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  • The Horse Lady

The Hay Job

It is one of my pet peeves that horses have ceased to be part of our every day life and have become the prerogative only of the rich. And so regular people, like me, whose businesses are seasonal, and whose horses cease to support them for one season of the year, have in turn to support their horses.

So let's look at some of the costs of owning horses.

1. Hay. The most cost effective way to get hay is to grow and harvest it yourself, but for small farms like ours, this is simply impractical. The next best thing is to buy big round bales from your friendly neighbourhood hay farmer. In our case, his name is Peter, and he brings the bales to us one at a time so we don't have to store them. He places the bale in a hay feeder in the field, and for this we pay him $50 per bale. One bale lasts about a week.

In addition to the big bales that the horses eat when they are in the field, it is good to have "square bales" in the barn, to use to reward good behaviour, to distract them with when they have to wait or undergo some procedure (read B A T H - and they can spell). Square bales cost $5 each and are delivered ten at a time and that lasts about a month.

2. Treats. There a tons of treats out there for horses, most having apples and grain in them and costing a fortune. But really, horses are very happy with carrots. We break them into pieces and use them for enticement, reward, or shameless treats. They are super cheap and come in big bags, so we don't really even count them.

3. Grain. Grain is a tricky item. Smaller, higher energy horses have grain every day as an essential part of their diet. They expend more energy in an hour than a draft horse expends in a week. Draft horses can have grain, but only if carefully managed. When we first got Suzy and Duke, and we were learning, we faithfully fed them a helping of oats, flax, and an extruded feed every night before bed. And they gained weight. Alarming amounts of weight. Very quickly. Luckily, we have friends who have kept draft horses for many moons, and who saw the error in our ways. Grain, they said, should only be used when horses are working hard. So last summer, when Duke was walking 30km each day on the weekend, he got grain each day that he worked. Otherwise, hay is sufficient. We do keep small amounts of grain on hand, but the cost is so small I'm not sure I could even estimate it on a monthly basis.

4. Farrier. The farrier is the guy who comes to your farm to trim your horses' hooves. He fits shoes if they are required, and he tows a small blacksmith forge around behind him for just this purpose. Farriers are a fascinating breed. You know that old saying that one should never work with children or animals? Farriers work exclusively with animals. Animals that stand on them, lean on them, and occasionally kick them. They are independent business owners who have the same business risk as anyone else. Like the supposedly wealthy horse owner with a barn full of horses who ran up a farrier tab as much as the cost of some people's cars and then promptly declared bankruptcy. All of which is my way of saying these fellows are worth what they charge. Oh, and they have scheduling nightmares. They charge anywhere between $45 and $75 to trim my horses, $125 to hot shoe them (fit them for handy dandy work boots). Trimming happens once every six weeks or so. Shoing needs to be maintained and sometimes new shoes are applied. Shoes provide traction. These are horsy adidas.

5. Vet. Now, we have to be careful with this one. Just about anything, except shoing, that needs to be done to and for your horse can be done by a vet. Most horse people endeavour to do as much as possible for themselves. For example, Duke and Suzy have an appointment next week to have their teeth filed, or "floated". I am having the vet do it because I lack the tools, and I don't have the confidence to do it myself. Where I would do it with two people helping, and without the benefit of sedatives (one holds the tongue back, the other holds the horse, and I would administer the file), the vet uses a sedative. The horse may be frighted all the same, but it can't fight the experience and hurt itself or others. But where my teeth floating would cost some friendship points and some beer afterward, the vet costs a lot more.

Things we have used the vet for in the last year include two pregnancy checks (drives me nuts not knowing), leg shaving under sedative, worm medicine, a sore on Duke's lip, and now the teeth. We have been unbelievably lucky. I am touching wood with my toe, my knee, my elbow, and my chin as I write this. Other things for which the vet can be called include colic (digestive torsion - potentially fatal), EPDM (a wasting disease common in post-delivery mares), severe lacerations, gun shot wounds (no I'm not kidding), and a host of other strange and wonderful diseases known only to horses. Every night I go to sleep and pray that I will not be wakened by a screaming horse, or worse, the silence of an absence.

