Goodbye to Our First Horse

Goodbye to Our First Horse

We’ve said goodbye to too many of our beloved animals over the past couple of years, but this one hit the hardest. We have lost Valentine, our very first horse.

Sixteen years ago today, Bill gave me the best Valentine’s Day gift a girl could ever ask for (in my opinion, anyway): an all-black, 16.2H Tennessee Walking Horse named Clever Power. He came from champion bloodlines and you could tell just by looking at him. Oh, he was stunning! And so very sweet. We gave him the barn name “Valentine” because it just fit so well. Many of you followed our adventures over the years as we kinda-sorta became horse people, starting with that first wonderful horse.

Our herd grew, shrunk and morphed over time as we added and lost equines: Moonshine came to us to be Bill’s horse, we learned that she was absolutely NOT the horse for us, and we found Romeo and Cash; Moonshine went to be a bucking horse at a rodeo (told you she wasn’t the horse for us, lol); my dad found a little mule he couldn’t live without, so Jazzy came to live with us; then we unexpectedly and tragically lost Cash a little over three years ago. Wow, that was hard, but more was coming.

We haven’t kept up with this blog over last few years, and I apologize for that. Our lives have changed so much, and the focus really shifted away from the horses. We of course still had them, loved them, our lives still revolved around them (I never thought I’d care so much about the price of hay), but we hardly ever rode anymore. A few months ago, my best friend asked if Romeo could come live at her place because she needed another “easy” horse for her mom to ride. I readily agreed, since he was just a pasture ornament at my place. He was also a bit of a bully over food, and Valentine was suffering because of it. He always had trouble keeping weight on, and if Romeo chased him away from the food, well, by golly, he didn’t want any trouble. He just gave up and got skinny.

About this time, we started noticing other troubling symptoms with Valentine. He always had kind of an ungainly walk – his gait, when you found it while riding, was absolutely amazing. He was the Cadillac of horses. His normal walk on the other hand, was a sight to behold, and not in a good way. That’s why we didn’t really notice at first when he stumbled now and then, but he got progressively more clumsy. Then one rainy day, he slipped walking down the hill to our barn and couldn’t get up on his own. He was thankfully unharmed but it took the tractor to get him up. We thought it was a fluke but it happened again a couple of months later; we started to leave him in the barn when the weather was bad, so he wouldn’t run the risk of slipping in the mud. Shari (not just a horse person but a 20+ year vet tech) had some theories, but we were still hoping maybe he was just getting older (he was 21 at this point). Then he went down on flat ground on a dry day and couldn’t get up without our help. Then we got serious trying to find out what was wrong with him.

The leading theory was EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis), a neurologic disease that you can read about here. I don’t want to get into that too much because it’s still incredibly painful to think about, but I’ll just tell you that he went through a lot of testing and therapies trying to pin down what was wrong and try to make him better. The long and short of it is, we never really knew what it was for sure, and he didn’t get any better.

Things really got bad the week of Christmas. I prayed that, for at least that week, we wouldn’t find him laid out in the barn when we came up there on one of our many visits to care for him, and that we wouldn’t have to make the hard decision to let him go any time that week. Thankfully, he made it through but we knew all that week that the day was coming soon.

As you horse owners know, it’s no small thing to put a horse down. Truthfully, if Valentine were just a dog or cat, we would have taken him to the vet much sooner, and just buried him in the back of the pasture, Christmas or no. But given that he was a 1200-pound animal who was having trouble walking, it wasn’t so easy. We had to find someone with a backhoe who was available during a holiday week, and find a place that would be easy to get my big boy to, before and after the event. We also had to protect our only other remaining equine, Jazzy, from falling into the hole once it was dug (which she undoubtedly would, being as curious as a cat).

The first task was easier than I expected. Our first choice, the man who took care of Cash for us, was out of town on vacation, but Shari’s mom had someone doing work at her house who agreed to come out the same day, dig our hole, and come back the next day to move Valentine and fill the hole. He just left his backhoe in our pasture. He was so kind.

