That time we swam with our horses

SEA HORSE
Last year we discovered a way to survive the summer heat – we installed a pool. It works! Sometimes while we’re swimming we look over to see our horses playing in the 110 gallon water trough. They splash in it and Valentine gets a big mouthful of water to drench whoever is nearby and isn’t already onto his intentions. He also enjoys it when we spray him down with water from the hose (after draining the sun-heated water already in the hose – too hot!), probably because he was once a fancy show horse and got regular baths. The other horses aren’t so thrilled with the gentle spray from the hose.

All of this reminds me of a trail ride we had with Romeo and Valentine a few years ago. It was a hot day and the trail paralleled a large lake for a long ways. All of us started wishing we had brought our swimsuits so we could cool off in the lake. Then one of our friends had an idea. She remembered a section of trail that led to the lake, a short way (about 600 feet) from a small flat island. Why don’t we ride the horses through the water to the island so they can cool off? It rains in Tennessee a lot so we already brought Ziploc bags with us to protect our phones. We bagged them and our wallets and then pointed our horses towards the small island. It was shallow and the horses clearly enjoyed it, splashing around with their hooves. We all got a little wet, which was great because of the heat. When we almost made it to the island, the lake was a little deeper than expected. This was no problem for 16.2 hand Valentine but poor 14.2 hand Romeo had water past his belly and heading towards his neck. Horses are pretty good swimmers but his rider got a little more wet than expected. Riding boots hold a lot of water!

We made it to the island and back just fine and were all a little cooler because of it. That was a great way to cool off during a warm trail ride and I would do it again but maybe next time I’ll bring a bathing suit.

Horses and Fireworks

FireworksThe U.S. is days away from celebrating Independence Day or as we commonly call it, the Fourth of July. For many, that means a day off, barbecuing, and fireworks after dark. Horses, on the other hand, don’t seem to enjoy the day as much humans. We live in Tennessee where fireworks, even big, bright, loud scary ones, are legal outside of city limits. And since we’re not in city limits, fireworks go off all around our property on the 4th of July. Years ago Mikki, the Kid and I were huge fireworks fans and up until owning horses enjoyed shooting off our own here at the house. But now that we have horses and a few dogs that are terrified of loud booms, we’ve nixed our home fireworks display. One year we left the television playing loudly and headed out to see a large town fireworks display. When we got home, one of our dogs was in shock. Unbeknownst to us, our next door neighbors set off a huge fireworks display, courtesy of visiting family for the holiday. We’re told it went on for a long time and I can imagine it seemed to our pets inside and our horses in the the pasture that something was attacking all around.

The Parelli’s teach the importance of thinking like a horse in order to understand how they’ll react to us and different scenarios and that advice makes perfect sense to me. As prey animals, they’re constantly on the lookout for something that could attack them and besides something running towards you, nothing says “RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!” quite like loud bangs and bright flashes of light overhead.

Needless to say, we no longer shoot any kind of fireworks at our place. Our neighbors, the ones with the large fireworks display, have since moved. And we now stay home and comfort our dogs while keeping an eye on our horses.

How do you deal with fireworks around your horses?

Ten tips for dealing with wasps in your barn

It was hard to ignore the buzzing around my head as I tossed square bales from the trailer into the second story loft of our horse barn. I knew what it meant. The throbbing on the back of my neck from a wasp attack the day before made me extra sensitive to the threat. I did not want to be stung again. But if keeping me away was the intended result, the wasps in our barn were likely surprised at my response to their aggressive flybys. I walked away and a few minutes later returned with a can that would bring peace to the barn that night – at least to the humans. With it I unleashed a stream of prallethrin and cypermethrin wasp spray, enough to decimate a village of around 15 nests I had foolishly allowed to develop this spring. Enough is enough. It was time to take back the barn.

