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Barn management practices

From: Alex and Julie

Jessica,

Thanks so much for all of the advice you give. It has and continues to be very rewarding. Most questions I have get answered before I even get to ask them :)

My wife and I currently board our two horses at a partial board facility where we take care of the feeding, stall cleaning, etc. The horses are in the pasture all day and night except they are let in in the morning and afternoon to eat hay and whatever grains each person has put in their stall. They are usually in their stalls about 1.5 to 2 hours per feeding session.

For the past 2-3 days when the horses are being let in, my wife's horse, Gallagher (5 year old Thorough Bred (raced when he was 2)), gets to the main gate then runs of to a wooded section of the pasture. When I catch him and walk him up to his stall, just before entering his stall, he lays back his ears for a second and walks on in. Once he is in he just hangs out and drinks a little water, but does not eat at all or if he does eat it's only about 1/4 of what we give him. We've come up with several possibilities, but are not sure which is most likely to be the culprit.

1. All of the boarders have set up a schedule to let the horses in and out so as to help each other out with work schedules and such. I know for a fact that two of the boarders ( one being the barn manager) will pop the horses or throw rocks at them to hurry them up if they don't think they are going in or out fast enough. I haven't seen them do it to our horses, but I have seen them do it to others. I think he may be nervous about entering the barn area if they've been hitting him.

2. During the past week or so, my wife has found two rats (on different days) dead in Gallghers water bucket. Like they fell in and couldn't get out. I thought maybe the scent of the dead rats might be making him nervous, but he still drinks his water, he's just not interested in eating.

3. I thought maybe the heat and humidty that has come up the past week (we are in Atlanta) might have reduced his appetite. Even though the pasture could use a good reseeding, they walk around munching on it all day and are out all night as well.

4. Our last thought is he is sick and tired of the rice bran our vet recommended mixing with his feed.

My bigggest fear is the first one because it's hard to controll what people do when you are not there. We are currently in the process of buying land (40 acres (10acres of woods, 30 acres of pasture and 2 springs). Hopefully it won't be to far down the road before we can put a house and barn on it and bring them home.

This turned out longer than I thought, but we look forward to your advice, opinions, and suggestions. Have a great day! :)

Sincerely, Alex


Hi Alex!

You'll notice that I changed the subject line: "horse runs from barn" is a symptom, and we need to look at the cause of the problem.

Your wife's horse doesn't like being in his stall. That's quite clear, and I suspect you're absolutely right about the cause. Everything you've described fits the picture of a nervous horse: wanting to stay away from the stall, putting his ears back before entering it, and being unwilling to eat much while he's in there.

If anyone is throwing rocks to hurry the horses in or out of their stalls, the practice needs to end right now. Talk to the barn manager or the owner of the property, and get a hard-and-fast rule laid down: NO THROWING ROCKS AT THE HORSES. It's a stupid way to move them along in any case, and all it's going to achieve here is to teach the thoses to associate their stalls with the rock-throwing. This isn't a good idea if you ever plan to confine the horse in ANY stall, whether for feeding, for foaling, because of injury, at a show, or under any other circumstances. Horses need to feel safe in their stalls, and that means they shouldn't have to feel frightened about entering or leaving their stalls.

The dead rats may be disgusting (I'm sure they ARE disgusting!) but they don't seem to be the problem. They indicate that there's another problem, though: feed management. Barns with well-maintained, secure storage for feed don't tend to be overrun with rats! Rats are attracted to places with accessible grain, with old bags of feed left rotting in corners, and with mangers that aren't cleaned out after feeding-time (this leaves old, stale food in the mangers all day). Be sure that your horses' mangers are CLEANED OUT after meals, either by the horses themselves or by someone who is cleaning up the leftovers. Leftover sweetfeed and grain can ferment. This appeals to rats -- but not to horses. And it can happen quickly, especially in a hot/humid environment.

Heat and humidity can indeed have a dampening effect on a horse's appetite for hard feed. So can old, decaying feed in the manger (see above). As long as the horses have good pasture and/or good hay, plenty of cool, fresh water, and full-time access to salt, they are probably eating enough even if they're less interested in their grain. Watch their behaviour and monitor their physical condition -- that will tell you what's going on. If they aren't dehydrated and they aren't getting thin, they're probably fine.

Rice bran is a good fat supplement, but like any fat supplement, it can become rancid. It needs to be kept in a cool, dry place. When fat gets rancid, it doesn't smell good... keep checking the smell of your rice bran, and if it changes from good to "iffy", get rid of the rest of the bag. Also remember that feeding ANY fat supplement means double-checking the cleanliness of the mangers after each meal, because any fat supplement can become rancid after a day in a hot, damp stall.

You're right to be worried about the rock-throwing, and I agree that it's likely to be the biggest problem. Talk to the owners, and mention that this kind of problem could have a negative impact on their insurance costs. If they're carrying a "Care Custody and Control" policy, as they should be if they board horses, they won't want the cost of the policy to go up -- and they won't want to lose their policy! If they're uninsured, then they are personally liable for anything that happens to the horses in their care... and this might be a subject for them to think about. You might remind them that even if YOU personally adore them and would never dream of bringing suit, your insurance company could do it without your consent. Allowing bad practices has closed down more than one barn... Don't threaten them in any way, but do share your concerns about what's going on with your horses.

Until your new property (congratulations, by the way!) is horse-safe, you'll have to do the best you can to make the horses' present environment horse-safe. In this case, it means eliminating the rock-throwing practice and perhaps paying more attention to the condition of the feed and mangers. Remember that if your horses are in light work, they'll do very nicely WITHOUT hard feed as long as they have good pasture, good hay, salt, and clean water. Most horses seem to get far too much grain and not enough hay -- and then their owners wonder why they colic...

Try to ensure your horses' safety without burning your bridges, though, because buying a piece of property is just the first step toward bringing your horses home. Even if you put the fences and the horses and a three-sided shed on the property immediately, and plan to build the house and barn later, you'll still have to commit quite a lot of time to planning the layout, installing the fences, having the stream tested, digging wells, checking the pastures for horse-dangerous plants, etc. However long you think it's likely to take, double the estimate, and then double that again -- you'll have a more accurate idea of the actual time involved. ;-)

Good luck!

Jessica

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