragging uprooted it all. Now it's just an ongoing maintenance task to prevent recurrence.

The photos below chronicle the progress:

3 days after spraying the far end (yellow area).
8 days after spraying the far end (now brown).
8 days after spraying the edges, casual raking uproots many clumps of grass.
After spraying entire arena, before dragging.
After dragging. Victory!!!

Monday, June 8, 2015

What Happens When You Leave Your Farm for Two Weeks...

I was recently out of the country for two weeks and distributed the two horses, donkey, and two dogs to three different off-site caretakers. Apparently these are the things you should expect to find when no one uses or maintains the farm for a couple weeks:

  • A barn full of spiders. Thank goodness that was the worst thing in there. I closed up all the windows and doors hoping to prevent the starlings from moving in, and apparently that worked. The spiders, however, found the newly draft-free space very enticing. At least they're easy to evict and not so messy.
  • An overgrown pasture that takes twice as long to mow as usual. Normally two weeks is my mowing interval in the spring anyway, but I was asked not to mow it by the guy who was going to spray for weeds while the horses were gone (who, by the way, didn't show up until a week after I got back anyway). So it didn't get mowed for over a month and was completely out of control when I got back. On the right side of this photo is Dominick the Donkey almost disappearing into grass as tall as he is:
  • An arena full of grass, no joke. I dragged it right before leaving hoping to prevent this, but it didn't seem to help. I got my arena footing secondhand from a fancy dressage barn that replaced it after just one year of use for no good reason (lucky me!). They weren't as diligent about "removing organic matter" as I am, and this is the result:

  • Groundhogs living under your hay barn. My 17-pound dachshund has already taken care of one small intruder, but the others remain at large. I'm glad they chose their home there instead of in the pasture though, at least so far.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Shutters for the Barn

Update 5/18/16:

Well, it took me a whole year but I finally added vinyl board and batten shutters to the barn! I bought them at and they were very reasonably priced! I really like the way it looks, much less "naked."

Original entry:

To me, the aisle side of the barn looks like it's missing something. When the windows (which slide from the inside) are closed, it's a bit better because they have six panes with white trim separating them. However, the windows are really only closed in the dead of winter. This is what it looks like most of the time (there are four windows total but I cut the fourth one out because the wash rack is in front of it):

How can I dress this up? Black shutters to match the house?

(Side note: Hmm, that photo makes it look like my barn is pitch dark inside, which is not the case. In fact I hardly ever have to turn the lights on in spring, summer, and fall. I guess it's just a contrast issue.)

Mock-ups of contrasting trim:

From left to right, above:
    A) Trim outside the frame
    B) Trim overlapping the frame
    C) Original
From left to right, above:
    B) Trim overlapping the frame
    C) Original
From left to right, above:
    A) Trim outside the frame
    B) Trim overlapping the frame
Yes, the black lines are duct tape. :-D

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Double Rainbow Over the Farm

This is the kind of sight that makes all your hard work worthwhile!!!

If you look really closely on the right side of the horses you might be able to see the tiny gray blob that is the donkey.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dividing a Stall for a Mini

Since I have a three stall barn and what I affectionately refer to as "two and a half horses," it was handy to split up the third stall so I could still use it for storage. The mini donkey, Dominick, has the back half of the stall with access to the dry lot via the Dutch door. The front of the stall contains two pallets for short-term hay storage (I typically bring in 5-6 bales at a time), a tub of PDZ, a few bags of bedding at any given time, and of course a container of donkey treats. Dominick has more than enough room in his 6x12 stall, and I get to keep my hay and other stuff out of the aisle.

This project required the following:

  • 4' mesh livestock gate from Tractor Supply
  • Pressure-treated 4x4s, one long enough to span the width of the stall plus another to act as your gate post and overhead support (if needed)
  • Pine 2x6s
  • Three different types of metal brackets to anchor the ends of the 4x4s (to each other and the wall) and the 2x6s (to the 4x4s and the wall). You may find them in the decking or fencing materials section labeled as post caps or post to beam brackets (for the 4x4s) or fence brackets (for the boards). They look something like this:

The gate was the most expensive component, but if you're handy you could build your own wooden gate. I think the total cost for all the materials came to around $100.