You’d think I’d learn from experience on this but it turns out a year is a long time to remember practical experience. One decision from the previous year turned out to be right, though, and I was glad for it this night. For some reason I bought a warehouse club sized pack of wasp spray which was ready for use when needed this year. It’s the kind of thing you don’t want to have to stop and drive to the store to get when those evil creatures attack. My recommendation is to have easy access to several cans of wasp spray so you can immediately fight back in anger and vengeance. Yes, let the hatred flow through you. You’ll need this kind of drive if they get wise to your plans because you have to push through and kill them all if you want to stop looking over your shoulder in the barn.

Here are some additional tips for declaring war on wasps in your barn:

  1. Buy a bunch at a warehouse club or at least grab 2-12 cans at your favorite home store. Do not allow yourself to run out. You will need it some day in a hurry! And you’ll probably need more than you think. Don’t worry, it’s cheap.
  2. Wasp spray companies have wisely figured out that you would prefer to be 1000 feet from the thing you’re trying to kill. Most cans can shoot the spray a long distance but remember that they have limited effectiveness when the can starts to get low. Don’t show up all cocky to a giant wasp nest full of the angry devils only to find your can sputtering out or you will find yourself quickly and painfully searching Google for “how to treat wasp stings.
  3. Since you may need wasp spray quickly, place cans in a few places where you know you’ll find them, like inside the door to your tack room and outside the door to your tack room and in the back pocket of your jeans. Just in case you are new to children, keep out of reach of children.
  4. Careful around pets. Our barn cats love to play with alive, dead or dying bugs. Sometimes this play involves them nibbling and we don’t want our pets eating any kind of poison. Also, warn your cats that you’re about to do something shocking or be prepared to learn what happens when cats are shocked and you’re nearby. If you opt for that learning experience, have bandages, a tourniquet, a cell phone, and a video recorder nearby.
  5. Some wasps build nests quickly, especially the mean little Napoleon buggers. They’re harder to see flying around but can sting repeatedly and fast. You should be in the habit of scanning common nest locations to see if any new ones have appeared.
  6. Speaking of which, remove old nests. It’ll make it easier to see new nests from a distance. I used to like to leave them there as a warning the future broods but it doesn’t seem to work.
  7. Spray at night. Not only will it be more fun to try and find the scary little flying poison darts in the dark, wasps don’t fly much at night so you’re likely to catch them all at home. Of course you should bring a flashlight and practice emergency retreating to avoid stepping on a rake and other Three Stooges moments.
  8. Wear gloves or at least wash your hands soon after releasing the death spray. Sure you’re not a wasp but I can’t imagine soaking up any kind of poison is good for you.
  9. Because you won’t listen to number 2, know where the benadryl cream is before starting. Let’s face it, you’re probably gonna get stung and you don’t want to spend time frantically flinging things out of your medicine cabinet afterwards while you look for it. Or worse, going to the store. The cream has helped me but some people also swear by the tablets. Whatever stops the pain and swelling.
  10. Maybe this should be number 1 but hopefully you’re still reading. Avoid wasps entirely if you have an extreme allergic reaction to their poison. Maybe carry an Epi-Pen, too. I don’t know how common this is but don’t risk your life if you’re prone to serious allergic reactions. Leave the little jerks to the professionals in this case or that friend that thinks a little pain makes them feel more alive. Tell them there is plenty of life right there in your barn.

Hopefully you’ll be able to avoid being stung this year! Good luck and feel free to share thoughts and recommendations in the comments.

Using an iPhone 6 for remote medical diagnosis

Technology is amazing. Chances are you’re reading this on an mobile phone or tablet but even more amazing than that is how you can use those devices to give you an advantage in addressing medical issues for your animals. Last year Valentine had a potentially serious corneal ulcer in his right eye. Eye injuries like this usually start out as just a scratch – it was probably dumb luck, like a piece of hay poking his eye at just the right angle as he dove his head into a big round bale. It’s amazing that kind of thing doesn’t happen more often. Although we see our horses pretty regularly, by the time we noticed him squinting, it had probably already been a few days since he scratched the eye and an infection had set in. Valentine was a trooper as we put on some triple antibiotic eye ointment. It seemed better after a couple of days so we stopped treatment and figured it had healed. This turned out to be a mistake. A friend noticed him squinting again and sure enough the irritation was back. At this point we knew it might be more than a minor scratch so the next step was seeking a professional opinion. That’s where the iPhone comes in.