The next decision was harder. We wanted to put him next to Cash, but that site was at the top of the hill, and quite a distance away. Even at his best, after a huge dose of anti-inflammatories and steroids, Valentine couldn’t safely make that hike, and I couldn’t bear the thought of him having to be dragged there, even if it wouldn’t matter to him at that point. So we found a nice spot downhill, a spot where we often saw him grazing when we looked out our kitchen window.

Tuesday, December 28. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day. We had our absolutely wonderful vet, Kristina, come out at about 11:00 am, and Shari came too. At this point, we didn’t know if we were really going to make the hard choice, or if we’d give him a bit longer. We had decided that if we wanted to give him more time, we’d just barricade the hole to keep Jazzy away.

We didn’t give him any of his meds, so Kristina could see what he was like at his worst. She examined him, evaluated him, then gave him a LOT of steroids and a good dose of pain meds. He perked up a lot, but it was clear that he was nowhere near good. Another factor in our decision was that a snowstorm was coming in the next couple of days, and at this point the poor guy had to live in the barn aisle; he couldn’t even go into his stall because of the risk that he’d go down in a small space. If we let him struggle on, he’d have to brave the cold weather in a relatively unsheltered space.

This was an indescribably hard choice to make. One thing that helped so very much was that our vet is Christian; the four of us prayed over our decision. After a couple of hours of prayers and tears for us and treats for Valentine, we knew what the choice had to be, and felt mostly peaceful about it. I made Bill leave (he has issues with needles) and the three of us carefully led my boy out to a soft spot not too close to the hole. Kristina gave him his first shot, of sedative, and I gave him one more apple. Then she gave him the beuthanasia injection. He had one moment of what I’d call surprise, then went down directly on the soft wood chips. It was almost gentle, and as went as well as it possibly could have. I was with him every second, touching him and talking to him. Bill came back a few minutes after, and we all cried over him, reminisced, and said our goodbyes. Then Bill and I left and my dear, sweet, wonderful, irreplaceable best friend Shari stayed to call the backhoe guy and take care of the final steps.

The days after were even harder than I expected. Poor, poor Jazzy…Valentine was her very best friend, and since Romeo had gone to Shari’s, she was all alone. She grieved too. She also ended up escaping a couple of weeks after, and we still don’t know how. We haven’t found any place she could have gotten out. We ended up giving her to someone we know well who has two young sons to spoil her, cows for her to guard, goats for her to avoid – mules apparently don’t like goats, who knew? – and a potbellied pig who is in love with her. She’s settling in well over there, after a few bumpy days getting acclimated, but I don’t have high hopes for the pig-mule romance.

It has been six weeks now since we said goodbye, and some days are still hard. The barn is eerily empty – there was a horse in there the day we moved in more than 16 years ago (owned by a friend of the previous owners; we agreed to let him stay for a while), and until Jazzy left, there was never a day that we didn’t have equines to care for. Today, of course, is an especially hard day, and May 18 will be bad, too – Valentine would have been 22 years old this year. But I treasure the days I did have with him. He was the best boy, and I loved him, and I thank God I was allowed to have him for the time I did.

Will we have horses again? I honestly can’t say. Today, my answer would be no. Maybe Valentine was our first horse, and our last horse. But you never know.

Hay Bale and Ring Toy

Hay Bale and Ring Toy

hay bale feeder toy

Okay, it’s a little late for Christmas but while in our local feed store recently I noticed they had a display of ranch toys and I immediately wanted the entire set. The Kid is grown up and we haven’t much room for such displays but I didn’t resist purchasing the hay bale and feeder ring toy for $9. Round bales are such a big part of our lives here at the ranch and maybe it will help me remember to keep an eye on the hay levels a little closer. They have horses, cows, fences, trucks, tractors, and more. They even have an 18-piece hay baling set.

If you have little ranch hands around, Big Country Toys makes fun toys.

We are not affiliated, nor did Big Country Toys pay for this post in any way.

