Monday, March 10, 2008

A Farm of Your Own - Part 2

The Quest

Now that you have done a bit of soul searching and decided the only way for your sanity to stay somewhat intact is to own a farm. Here are some suggestions to get you prepared for your search:

The Land

Decide on your stabling arrangements: will they live out full time, or be stabled part of the day?

Horses that live out will require anywhere between 2-4 acres EACH depending on soil and growth conditions, and in poor conditions may require even more space. These are acres of actual pasture, not the size of the total property, and not including areas of weeds, ponds, woods, etc. A horse that is turned out for most of the day will require a minimum of 1 acre of pasture each, and you will still have to feed hay when conditions limit growth, like winter and the end of a dry summer… some people believe it’s best to put an easy keeper in a smaller paddock so that there is less for him to eat, but an overgrazed pasture will stress the grasses, which in turn causes them to produce more sugars, and this increases the likelihood of colic and laminitis, especially in the easy keeper type. It is always preferable to have the best quality pasture you can create and use a grazing muzzle to restrict intake if necessary. When in doubt, you may be able to consult your local agricultural extension for help in understanding pasture requirements and maintenance in your area.

I would not recommend keeping horses in paddocks smaller than these, but if you must, consider that an overgrazed space without healthy grasses to hold the soil together will quickly become poached and turn to mud/dust; when overgrazed these spaces will become a breeding ground for weeds and parasites. If you must put horses in smaller paddocks, invest in ‘footing’ like well-draining stone dust with a prepared base. Expect to feed all-day hay (preferably in racks to prevent ingesting sand which could lead to sand colic) to keep horses busy and their digestive systems working properly, and plan on cleaning up manure on a daily basis.

Living Quarters for Horses

Once you have decided how much acreage is needed for your farm, it is time to decide about their shelter accommodations.

Will your horses be living outside? If the answer is yes, then you must have a proper sized run-in shed that will house all of the horses comfortably with room for all to lie down and move around without infringing on one another’s space. A good basic rule for shelter size per horse is a stall times two: if your horse would live in a 12x12 stall, he will need a 12x24 shed to get out of the weather and avoid competitive herd-mates. The shed should have a manger to put hay in, this also keeps it from intermingling with the straw or shavings on the floor. The shed must be cleaned out on a regular basis, the schedule depending on how many horses are living there. In the past, we leased a boarding facility that had a wonderful shed with running water, hay storage, a grooming/sick stall, electric (which I would recommend) for lights and, the ultimate luxury, ceiling fans, which the horses loved in the summer months. They really helped to keep the flies away and to keep the horses cool.

Perhaps you would rather have a barn to stable them in at night. A ask yourself how many stalls you will need. What size your horses are will determine stall dimensions, obviously a 17.3 hand horse will not be comfortable in a 10x10 stall. Usually a 12x12 will accommodate most horses; I prefer a larger stall at least 14x14. When you are looking at barns, be aware that it must have good ventilation. Windows in the stalls are very good; if by chance they have glass, it should be covered with bars to protect from injury in case of breakage. The best kind of window would be a door that swings open to the outside, latches, and can be closed in the winter or inclement weather. A set of sliding doors at each end of the barn aisle is also needed to allow good airflow through the barn. Aisles should be wide enough to turn a horse around safely without banging into walls or being chomped on by other horses.

Another popular stable configuration is the shed row. These are great for smaller spaces where a full barn may not be feasible, and provide great ventilation. One of the main drawbacks to these, however, is the weather. If you live in a region that gets a lot of rain or snow, expect to be outside in it when caring for your horses. Also, consider where horses will be tied/held for the farrier, vet and grooming, etc.

Extra benefits in any style of barn would, of course, include a wash stall with hot and cold running water, a grooming stall, a feed room and a tack room to store the saddles, bridles and your other horse needs.

The barn may have a loft for hay and shavings storage, although a separate shed to store the hay and feed, away from the barn, would be a better choice. Feed must be kept in airtight bins to keep the population of unwanted barn critters down. Pitchforks, wheelbarrows and the like can be stored in the shed also. Personally, I do not store hay in the loft; it is dusty and could cause respiratory problems for the horses, and the hay could combust and start a fire under the right circumstances.

The aisle can be any material as long as it is not slippery, rubber mats or pavers can be laid down to ease the concussion on the horses feet and keep them from losing traction.


Next on the list, be sure that the fencing is safe for horses. There are so many types of fencing, it would be boring to go into them but I will name a few of the most common varieties.

First, never ever use barbed wire anywhere in the vicinity of a horse as it can lead to disastrous situations. In fact, any kind of wire, including electric wire, can be extremely hazardous. It has low visibility and, compared to the size, weight and strength of the horse, the width of fence wire causes it to act similar to cheese wire on a horse. Not something any of us would like to see. Avoid it at all cost!