As patient as Valentine was with us putting ointment in his eye, he didn’t much care to hold still for 10 seconds while we tried to take a picture of his eye. He didn’t know what we were up to as we kept moving this hand-sized block around in front of his face so I can’t blame him for being nervous about it. That’s when I remembered that my new (at the time) iPhone 6 had a slow motion video capture feature that could be useful. At 240 fps (frames per second), using slow motion mode did a pretty good job of letting us take several seconds of video, slowing them down on the phone and capturing a screenshot in the millisecond when his eye was open and his head wasn’t moving around. We could then text that screenshot to our horse vet who was able to give a preliminary diagnosis. All we needed to know was whether or not it was serious and if she should come out to our barn right away.

In this case it turned out to be serious enough to warrant a visit. The photo below, also taken from an iPhone 6, is a still shot we were able to get after the doc applied Fluorescein to his eye. (Fluorescein is a stain that gets sucked into scratches and the like to make them more visible.) It looks a little gross in the photo but in it you can easily see the ulcer (which at this point was pretty visible, stain or no).

Valentine’s treatment lasted about six weeks and it wasn’t simple. For the first week or so we had to treat his eye every four hours, which meant we set an alarm and got up a few times in the night. It was like having a newborn – except you had to get up, get dressed and walk outside in the cold. He was kept in the barn to facilitate this but also because some of the treatment required that his eyes were dilated with atropine so we had to protect him from bright light. Poor Valentine had to endure serum (made from his own blood), OptiMend and antibiotic ointment, all applied directly to his eye. He did seem to enjoy the horse treats we gave him as a reward. After the intensive treatment period, we were able to (thankfully) go down to every twelve hours. I think he ran from the barn when the six weeks was up. We walked him periodically for exercise but who wants to live in a barn for six weeks? I would have done a happy dance on the way out.

The lesson here is check your horses often, don’t let eye injuries go, and get creative with early diagnosis by using your phone as a medical communication device.

Valentine's Eye - Corneal Ulcer

Strange coloring is from Fluorescein, used as a tracer agent.

Lots of snakes this year

So far this year we’ve seen three snakes, which is more than we’ve seen in 10 years of living in east Tennessee. One I noticed in the grass near the barn. After that I resolved to cut the grass weekly to make it easier to see what’s in the grass. That was nothing compared with the next siting. One night while preparing to get in bed, I found a large (4-5 foot) rat snake trying to also get into our bed. We removed it and did an intense search access points, sealing a few small but plausible entry points. Then this past weekend we noticed a copperhead in the road in front of the barn. This one we killed, which was especially good because she was carrying future copperheads. In speaking with friends and neighbors, it seems this is a big year for snakes in our area, not just around our place. Have you seen more snakes this year?

No picture, mostly because I don’t want to see a snake every time I come here and I figured that was true for you also.

Micro levee and a soggy barn

Late winter and early spring are especially wet times of year in East Tennessee. Thankfully the longer, warmer days and the higher angle of the sun are helping dry the pasture occasionally but we’re dealing with erosion, wet hooves and a soggy barn right now. Our barn is on a slope and for the most part is designed to channel rain water away and down the street or through a ditch and down a hill in the pasture. But elevation is tricky and water goes where it wants. Rain eventually pools in front of the third bay (a little hard to see in the photo below – bottom middle) and overflows into the bay and then makes its way through the barn. As you can imagine, this makes a yucky mess in not only the center aisle but sometimes in Valentine’s stall.

Micro Levy

The solution, albeit somewhat temporary, is a simple one. The clay dirt here is a pain to work with, heavy, thick and slimy when wet, but in this case its difficulties present an advantage. The clay that barely lets any water seep into the group is also useful in channeling the water. I simply shoveled some of it to build up what I’m calling a “micro levee”, basically a hump in the dirt to keep the rain out. It’ll wear down as we drive over it (we store hay in this area and frequently park the trailer there) but I’ll add more dirt over time. It’s far better than dealing with mud inside the barn.