This is what we did:

  1. Measure 6' from the back wall on each side wall. 
  2. Measure the width of the stall between those points and cut a pressure-treated 4x4 to fit.
  3. Secure the base 4x4 to the side wall at each end, using the metal brackets.
  4. Hang the gate on one side wall. We had to buy extra long bolts to reach through the kick boards of both stalls, secure them on the other side with nuts, and grind the ends down flush with the bolts to make it safe for the horse next door.
  5. Position the next 4x4 on the latch side of the gate, and secure it vertically to the horizontal 4x4, using one of those post to beam brackets.
  6. The vertical 4x4 will lack stability unless you anchor it to either the ceiling or the wall, using a cross-beam. We used a board to anchor this one to the wall at the front of the stall, leaving plenty of room for us to walk under without ducking. This stabilized the vertical 4x4 completely.
  7. Measure and cut the horizontal boards to fit the gap between the vertical 4x4 and the far wall. Mount them with the fence brackets. The wall will need additional support, so add two diagonal boards and probably also one vertical board in the middle. These can most likely by attached with simple wood screws. Now you're done!
When the boys are inside, this is often the first sight to greet me when I walk into the barn, usually accompanied by a loud bray. :-) Instant cheer.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Slow Feeders and Hay Nets

Ideally my horses would be out 24/7 but with limited pasture space I can't afford to do that, so they spend 8-15 hours off the grass, depending on the season. To make this easier on them and me, I have tried a variety of slow feeder options. There are two main reasons to use a slow feeder:

  1. Slowing hay consumption. I hate the thought of my horses eating all their hay in an hour or two and then standing around for the rest of the day. It's not healthy and it leads to boredom, which tends to make horses destructive. So, everyone has some sort of device to slow their hay consumption down. 
  2. Containing hay waste. Hay fed on the floor or even in an open tub on the ground tends to get dragged or dropped around the stall. It then mixes into the bedding, which makes it unlikely to be eaten and makes stall cleaning more laborious. Most of the slow feeder options also contain waste in some way, even if just by reducing the horse's ability to take a giant mouthful that can then dribble out of his mouth as he walks around the stall to look out the window or say hi to his neighbor.

There are many varieties of slow feeders out there. I have tried three different ones that I will discuss here:

  1. Small hole hay nets
  2. Nibble Nets
  3. Slow Grazer boxes

1. Small hole hay nets

Just like a regular hay net but with smaller holes to slow down consumption (and maybe reduce the risk of entanglement). If you already own regular hay nets, you can also try double bagging the hay in those so the holes overlap.


  • Inexpensive (although in my experience the under-$10 ones would break within a few days, SmartPak's $16 one is quite durable).
  • May be easily repaired, depending on what breaks and how handy you are.
  • Allows chaff to fall out.
  • Contains waste somewhat but not as much as the Slow Grazer.


  • Doesn't allow for eating in natural head-down position, at least not without increasing the risk of entanglement.
  • Hooves and legs can get stuck in the holes.
  • If hung high enough to prevent entanglement, allows hay particles to fall into eyes.
  • Not very durable, and a poor choice for horses that are hard on equipment.
  • Some horses have a tough time emptying the net completely.
I never used a net for my mini-donkey because he has teeny tiny hooves and legs and I was worried he would get stuck. I stopped using these altogether after my giant warmblood yearling got his leg stuck. Thankfully he was uninjured other than a skin rub because the hay net eventually broke. My poor non-horsey mother was watching the whole thing in a panic but didn't know how to help safely, and called me in tears. For her mental health as well as my own and of course the safety of my horses, I couldn't use these anymore. It surprised me when it happened because the holes seemed way too small to catch his big feet, so I decided I couldn't be sure it wouldn't happen to anyone else either, and I didn't want to take the risk. Now I just use them for trailer rides and the like.

2. Nibble Nets

Heavy-duty vinyl sides with tough webbing in front. The horses eat through the front and you refill it from the top. They also come in different shapes and sizes, with some that go directly on the ground and some that resemble punching bags.


  • Durable.
  • Very effective at slowing hay consumption and containing waste.
  • Reasonably easy to fill, although I can't stand the two D-ring belt-style closures (see picture). I struggle to close them when wearing winter gloves, and can't imagine why they aren't just snaps.
  • Horses can eat every bite of hay out of it.
  • Allows chaff to drop out the bottom.
  • Contains waste somewhat but not as much as the Slow Grazer.
  • Relatively expensive (ranging from about $50 to upwards of $100 depending on the style and capacity).
  • Only certain models allow for natural head-down eating position. I hang mine at about chest level so at least they don't get hay in their eyes, but they still tend to turn their heads sideways to eat.
I bought a 9" Nibble Net with 1.5" holes for the yearling (now 2) after the small hole hay net debacle. The increased safety gives me peace of mind. Dominick the Donkey uses a Nibble Net Picnic (see cuteness below). It contains one large or two small flakes, which is about all he can eat in half a day without turning blimpy. His has the smallest holes (1.25") but he is also so small and skilled that he can empty it fairly quickly. His is really easy to fill because it doesn't have those D-ring straps. He is picky, believe it or not, but when I buy fine second-cutting hay that is minimally stalky, waste goes down to zero.

