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Lighthoof: Designing a Horse Friendly Farm, Part 3: Water, Grazing, Skin Care & More

There’s a lot more to designing a horse farm than just choosing where the barn and the pastures will be — Kelly Munro of Lighthoof continues her mini-series on creating the perfect property that prioritizes your horses’ needs.

New to this mini-series? Don’t miss Part 1 and Part 2!

Flickr/William Murphy/CC

You have many elements to consider when planning a new stable or redesigning your existing farm. Here are some additional equine physical needs which you should take into account during your planning phase if you are seeking to make your farm design as horse friendly as possible.

Hydration Availability and Preferences

Wild horses’ lives revolve around their watering hole routine. Even domestic horses spend a good deal of their day thinking about water. Obviously, availability of water at all times, in all weather, will be one of your main priorities as you plan your farm.

If you live in a climate where freezing temperatures are a concern, you will want to plan for a way to keep horses watered and drinking during cold spells. You can install an electric, such as offered by Nelson, Ritchie, and many others, or a geothermal freeze-proof automatic waterer, such as the Bar-Bar-A or Drinking Post. Or, consider some of these low-tech ideas for keeping your horse’s water from freezing if those are not an option for you.

If you board horses or have multiple horses, you may run into a situation where a horse’s individual preferences make it hard for you to use your hydration system. Some horses are very sensitive to flavor or temperature. Many horses don’t like an automatic waterer in which you have to press a paddle to make water come out. Some are even put off by the wrong color bucket! There are equine water filters you can buy to attach to your hose which may help the flavor and using an insulated bucket, geothermal waterer, or locating your troughs in the shade could increase the amount of water that the pickier horses consume.

In your design consider ease of access, freezing, constant supply, and flexibility to accommodate difficult drinkers.

Grazing Behavior

The horse’s digestive system is made for grazing behavior; the horse’s mental health depends on it too. This means that instead of a few large, rich meals consumed quickly, horses are meant to eat small bits of forage frequently throughout the day.

If they aren’t able to be grazing pasture all day — many horses can’t due to pasture management practices or metabolic concerns — you can mimic this by “grazing” them on their hay. Increased time spent chewing also means increased saliva production which can help with digestion.

You can provide multiple smaller feedings by being available four to six times a day for throwing hay, or use an electric trickle feeder to portion out hay through the day and night. Another option is to use a slow feeder such as a Porta-Grazer, or other manufactured slow feeders, which uses small openings for the hay to make it so that horses have to rip off small bites at a time as if they were eating fresh grass, rather than grab a whole mouthful.

A small hole hay net can work well to provide “grazing” of dry forage. The horse is only able to pull a small bite through the holes at a time. For some horses, this can extend the time they spend nibbling their hay by hours, keeping them entertained and digesting gradually throughout the day. Other horses just become experts at vacuuming hay from their nets or slow feeders and the benefit is not as great.

Equine Skin Care

Personal hygiene is something that horses are involved in on a daily basis. Although some of our horses may not look like they care much about personal hygiene, rolling, scratching, mutual grooming and other horse skin care behaviors are a basic physical and emotional need.

In our horse friendly farm design, we can make plans to facilitate this. If you horses are able to go out with buddies, they can scratch and groom each other. If they are kept individually, it’s nice to design in some features for them to groom and scratch on. Some people attach stiff brushes or broom heads to walls or posts for horses to brush themselves on. Another option is to purchase a scratching accessory like the Itchin’ Post or a brush scratcher made for cattle.

Also consider that any vertical post or door frame may become a scratching post, so plan on creating strong and durable edges in your horse’s area without any sharp points.

On most farms, the pasture management routine will include a heavy use area, also known as a sacrifice area, to turn horses out in when the pastures need resting. This area is often graveled or otherwise managed to prevent mud. If this is the case, you may consider creating a sand “beach” by spreading a layer of thick sand in one area large enough to roll or lay down in. You can border this area with logs or lumber to make a sandbox, or leave it loose knowing that it may spread out a bit.

Flickr/pipilongstockings/CC

Protection from the Elements

Whether you have the world’s most luxurious stable, like the arguably un-horse-friendly Heilan Horse Culture Museum in China, or a pastured herd with a modest hay room, protection from the elements is something you will undoubtably be accounting for. Horses, however, need a lot less than most people think in order to regulate their temperatures and stay comfortable.
A three-sided shelter oriented away from the prevailing winds is plenty for most horses. Some are even comfortable with a tight stand of trees for their wind, rain, and sun protection.

If you have seniors or foals, you may want the option to fully enclose them in a stable on cold nights. Your climate, your horses, and your personal comfort level — if you can’t sleep at night wondering if your horses are cold — will ultimately determine the extent of your shelter.

Necessary Separation from the Herd

If your horse friendly management practices include horses living freely together in groups, you may find that you need to separate them from time to time for injury, biosecurity, or hormonal/reproductive reasons.

Biosecurity refers to practices that prevent the spread of disease among horses. This is not something horses spend a lot of time thinking about, but it’s something that we can make plans to protect them from. If you opt for group living for your horses to optimize their emotional well being, you will have to consider accommodations for isolating a sick horse from the others in a way that creates the least mental stress for the individual and the rest of the herd. Often this can be accomplished by locating a smaller isolation paddock/stall within view of the others, but at a safe distance to reduce the risk of vector or airborne contagions. Don’t forget you will need separate maintenance tools (manure forks, hoses, etc) and a place to keep them.

If you need to separate mares or buddies during heat cycles, plan on having smaller individual paddocks within view of the rest of the herd. Or maybe you want to let your horses work through hormonal behaviors as a group. If so, make sure there aren’t small corners or other areas where a horse could get trapped in a dispute.

In our next article we will consider some elements of horses’ mental and emotional health that you can make plans to accommodate in the design of your horse friendly farm.

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