It may seem like a little bit of loose dirt to you, but it saved us quite a mess this week. If you live where it rains a lot and the soil isn’t very porous, try to use the clay to your advantage.

3 Things Horse People Love About Winter

I know, after the winter most of us have been having this year, it’s tough to use the words “love” and “winter” in the same sentence. But in an effort to be positive, I thought it helpful to count our blessings and try to enjoy the good…any good…during what I’d guess most people feel is their least favorite season. You’ll note this isn’t a top ten list.

  1. No bugs! Once the temps go below comfortable, bugs die or move south leaving us with no swarms of no-see-ems to accidentally breath in, no itchy mosquito bumps and no surprise knife stabs from wasps (or “waspers” as they say around here). Oh, and no barn destroying carpenter bees and leg attacking fire ants. See, that’s a positive.
  2. Poopscicles. We’ve been below freezing for a ridiculously long time and all moisturize filled equine manure has turned to hockey pucks. This is a positive because they don’t smell as much and are easy to rake, as long as they aren’t frozen to the ground. And they make a satisfying clunk when they hit the wheel barrow.
  3. Tree maintenance. Since most of our trees and their life sucking vines are void of leaves this time of year, it’s easier to see the fence line and do some preventative trimming. Plus we don’t have to worry about snakes in the trees or on the ground while we’re doing this, which I suppose could technically be a fourth thing we love but I’m not willing to concede more to winter.

Having said that, I’m ready for bugs, smelly horse manure and overgrown trees again! But not snakes…never snakes.

Ice Storm and water management

We knew to be suspicious of the forecast of up to 12 inches of snow that was expected to fall this week. The weather in east Tennessee is apparently extremely difficult to predict. The forecast changed yesterday from snow to only rain and then hours before it hit, the forecast changed again – this time to ice. That’s the one we want the least, because it creates insane road conditions and threatens our electric service. Our horses are of course dry in the barn, munching on yummy square bales of hay. It’s tricky keeping their buckets full and unfrozen; we hope to be able to have heated buckets in the stalls in the coming weeks.

Ice buildup on trailer

We have a supposedly freeze-free faucet now and although it helps, it’s hasn’t been fool-proof. There have been several times where we haven’t been able to get it to work at 5 degrees below freezing. I eventually figure out it worked best when you close the faucet value but open the hose shut-off valves. This allows the water to drain inside the pipe so it doesn’t freeze. Still, I plan filling the trough carefully. Four equines can go through 100 gallons of water, the capacity of our trough, in about 4 days in the winter. On long cold stretches, like we’re accustomed to seeing in east Tennessee, we are in danger of running out of flowing water and having to carry buckets from our house. So in the AM when I let the horses out (if it isn’t precipitating), I take the ice from the buckets (if clean) and dump it back into the heated trough.

First, I put the buckets into the trough. I dip them below the water line and then slosh the buckets back and forth and side to side.

Iced bucket in heated trough

After a couple of minutes, I turn the buckets upside down and usually the solid chunk of ice slides out into the water.

Bucket ice in heated trough

Part of our routine in the winter. Can’t wait until spring!

Last Chance To Buy Hay

Sometimes your best source of information is your horse friends. One of ours found a new local supplier and passed on the lead to us. I went over, bought a few bales and the horses loved it. His prices are fixed, even when supply is low and demand is high. The man who runs the farm said he’s concentrating on developing long term business, not trying to make a quick buck. He is also willing to hold onto hay for us if we pre-buy. He had a couple hundred bales a few weeks ago and thought it would last months but I called him this week and discovered that his regular customers got spooked by the low supplies elsewhere and have been buying up all of his remaining hay. He had about 20 small round bales available and didn’t expect to sell hay much longer this season. That’s when I realized that even though I didn’t really want to spend $500 from this paycheck on hay, this may be our only choice. And that’s what owning horses is like! I have a tip on someone else who may have some but we’re running out of time. Thankfully we have almost all we need to last until the first cutting. I think we can get by with 15 more round bales. Now I just need to find them.

load of hay

A potentially costly mistake

I have made a classic horse owner mistake and it’s probably going to cost us money. You’d think after 8 years I would have learned but apparently I have some learning to do still. I want to blame the system but the truth is I knew it was this way and should have adapted. Allow me to explain.