If you choose a Nibble Net, I recommend buying one size larger than you think you need (unless it's for a specific purpose, like a picnic for a mini). You can always fill the nets less, but in my experience they hold fewer pounds of hay than advertised and stuffing them super full makes them a struggle to close.

3. Slow Grazer boxes

Homemade wooden boxes with a heavy grate that sits on top of the hay, slows consumption, and drops with the hay level so the horses can keep eating all the way down. There are quite a few similar varieties and brands, but I bought the plans and grates online here and their customer service was very good.
2x4 single bale model with "lift kit" to keep the donkey out


  • Allows for natural head-down eating position.
  • Virtually eliminates waste because most hay that falls out of the mouth stays on top of the grate for later consumption.
  • Needs to be filled less frequently than other options because it holds so much hay.
  • Sturdy and stable.
  • Safer than outdoor slow feeders made with pipes that can catch legs or rust and cause wounds.


4x4 double bale model for the pasture
  • Very expensive (between $100-200 per box including lumber, hardware, and grate) and somewhat time-consuming to assemble, but can be a fun project if you like that sort of thing.
  • Not as labor-saving as I'd hoped. To prevent hay from getting packed so tight that the horses cannot pull it out, I have to fluff it manually. I hoped that I could simply drop a hay bale in there but it quickly becomes difficult for them to eat, so now I add an armful of flakes more frequently and pull them apart with my fingers.
  • A bit of a struggle to fill sometimes until you get the hang of it. I figured out how to prop the lid of the 4'x4' open with the grate for filling, but it still requires a lot of heavy lifting compared to a hay net.
  • Takes up a lot of space in a stall. The 2'x4' model has a footprint slightly larger than that and it's also tall enough that buckets can't really be hung above it. I worry sometimes that my horses might lie down in their stalls less because they're crowded by the feeder.
  • Needs to be cleaned out regularly and protected from rain if kept outdoors, or the chaff and hay at the bottom will get moldy. I am thinking of upgrading my wood floors to a fine mesh with wooden supports, so the chaff can fall out, but I would still have to clean underneath the feeder.
  • Heavy and difficult to move on one's own.
  • Horses may chew on wood if you let it sit empty and they get bored. This hasn't been a problem for me but I could see it happening. It also may be a bad choice for cribbers.
  • Some people worry that metal grates will attract lightning or cause wear of the front teeth. Two out of my three equines carefully pull the hay through with their lips and never bite the grate. The third one is an aggressive hay eater with wonky teeth and has worn the finish off the grate, but the dentist found no signs of unusual wear. I plan to keep checking and replace his metal grate with a Nibble Net sheet if needed.
  • If you have an aggressive hay eater like I do, the banging of the metal grate against the lid of the box can be loud and somewhat annoying.
The list of cons for the Slow Grazer boxes is deceptively long, and glancing at that you'd think I might not still be using them, but I am. For outdoor use in a pasture or dry lot in the winter, it's hard to beat because of the convenience and waste reduction. I have a 4'x4' in the pasture, a 2'x4' in one stall, and a 2'x4' in the dry lot attached to the barn. The 4'x4' is on a gravel pad so the horses don't have to stand in the muck, and they wasted basically no hay this winter, which is a wonderful thing. The only problem I ran into is that my dominant horse would not allow his younger brother to eat at the same time as him, even with 16 square feet of hay surface to choose from, so they took turns sort of. On super cold days or when the ground was covered in snow, I would hang a Nibble Net on the fence so everyone would have something to munch on at all times.

 I actually built one 2'x4' extra tall by using wider pressure treated boards for the base (2"x12"), so Dominick the Donkey can't partake but the horses can. It is kind of sad, but he would be obese and unhealthy on free-choice hay. He does think the box is a good scratching post though.

This is how I prop it open to fill it. No question which one of the two animals is the brighter bulb:

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mirrors for an Outdoor Riding Arena

I didn't initially put mirrors into my farm budget. I had boarded for several years at a place that didn't have them, and they seemed like a luxury, especially for an outdoor where weather damage could easily happen. However, I did end up getting them installed and couldn't be happier. I immediately felt like my position improved and I was able to see the ways in which my horse was crooked, etc.

I wanted real glass mirrors rather than the acrylic type, because I've seen acrylics with such bad distortion that you don't even know what you're looking at. I got a quote from an equestrian mirror specialty vendor online that was, no joke, $30,000 for a 66' wall of 4' high mirrors!!!! And that didn't even include the frame. Obviously that was out.