Why Romeo Wasn’t Drinking

Why Romeo Wasn’t Drinking

We just solved a mystery. For years we couldn’t get Romeo to drink much in his stall. Our horses aren’t in their stalls every day so we weren’t too concerned. He also doesn’t rush to the trough when we let him out. Valentine has always been a big drinker, but Romeo doesn’t touch his water bucket. Of course, we provided fresh, clean water from the same source as the water trough which he uses. Horses are different, though, so we figured this is just one of those things. Then Mikki had an idea. She tried a different bucket. It worked! It seems this horse doesn’t like light-colored buckets. What a strange requirement! If you find one of your horses aren’t drinking much water in the stall, consider changing the bucket to one of a different color.

Homemade Horse Escape Detection System

Homemade Horse Escape Detection System

Horse jumping the sun
Image based on a photo by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay

It’s no secret that we had some trouble with horse escapes early on in our horse ownership experience. Horses see green grass on the other side of the fence and want it and their muscular 1,000-pound bodies have no trouble breaking wood fence boards. And sometimes they come to the realization that some fences can be jumped.

That’s where we are today. We think. Romeo, our 900-pound Appaloosa, the kind of horse not normally associated with anything but beauty and laziness, has found a way out of our pasture almost every single day. So every single day Mikki and I spend about two hours walking the fence line and looking for weaknesses. It’s not that the fence couldn’t use some work. We fixed several sections where trees had fallen nearby or the fence posts had been bent by a horse leaning into it too much. In one area soil had built up next to the fence, making it lower than before, the result of erosion that needs to be dealt with (our property is hilly). All of these have been fixed. We’ve replaced some old fence posts with new ones, added additional fence posts in weak areas, installed an additional row of wire in some places, and more. Yet sometimes we’ll look out and find Romeo in our back yard. Thankfully he doesn’t seem to have wandered further. But he could so we’re working hard to prevent him from escaping. But we’re just about out of ideas.

Our current routine is to bring him into the barn each night. At least we know he won’t get out while it’s dark. But we need to do more than that.

How we discovered Romeo is a jumper

After one of these escapes, we walked the fence line and found two hoof prints on the outside of the fence, pretty far from the fence itself and next to each other, the deepest indention being in the front of the hoof. This was a grassy area and the ground was not moist. This is likely the result of him landing after jumping the fence, something we’ve never seen him do.

Options we’re considering

Beyond the repairs we’ve already done, we’re going to have to dip deeper into the ideas list. Such as:

  • Electric fence. I know we’ve mentioned it many times here but we’ve gone through a lot of years not needing it so it was deprioritized. Plus it’s complicated. We have a fairly large property and most of it isn’t near electricity. Much of it has trees but solar is an option. Or we could install it on the section of fence near the barn and hope they learn.
  • Emergency paddock. One of my biggest regrets with this property is that we didn’t immediately add some paddocks. There are more than a few times when it would have been helpful and now we’re considering making one near the house for Romeo, if we can’t find where he is getting out.
  • Selling Romeo. I try to be absolutely honest with this blog and if I’m honest I have to admit I’ve considered removing the problem horse. He’s a great horse and I know this probably isn’t the right idea but it has crossed my mind.

But above all, we’re frustrated to not be able to figure out how he’s getting out of the pasture.

Homemade horse escape detection system idea

And finally, we get to what the title refers to. Options:

  • Mikki could sit in a lawn chair with a book, surveilling a part of the property. We decided this wouldn’t work because even though I say he gets out every day (and sometimes he has), a few times he’s stayed in a few days before getting out. And the property is too large for her to see all of it from one place.
  • Use a GPS tracker. This was my first thought. I Googled “horse gps” and found a few but eventually realized that a pet GPS tracker should work. There are far more options for dog and cat owners and I’m sure we could rig something to fit a horse. There are many options. Some require no monthly fees (Findster, $150), but most use a cellular phone network, requiring monthly fees of around $10 a month with an annual contract requirement. Most have a battery life of 1-4 days, though there are a few that purportedly last a month or longer.
  • Camera system. It would need a good power source, be heat and water-resistant, and be able to transmit or store a lot of photos or video.

Then it occurred to me that I have an old GoPro Hero 3+ camera that does timelapse recording. I decided to set it up on a tripod, slightly outside of the pasture, with a wide field of view. I set it up to take a photo every 30 seconds and I reasoned that if Romeo got out we would either see it or if we didn’t we’d know it wasn’t that particular area and we could move the camera the next day. For power, I connected the GoPro to an external battery nearby. Ziploc was my low-cost friend on potentially wet days.

