Feeding and Housing
There can be enormous difference between what a horse is supposed to eat, and what a horse will eat, given half a chance. One of my childhood horses ate a banana peel when it was offered. She was only supposed to sniff it, but apparently thought it smelled good enough to eat. I’ve also heard stories of horses eating cheeseburgers and drinking Diet Cokes, but most of a horse’s caloric intake comes from other, more normal sources.
Wild horses eat almost exclusively grass, with an occasional nibble at a shrub or various good-tasting herbs. A horse’s mouth is more sensitive than a cow’s, so they eat softer grasses when they can, and due to the somewhat prehensile action of a horse’s lips, they can cut the grass very short. The horse uses its lips to gather up the foodstuff, then bites it with its incisors and grinds it with its molars, its jaws moving in a somewhat circular motion from side to side. This action can go awry if the horse’s teeth aren’t wearing down evenly, as mentioned in the last installment of this post. Infection, old age, or injury can also make a horse chew unevenly, and it is possible for a horse to choke as a result. Choking usually isn’t lethal, because the conformation of a horse’s esophagus and nasal passages tends to make the bolus of food come to rest halfway down the esophagus. But it’s very uncomfortable for the horse and usually requires veterinary care.
Choke and similar problems can often be avoided by altering the horse’s diet and making sure it has enough access to water. Horses drink 5-10 gallons a day, depending on their environment and work level, and eat about 1 percent of their body weight in roughage (grass or hay).
Hay is simply grass, dried to preserve it. Usually it’s edible for a year after it’s cut. Hay can be made out of many types of grasses, like timothy, orchardgrass, or bluegrass; or legumes like alfalfa. Too much alfalfa can throw off a horse’s calcium/phosphorus ratio, because of its high phosphorus content, but when fed alongside grass hay, it doesn’t usually lead to problems. Most grass hay is a mixture of grasses, which changes according to the region and climate in which it’s grown. Never feed a horse on fescue; it causes varying health problems, particularly spontaneous abortion in pregnant mares.
In historical times, hayfields were usually cut once a year. This was done by hand, with scythes, and the hay piled loosely into a barn loft where it could be kept dry. Wet hay can mold, or even spontaneously combust- the decomposition process creates heat, and if the heat can’t dissipate, it can cause the surrounding material to catch fire. This is a greater danger with tightly packed bales of hay, which are a modern invention, but has been a cause for worry throughout the ages.
Modern hayfields can be cut two or- if the weather is good- three times a year. First cutting hay is a little coarser but has high nutritional value because it contains the stalk and seed head of the plant. Second and third cutting is comprised solely of leaves, and is softer but has a different nutrient profile. Hay is usually baled by tying it into a bundle with strings. The strings can be made of plant fiber, plastic fiber, or wire. Bales can be small squares weighing 30-100 pounds, large squares weighing perhaps a ton, or round bales weighing slightly more. The last two are more efficient for the haymaker, but require specialized equipment to move. Small square bales are quite convenient for the horse owner, because the two strings binding the bale make them easy to move, and the bale splits into evenly sized ‘flakes’, so it’s easy to see how much a horse is being fed.
Some horses, particularly ‘easy keepers’ like Quarter Horses, Morgans, and various pony breeds, can live only on hay. Some should live only on hay; being fat is just as unhealthy for a horse as it is for any other animal. A horse’s body condition is measured on a scale of one to nine; one is a living skeleton; nine is morbidly obese. A healthy horse is usually around a five. Some horse owners like their horses to be a little fatter at the beginning of winter, and some athletes are kept around a four. But a five on the body condition scale is adequate. The ribs of such a horse are not visible but can be felt by pushing gently on its side. The pelvis and point of hip do not stick out, and the rump is rounded but not bulging. There is a clear definition between the neck and shoulder but the scapular ridge is not visible.
Grain is the most common feed for horses that don’t maintain their weight on hay alone. If a horse owner has to choose between giving more hay and giving more grain, they should give more hay because it’s better for the horse’s digestive health, but many horses receive a daily ration of grain. Commercially made grain is often a combination of ground oats, cracked corn, and wheat bran, with added minerals and sometimes a bit of molasses to help everything stick together in its usual pelletized form. In the past, horses were often fed oats- sometimes rolled or cracked- to give them energy. A horse fed oats will be ‘hotter’, that is, more excitable than other horses, so oats are still fed to racehorses and other athletes.