I also considered using mirrored closet doors and building frames for them to slide into, after reading that idea online. It was intriguing but I was worried about how the MDF etc around the mirrors would hold up outside, because it's really not meant to get wet. Also, unless you luck into them on Craigslist or something, they aren't cheap, and I wanted a whole set of matching ones.

What I finally did was contact a local general glass and mirror company that was well-reviewed on Angie's List. The price they gave me was only twice that of the closet mirror idea, which was great. They had done one or two previous arena mirror projects before so they weren't specialists but had some idea what they were doing.

I'm not handy enough to build the massive frames myself, so I asked the Amish guy who installed all my fences if he'd be up for it. He is reasonably priced and super easy to work with, and it is basically just carpentry work plus post driving, which fence installers are really good at already!

The mirror company provided the fence builder with a working design, and when it was in place they came to install the mirrors.

After doing some research I chose to leave the mirrors free-floating in the mounts rather than gluing them to the plywood. I was concerned about the plywood swelling and bending with changing moisture levels, and causing distortion in the mirrors if they were glued to it. If you don't glue the mirrors do make sure you get ones with safety backing.

Substantial post-installation tweaking was required to make the mirrors fully functional, and even now they're not perfect. The trouble with using wood posts is that they are not 100% straight and will bend and flex over time. It's also difficult to drive posts into the ground with minute precision. Since the mirrors are so large, small amounts of deviation in the angles can make a big difference.

  • Vertical angles: The mirrors are set 4' off ground level. I read and was told that at that height they would not need to be angled, but upon installation I saw that they did need to be tilted back/up to be visible from farther away. The fence builder routed out the front edge of the frames to allow the bottom edge of the mirrors to slide forward.
  • Horizontal angles: Due to some variation in the posts and frames, the mirrors didn't end up exactly perpendicular to the long side of the arena. On one side you could see far beyond the edge of the arena and on the other side you could be on the track and not see yourself. The fence builder adjusted the frames again and also put sealant in one corner to hold the mirror at a different angle. It's not 100% perfect but much better now.

The mirrors have been up for over 3 months now and look just as good as the day they were installed. Hopefully that continues. Some people will tell you you can't put mirrors outside, but my trainer has had them for 20+ years and only one has had to be replaced.

Update 4/26/15 - Here are a few pretty spring pictures of the end result:

Friday, February 13, 2015

Building an Arena with Limited Space

The last major project for us was building the outdoor riding arena. At first glance my space is not that limited because I have 9 acres, but it's a weird sprawling layout with several existing buildings and hills and multiple driveways, so there were really only three options for the arena. Two of them would require me to give up current or future pasture space and move or replace my run-in shed. Here are the three options, more or less to scale:

After a lot of thinking I decided that I really did not want to do #1 or #2 because I only have 4 acres of pasture right now and site #2 could be fenced in the future, plus #2 could only be about 175' long. I also wasn't crazy about having the ring basically adjoin the pasture because riding the older horse would probably send the younger horse into a tizzy. Far better to have some distance from the pasture and be closer to the barn! So I ended up picking site #3.

Site #3 was where the old cinderblock stallion barn was. It would have cost more to remodel it into something safe and useable than it did to have the Amish build a totally new, airier barn, so we demolished it to build the ring. Here's the barn being torn down (under the close supervision of a curious coonhound!):

You can sort of see in that photo that on the far side of the barn the land drops off towards the trees. (I wish I had taken some better "before" pictures.) The elevation difference between the far end and the near end was at least 10 feet (??), which is pretty substantial.

My amazing contractor, who is a horseman and engineer with tons of ring-building experience, took a long look at the site before we went ahead with it. Between the existing fence, the line to the sewer drain field, the property line, and the large grade we were cutting it really close. He needed to do everything very precisely to be able to fit in my standard dressage arena (66'x198') plus the swales needed for drainage. Thankfully he's really good at what he does. Here are some pics of the work in progress:

Below are some after pictures. I love it!!!!! The 3-board fence at the far end was definitely necessary with the huge drop-off (see below). I rode without it for a couple months and trying to really ride those far corners properly was a little unnerving, especially since my horse is so spooky. Now I feel quite secure.

Here are some photos that illustrate how much cutting and filling had to be done to make this site level (and why riding at the far end without a fence was a little unnerving!).

By the way, the cutting and filling did not cost me extra except for some topsoil and water that was trucked in (because we hit a dry spell during construction). As my contractor explained it, he has to strip the topsoil and move the dirt around no matter what to level and compact it, so the cutting and filling isn't that much more work.