Results so far

Wouldn’t you know the rascal stopped escaping after we started this? But I have lots of sunset photos! The location seems to be a good one, though on one attempt I came back to find the camera was off even though the battery still had lots of power. It was an especially hot day so I’m thinking it may have shut itself down due to heat.

Then it happened. I heard our dogs barking and looked out the front to find Romeo walking up the street. Ugg. Did our the system work? Sadly, no. I hadn’t emptied the micro SD card in a few days and it ran out of storage space. Sigh. We spent hours updating the fence, something we’ve done repeatedly this summer and are growing tired of. We let Romeo out of the barn again today and set up the camera again, with a fresh extended battery and an empty memory card.

Overall I think it’s a decent plan, using the timelapse feature on the GoPro so we’ll keep trying. But I’m seriously leaning towards a GPS option. More research is needed! We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

September 2019 edit: It worked! We used the camera system to catch Romeo sneaking out. More soon…

Who’s the Boss?

Who’s the Boss?

I was working on updating some posts with better quality photos when I came across this unpublished post from nearly 12 years ago. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it but here it is. Look at how little The Kid was. Wow!

Pushy horse

A few days ago a storm started blowing into our area, bringing lots of lightning. Mikki read some horror stories of horses being struck by lightning and ever since then we’ve made it a habit to bring the horses in whenever possible during lightning storms. Usually, when they hear thunder they head towards the barn, expecting to be let in but on this day they were nowhere to be found. Rather than standing around waiting, I grabbed a single carrot (this is important later) and headed into the pasture to round up our tardy horses. I found them as far back in the pasture as you can get (of course) and since they weren’t following because I’m good looking, I opted for the old carrot on the stick routine, only my arm was the stick. This worked well…too well. Valentine and Moonshine both love carrots. They love them so much they want to eat the wiggly carrot-looking things that are holding the carrots. Hey, if it smells like a carrot it must be a carrot, right? Knowing I had a long way to walk back to the barn, I cleverly broke the single carrot into pieces and gave them each a small piece. Okay, now let’s all move to the barn now. Moonshine, being the more gentle one, followed with interest. Valentine, however, being the 6-year-old gelding and alpha-male extraordinaire decided he wanted more carrot NOW, passed me and cut me off to show how serious he was. I went around him, he followed and nudged me with his head. HEY! It was clear to me at this point that I hadn’t adequately established myself as the herd leader upon my arrival into the pasture, therefore Valentine assumed this position and was trying to boss me around.

So the lesson here for me is to learn more about making sure it’s known I’m the herd leader. Not the big scary human, not the yelling crazy guy who sometimes gives out carrots, but also not the manure-shoveling underling who’s holding back those tasty wiggly carrot fingers.

Tack Room Keypad Deadbolt

Tack Room Keypad Deadbolt

Tack room keypad deadbolt

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve walked up the hill to our barn only realizing we forgot the key when we reached the tack room door. Sometimes one of us would have the key but was on another part of the property and had to be tracked down before the tack room could be accessed. We also needed a way to provide guest access when we travel. The solution for us was a keypad deadbolt. We purchased this Kwikset version for around $60, about the price a similar one goes for today (like this one at Amazon). The deadbolt is water-resistant and the batteries last a long time – almost two years when you use lithium AA batteries. If the batteries die, you can simply use the key. Each of us has our own code and we have guest codes for those to whom we want to provide temporary access. We’ve been using this system for about 5 years now without issues.

There are, of course, all kinds of fancy new ones with Bluetooth or wifi connectivity that let you lock/unlock your door from a distance but be prepared to spend two or three times more on those. If the one we have stops working, I intend to purchase another one like it. It’s inexpensive, simple, and so-far durable.