6. Straw. By straw, I mean anything that can be use to line the floor of a stall, barn, or other horse area to absorb urine and catch feces until it can be picked up. We use the cheapest thing going, and that is straw. Various farms use wood shavings or sawdust. In Mexico I visited a stable that used some kind of nut shells, a byproduct of food processing. The point is, you put down the bedding, they pee on it, you get all irked because you just cleaned, or mucked out, the barn, the horse looks at you as if you are a foolish human, and there you have it. Straw is $5 per bale, and like the hay bales, we buy ten at a time and it lasts about a month (our open barn decreases soiling in stall areas).

7. Grooming. So, like treats, there are a whole bunch of tempting, luxurious and expensive preparations out there, their labels promising to turn your shaggy little shetland pony into Pegasus. And like the treats, the simplest solutions are usually the best.

Every horse from Secretariat to Pokey the pony has the same grooming needs. Periodically, the horse needs to be brought into the barn, with the lights on. Check the horse over carefully, feeling for spots that make him flinch or shy away. Finding none of those, use a curry comb or a coarse scrub brush, give him a really good brushing all over his body, including his legs and his ears. Be gentle when brushing the face. It's more sensitive. Then use a pin brush (like the brush you use in your bedroom, only more robust) to thoroughly remove all knots and debris from the mane and tail. I mean it! All of it. Use a soft, clean towel to wipe down the face and remove loose hairs.

And that's it. Now obviously, that's a basic groom. I do that for Suzy only as I notice knots in her mane or mud in her hair. Duke, on the other hand, takes three hours to groom for a job, including a bath, braiding, ribbons and silk flowers. By the way, we use nothing on our horses but Dawn dish detergent, rubbing alcohol, vinegar, and unpasteurized honey.

So grooming costs are highly subjective.

8. Miscellaneous. Some horses wear blankets in the winter, to prevent their winter coats from growing in and sullying their sleek summer appearance. We have blankets, but we have only used them when the temperature was -40C, and the horses promply went outside and rolled until they could get them off. We monitor their body temperature carefully, and they seem to cope with extreme cold very well. However, it does make sense to keep blankets on hand. They are worth anywhere upwards of $120 each, but you can usually find used ones around.

Some horses where boots to protect fragile hoofs, etc. I don't even know how much they are. We don't use them.

Goodies are a function of that urge we all have to spoil our people and pets. The big balls they sometimes play with. Things to rub up against. etc.

Bug juice - We use a few different products to protect from horse flies, face flies and mosquitoes. The one we use the most of is a citronella spray, which helps, and of which we go through a gallon jug per summer. There is also a pink ointment that smells like pine tar, is the consistency of zinc oxide, and is great for keeping flies away from any area that needs extra protection, like a bite from another horse.

Oh, but wait, I have left out the highest cost of all. Land. We have twelve acres of land, small but big enough for us. We have fences all over the place, meant to keep the horses safe and to manage their behaviour. They need constant maintenance, not because they are poor fences but because it is the nature of fences to need maintenance. We also have a barn on our land, in our case a coverall building meant to provide shelter in inclement weather, and a place where we can work with them. And with the land big enough to house and manage our horses, of course, there are other costs. Snow removal. Five hours of mowing once a week in the summer. The truck and trailer to enable us to move the horses from place to place. And then there is the water.


So tomorrow morning, I will wake at four o'clock and drive to my hay job, so my horses are safe, warm and fed through the winter. And when I feel miserable about working off the farm, I will think of Duke and Suzy, and Shannon, and how much joy they give me, and how I love each of them. And maybe this paycheque I can squeeze out something wonderful to bring home for them...................

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