Vinyl fencing has its good and bad sides. The good is that it will not rot, as wood will, so it lasts virtually forever. It is aesthetically pleasing to look at and the broken slats are easy to replace. It does not need to be painted. The down sides: every spring you will need to hire someone to power-wash it, after the winter storms it looks dirty and dingy. Quick note: while it would not have been our first choice, the farm we bought was done in vinyl fencing; we contacted a professional to do the power-washing. His price was $500 a day and the estimate was for at least six days. So the upkeep could run into a lot of money. Consequently, I am thinking of buying my own machine. In addition, winter temperature sometimes cause the vinyl to freeze and become brittle, the horses find it easy to break; when it does break, its edges become sharp splinters.

Wood fencing:

One type of fencing has posts and a single board at the top with wire mesh running to the ground, sometimes called ‘thoroughbred’ fencing, as it is commonly used on large breeding farms. We have had this type of fencing, it is very functional, and relatively safe if properly maintained. I do not like the look of it, but that is personal preference. It occasionally will need a board or post replaced. It is more expensive than many other types of fencing, but has the advantage that there is less wood to replace over time. Some of the drawbacks with this fencing are frayed wires, warping, holes (often from the mower,) or horses getting cast and catching their legs underneath (reference cheese-wire effect above.) In addition, it is important to make sure the openings in the mesh are appropriate for horses and not big enough to allow a kicking hoof to go through (something to consider if you will have tiny-footed foals in your paddocks.) If you choose this kind of fencing make sure you have a professional install the wire mesh, as it must be tight all the way round the paddock. One of the less imagined considerations is that you cannot climb it (which makes getting into a large pasture to fix a fly mask, blanket, etc. a bit of a project when you have to go around to the gate and hike) and that, while large non-equine species have a more difficult time getting into the paddock, they also have a harder time getting out, which might mean your dog will get trapped on the inside (as our have,) or, deer can become tangled in the fence in a panic (as we often found.)

Regular wood fencing with posts and four boards is probably the most common. There are two main types:

Standard post and rail has the boards nailed or screwed into place, and slip-board has the boards fitted into holes in the post (this type is more expensive, but is obviously easier to replace since it does not involve nail pulling, and may be safer, as there is no potential for injury from nails.)

Depending on the type of wood, board fencing may have to be painted on a regular basis.

Another option is the split rail, which is my personal favorite. It does not require painting, and when weathered, blends beautifully into the natural surroundings. These rails are easily replaced and again, have no nails to potentially injure horses.

Horse fencing should ideally be at least four rails high – and may need to be higher for stallions - though three-rail might be alright for small breeds. We’ve had horses jump out over three-rail, so you may want to avoid this if your horses are athletically inclined, excitable, or both…

Another option is electric fencing. This works great in a temporary situation, but I don’t like it as much for permanent fencing. It requires a lot of maintenance to keep it properly stretched and charged, but is relatively inexpensive and easy to install. We use it occasionally to divide larger paddocks. The best kind, we have found, is high-visibility electric tape. You can fix this to wood posts for more permanence and safety, or use it on plastic or metal t-posts. However, if you are using t-posts, I’d recommend getting full post covers ( sells a nice quality electric tape with post covers) to prevent unnecessary injury. On a separate note, it will cost slightly more, but plan to set any metal or plastic posts at a minimum of 6’ to prevent impalement injuries – I know, it sounds gruesome, but it’s something to consider if you have horses that play hard or are inclined to jump over or run through fence if they are upset.

Another consideration is gates. Many use the tubular steel or aluminum gates, which are light, sturdy, resistant to warping and relatively inexpensive – they are also readily available should one break – you can usually pick them up at your local feed store. Wood gates are attractive, but tend to sag after a while, especially if they are wide enough for a vehicle to go through. Vinyl gates that match vinyl (pvc) fencing look nice as well, but become more flexible the wider they are, and so can easily be popped open if a horse pushes against them (something Donnie discovered his second day at our farm) so will need to be chained in addition to latching, or electrified.

Gates should not only be used as entrances to paddocks, but should be implemented near driveway entrances so the whole barn/turnout area is essentially a safe island for the horses. Horses can break cross-ties, break out of their stalls and paddocks, get away from their handlers while leading or get loose if a rider falls. In these circumstances, the escapee horse should not be able to get loose in the neighborhood and do damage to themselves, drivers, pedestrians, the neighbor’s flowerbeds, the local sod farm (don’t ask…) etc. Be forewarned, if there is an opening, your horse will take it; it is your responsibility as a farm owner to make sure your horses are safely contained on your property and there is no escape route the horses can take.

These few features are more than likely the most important aspects of things you should be looking for in a potential farm, but there are other things to consider also, before you dial up the real estate agent. I will address these other options in my next post.

Until next time

Quote for Today

I live in a house but my home is in the stable.

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