Fence Repair Blues

Fence Repair Blues

While checking the water trough levels and doing a quick walk by near our barn I noticed several broken fence boards. Our fence is a combination of three board wooden fence and legacy barbed wire we plan to replace with something horse-friendly. The wooden fence looks nice but is brutalized by the sun and is a pain to repair. It’s mostly horse-strong but these beautiful beasts can’t resist the potentially greener grass on the other side. The worst offender is probably Valentine, who I loving call our giraffe because he’s so tall.

Three times so far this summer the wooden fence has been broken and each time we put up new wood and recommit to keeping the grass “on the other side” short to reduce temptation. We’re pretty sure Valentine reaches over the top and just pushes through. Fortunately, he doesn’t step over and escape.

This week was the latest break, two sections, top boards. We ran out of fence railings and had to borrow some from a section outside the horse area. This time we affixed a 2×4 for extra support but this isn’t a long term solution.

2x4 fence board support
Fence rail with temporary 2×4 support.

Speaking of long term solutions, if you’ve read through our blog before you’ll see this is a frequent problem and the long term solution is to replace the entire fence with something more durable and horse friendly. But for a property this size, it’s expensive and time-consuming. My recommendation to anyone looking at horse property or creating a horse enclosure for the first time is to install good horse fencing from the start. Barbed wire can cause terrible injury and wood isn’t strong enough and requires maintenance, especially after the sun bakes it for a few years. If wood is already installed, like in our case, consider electrifying the top rail, which is an option we’re considering.

In addition to the wood fence repairs, we also found a few areas where the barbed wire became loose enough for a horse to step over. We discovered this after finding Romeo in our front yard one day. We replaced part of that section with barbless wire and additional steel posts. It’s a reminder that steel fencing, although more durable, also needs periodic maintenance.

Overall, whatever fence you choose for your horse enclosures, it should be periodically checked, especially after storms if trees are nearby. If you take a break and your horses become pasture ornaments, it’s easy to miss seeing things that need repair since you may not be around your horse area as often.

Frost-Proof Isn’t Freeze-Proof

Frost-Proof Isn’t Freeze-Proof

I knew it was going to be cold last night. I wore layers and checked the forecast to make sure it wasn’t going to snow or worse – rain and then freeze. And then I went to bed. Around 3 AM I woke up wide-eyed, remembering that the faucet at the barn was on. We leave it on to keep the heated water trough full but on very cold nights it must be turned off. A glance up at the ceiling confirmed my fear. Our projection clock also shows the outside temperature. The sensor is a little too close to the house and it showed 21°F, a guarantee that the water in the hose and faucet would now be ice, taking up more space than the liquid form of water and probably putting too much pressure on the spigot parts. Much of it is metal but there is also rubber and plastic. I wasn’t about to climb out of my warm bed to go outside at 3 AM so I went back to sleep wondering if I got lucky this time. 

The next day I discovered the answer. No. I can see the barn from our kitchen window and the spray of water coming from the “frost-proof” spigot now that the sun was shining and the temperature was above freezing. I bundled up and headed outside inspect. To my surprise, water was shooting out of the spigot, not at the hose connector, the part with plastic and rubber parts, but the actual metal of the spigot itself. Fortunately I was able to close the valve to stop the leak and I’m sure I’ll be able to replace the head assembly but it probably won’t be as easy as it seems. 

Leaking head assembly - animated gif
This might be beyond what duct tape, JB Weld, and Flex Seal can fix.

So don’t forget that those frost-proof spigot/yard hydrants are great but they can’t take much of a freeze. You have to remember to close the valve in order for it to be truly “frost-proof.”

Rest In Peace Cash

Rest In Peace Cash

Cash wearing Valentine’s halter.

I’ve almost written this post a few times but it hurt too much. On Monday, November 27, 2017, Mikki and I walked up to the old barn to see how much hay was left. I had to go on a business trip and wanted to put out a new bale if it looked like the horses would run out before I got back because it’s much easier for two people to put out hay without letting horses out of gates as you’re driving the tractor through. As I approached the bale I noticed Cash was laying nearby. It’s not unusual for horses to lay down occasionally. But after a few steps, it became clear he wasn’t moving. We broke into a run and our worst fear was quickly realized. Cash was completely still, not breathing, and cold. Cash was dead.