We write a lot about hay. Sometimes I hesitate, wondering if anyone is interested but buying and feeding hay is such a huge part of horse ownership and the risks and challenges shouldn’t be overlooked. Our mission is to not only document our experience for ourselves but to also hopefully save some of you from the hassles we’ve experienced.

As much as possible, we’ve always tried to purchase hay in bulk. It’s sometimes less expensive that way and having lots of bales around saves us from frequently traveling back and forth to a supplier. As winter approaches, we load up as much as we can but can generally only store about fifteen 4×5 round bales, and even then we end up covering them with tarps, which the least effective protection from the weather that we’ve tried (tarps rot easily, act like parachutes in the wind and don’t protect the bottom). We feed about one of these round bales every 4 days in the winter, or about 7 bales a month depending on the quality. And hay quality can vary greatly. For example, this past year we found a great deal on year old hay towards the end of summer. Although it was horse hay, we knew it wasn’t top notch but thought it would supplement the end of year forage. Our horses ended up eating half of each bale, going through it twice as fast as we expected. Bale density varies, too. Bales from some suppliers aren’t wound as tightly so they look the same size but contain less hay. In my experience, the variance can be 20-30%.

For the last month, I’ve counted on a local supplier who has consistently provided high quality, tightly wound hay. The price went up a little this year but the hay density also seemed to go up so it seemed like a wash. He has lots of hay storage, including some in other counties so sometimes it required that we wait a few days while he moved around stock. But every time I called it seemed like he was doing me a favor by selling me some of his hay, despite the fact that he assured me earlier in the year that he’s in the business of selling hay. He has cows, though, and they are understandably his highest priority. And then I heard from a horse friend who is also his customer that this supplier is no longer selling hay this season, that he feels he is probably going to need all of his remaining supply for his cows. I can’t help but be a little nervous, with almost five months left until the first harvest of the hay season (typically towards the end of May).

And so, with two round bales in our barn, I set off to find a new supplier. My first stop was a good bet but I knew they’d be expensive: my local feed store. I understand how their model works. They purchase a set amount from a supplier for a wholesale rate and then mark it up to make a profit. Their hay is stored indoors and covered space costs money. That plus demand is pretty high at the feed store, arguably the most organized of the feed suppliers in the region. The feed store is like a grocery store for animal feed, where you show up, browse the aisles, make a selection and go home with it. Most other suppliers work out of their farms and while usually less expensive, have unpredictable supplies, don’t always answer their phones and require appointments for pickup. As I pulled into the driveway of our local feed store, they just happened to be receiving a delivery of round bales. The price was reasonable – $35 for a 4×4 round bale. I quickly bought two and 30 square bales for $5 each. That covered me for another week or so plus days when snow, ice or cold rain will require our herd to take shelter in the barn.

So now I’m on the hunt for 5 months worth of hay – about 38 round bales. I can’t count on the feed store, or probably anyone else, to have hay ready for pickup at any time for the next 5 months and the price will most certainly go up. One year towards the end of winter I inquired about the price of round bales while picking up some oats and was quoted a price of $50. Other times they’ve been completed sold out for months. My lack of planning and storage might prove costly this year. I wish I could enter a contract with a supplier for a guaranteed amount of hay. I know how many bales I need a year and could even pay some up front. But that’s not how the hay business works around here.

So if you’re thinking of having a horse or horses, strongly consider a hay strategy well before winter.

Our plan for this year is to find a way to build some hay storage. Maybe recycled telephone poles, steel roof trusses and a metal roof. Something inexpensive, yet spacious and durable. We’ll see how things go.