This was a total shock to us. Cash hadn’t shown any signs of being ill. There were no changes in his behavior, diet or activity. When we found him, there wasn’t a mark on him and it didn’t appear that he had struggled or thrashed or anything like that; it seemed like he just laid down and passed away, with the exception of a very small amount of blood around his mouth and nose.

To say we were horrified was an understatement. Mikki pretty much lost it for a few minutes, and immediately called her best friend, who is also a horse owner and veterinary tech, Shari. They grieved together and discussed possible reasons for Cash’s sudden death, but Mikki was really in no condition to talk about those details, and the unfortunate reality of the situation was that time was not on our side. I had that business trip that couldn’t be rescheduled and had to leave within the hour; it wasn’t terribly warm, being late November, but the temperature was still much too warm to preserve anything. The cold hard fact was that we had a 1,000-pound body that had to be dealt with, and soon. Our tractor, while pretty capable above-ground, was not the right equipment for digging a hole the size and depth we needed. Since Shari had buried her beloved donkey, Doc, five or six years ago, Mikki asked her if they still had the ability to do that, but unfortunately, they had sold their backhoe. She suggested we call the man who takes care of the graves for our church cemetery (Shari’s husband oversees the care of the cemetery) and promised to find his number and call back. In the meantime, we ran through the other possibilities; first was the friend who had taken care of the last horse burial we knew about, but that was years ago so our hopes weren’t high. We were right about that, he had changed jobs and no longer had access to a backhoe. Minutes later Shari called back with the number of the, well, gravedigger, and we called him. He was down with pneumonia. Then Mikki remembered that, ironically, the man from whom we had bought Cash had recently started a land services business. She called him and he was available. He agreed to come out within 3 hours and not only dig the hole but take care of the moving of the body as well. Mikki’s father lives right next to our pasture so our next stop was to tell him the news. He agreed to meet with the backhoe guys so Mikki wouldn’t have to deal with any of it, other than the payment. Which leads us to the final difficulty of this situation, but let’s stop and summarize here.

There is a very dark side to having horses. If you are like us – and I have to assume that you are, if you are reading this vaguely informative but decidedly sappy blog, you love your horses like pets. Therefore, this next part is going to distress you, and I apologize, but believe me when I say this part is meant to be informative rather than sappy. The cold, hard truth is that if you have a horse (or horses – we’re going to go with the plural here) and do not sell them or give them away, you will lose them someday. Unless they have a long-term disease that you know about and treat them for it for a while, their deaths will be sudden and unexpected. You will be shocked and grieving but, unlike with the family dog (which most people can bury easily in someone’s backyard or pay a nominal fee to have cremated), in the midst of that shock and grief, you will have to deal with a half-ton body. We were fortunate that our community doesn’t explicitly forbid animal burials but many do. This is not something you want to find out at the last minute. We advised in the above-referenced previous post to be prepared for that day. We did not follow our own advice. Too much time passed and we became lax and complacent. Our horses were young then and are not terribly older now (Cash was just 14). So on a cloudy, cool November day with a business trip an hour away, we found ourselves having to find someone to bury our beloved horse, pretty much immediately, and coming up with the money to do so. We are lucky to live in a rural farming community and knew the guy who did it for us, so it wasn’t as expensive as it could have been, but it was still a big, unexpected dent in our budget. Right before Christmas, too.

So again we advise you: have a plan in place for the inevitable. Update it as circumstances change. Be ready. It will make a very, very difficult time just a tiny bit less so.

The last thing is that you’re probably wondering what happened to Cash. We too wonder that. Mikki discussed it with Shari and did a little bit of research (this is still very painful to think about very much, so deep research was out of the question). The most likely cause, given the scant evidence, is intestinal torsion, or volvulus, or as it’s commonly known, “gut twist” (colic is sometimes a symptom of this). Several horse owners we know personally have lost horses suddenly this way; a horse was literally fine one day and gone the next morning (isn’t that scary, that it’s that common?).  Another possibility is a ruptured aorta; the small amount of blood we saw could have been evidence of that. That also is horrifyingly common, but usually happens after intense physical activity, but he could have been frolicking in the pasture right before. The only way to know for sure would have been to have an autopsy done, but those are extremely costly.

Now our last piece of advice, which we are following religiously now: take care of your horses as well as you possibly can, watch over them carefully, and love them like this is the last day you will have them – every single day. We are so grateful for the time we had our Cash. To end on a more positive note, here’s a link to the post where we introduced him. He was quite the horse.  – June 23, 2008 post –

Out of Storage

Out of Storage

Stacked hay round bales

If you were to ask us after 11 years of horse ownership what we would do differently, one of the things we’d tell you is that we should have built some additional hay storage. Since hay is a commodity the prices vary dramatically depending on the weather. In these last 11 years, no two years have been alike.

We’ve had:

  • Hot, dry years when we wondered if we’d have to buy hay from South Dakota and have it shipped in by tractor-trailer (only partially kidding)
  • Years that started off fine only to end dry, yielding one good cutting and barely anything else
  • Wet years we initially rejoiced over until we realized there wasn’t enough consistent sunshine to dry the hay in the field.

And then there is this year – just about the perfect balance between sunshine and rain, yielding a bumper crop of rich, thick grass that grows fast. The second cutting is down and rolled and the fields are green and tall with what will probably be a good third cutting. Farmers are leaving rolls in the field, with nowhere to put it all. Everywhere you look there are barns piled to their roofs with beautiful hay. This is the time of year to make sure you have all of your hay purchased or reserved for the coming winter and normally we need to go looking for some. This year I have people calling me to see if I’m a buyer. Feast or famine, I suppose. This weekend we purchased an additional 15 round bales, 4×5 and tightly wound. Each lasts about a week for our three horses and mule. The price was a very inexpensive $25 a bale. We could have bought more but the truth is our barn is totally full. For the first time ever we’ve filled the center aisle and some of the side in front of the stall doors. I hope we don’t need to let horses in for any reason for the next several months. But this is the problem to have, much better than searching high and low in February and paying a hefty sum for smaller bales. We’ve paid as much as $45 for a 4×4 bale in previous winters when our count was off. We’ve slid into spring with barely a few handfuls of hay left from emergency square bales. Believe me, having too much hay is the problem to have.

Hay storage options

We’ve considered several options over the years:

  1. Supplier storage – this is great if you can get it. One year a supplier agreed to hold 25 bales for us at no additional charge, inside his barn. As our supply dropped, we’d run over to get another load or two at a time. I don’t think this arrangement is very common but if you find one who will do it, buy them lunch and add them to your Christmas card list!
  2. Outside tarped – we almost did it this year but in previous years we’ve had difficulty with this method. The hay wicks moisture from the ground into the bale and causes mold. Cows don’t mind so much but horses shouldn’t be exposed to mold. We even used pallets but the hay breaks down over time underneath which acts as a wick. Also, tarps aren’t super cheap and they don’t last long in the sun. This is okay if it’s all you have but we lose 30-40% of the bales we store this way long term.
  3. Marshmallow rolled – we haven’t tried this but we’ve seen farms in the area that do. Some suppliers (I don’t know any) use a plastic that wraps the entire bale so they can be stacked outside in a field. You’ve probably seen pictures at least – they look like long lines of field marshmallows. This has to be more expensive but I’m not sure how much.
  4. Hay storage building construction – prices will vary depending on where you are, how big you make it, out of what materials, and how much of the construction you can do yourself. We built a carport recently that would hold about 35 4×5 round bales stacked. We used 6×6 wooden poles, three steel trusses, and metal roofing. Although we dug the post holes ourselves (a huge pain in the hard Tennessee clay), we paid someone to set them and complete construction. The total cost here in east Tennessee was about $3,000 in parts and labor but not including covering for the sides (they are open). You’d need to grade the ground so it didn’t trap moisture after rain and you’d still lose some hay to mold but overall I think this is the best solution. We’re considering building one of these for future hay storage.

If you’re considering owning horses, you must have a plan for hay purchase and storage. If you plan well and have some good fortune with the weather you can help keep costs down by buying when the prices are low so you have some options if the next year is too dry or too wet.