Some horses eat sweet feed, which is grain with more molasses and whole corn kernels. It’s tastier, but of course higher in sugar, so it’s usually given to picky eaters who don’t have trouble digesting simple carbohydrates.
Other supplements can be added to a horse’s diet. Some horses are given corn oil to add calories; there are also mineral powders for horses that need them. Some regions are deficient in particular minerals, so the origin of the feed can alter a horse’s dietary needs. For example, New England is deficient in selenium, so horses in that area must be given extra vitamin E to compensate. Each manufactured grain has a different nutritional profile; some are higher in protein, fat, or carbohydrates, according to the needs of the horses it’s designed to serve.
Horses, as individuals, eat varying amounts of grain. Actually, if allowed, adult horses will eat until they get sick; the mechanism for telling the brain the stomach is full disappears at around six months of age. So horse owners are careful to keep stores of grain away from the horse; hay is less of a concern because it’s less nutritionally concentrated, so it’s difficult for a horse to eat too much hay in one sitting.
Grain is doled out in specific amounts, usually in two or three feedings per day. More and smaller feedings are better for the horse’s digestion, but morning and evening are convenient for the horse owner. Grain is fed according to weight, not volume, because some feeds are very dense and others are air-puffed like cheese curls to make them easier to chew. A horse in good condition, with no internal parasites, doing light work, will eat anywhere from one to five pounds of grain per feeding. Athletes might eat ten or more pounds of grain per feeding. All feed changes must be done gradually- a week is usually sufficient- so as not to upset the horse’s digestion. Neglected or starved horses might take a month or more to adjust to being fed, so if you happen to see a very thin horse, it might be recently rescued.
Some horses will eat anything; others are picky and have to be placated with grains like sweet feed. Sweet feed can also be given as a treat. Horses like sweet and salty things, even if too much sugar isn’t good for their digestion or their teeth. But an occasional peppermint or commercially made treat won’t hurt a horse. Other common treats are apples and carrots. Some horses like an occasional slice of watermelon or handful of berries, and bread is okay in small amounts. Some old-time racehorse trainers give each horse a beer with their grain; that amount of alcohol won’t hurt a thousand-pound horse, and some horses like the taste.
With all treats, the key is a ‘small’ amount. None of these are meant to replace a horse’s normal diet, and can cause digestive issues like colic if given in large quantities. Some horses can also develop behavior problems from too many treats; they grow to expect sweet things, and may bite if not placated. When feeding treats, it’s usually best to place the treat in the horse’s feed bucket along with its usual meal.
You, as a writer, might make passing mention of medieval knights’ horses eating oats to fatten them up before a campaign, or that the horses couldn’t find enough to eat on a long journey and grew thin because of it. Make sure your character waters his horse regularly, though. If he has a spare moment in his pursuit of the villain, the horse should be allowed to sip water at intervals; just like a human athlete, a horse will tire quickly if allowed to drink too much or made to go a long distance on too little water.
But where does the hero keep his horse when not pursuing the villain? Good question, and that’s the next section:
Wild horses roam freely of course, and depending on the environment and the amount of food and water available, their territory may extend for miles. Domestic horses have much more controlled living arrangements, and these can vary dramatically based on the climate, the individual horse, and the horse’s job. A very hardy horse that grows a thick winter coat can live almost anywhere in the continental United States with only a south-facing three-sided run-in shed for shelter. I recently moved to the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and was amazed to see a vast majority of the horses kept in only a paddock with a run-in shed. Previously, I lived in New England, where large amounts of snow- that lingers for months- make it more convenient to house horses in barns, where each horse has its own stall and the feed and bedding are stored nearby.
Most barns are made in one of two styles. American barns often have a center aisle between two rows of inward-facing stalls, and European barns usually have a single row of stalls around a courtyard, because of the milder climate. American barns usually have a hayloft above the stalls, which is convenient and provides insulation in the winter, but can be a fire hazard and if the hay is dusty, can cause breathing difficulties. Some people store hay in separate barns for that reason.
Many domestic horses have a box stall at their disposal; it’s also called a loose box in some European countries. A properly sized box stall is at least twice as long as the horse is tall. So the shortest side of a stall for a fifteen-hand horse is ten feet. Twelve by twelve stalls are the most common size, and twelve by sixteen is also a standard size for larger horses. Stalls are commonly sided with hardwood or concrete blocks in cooler climates, and can be made of pipe gates in warmer regions, for better ventilation. If the stall has solid walls, the wall commonly extends about four feet up, and the rest of the wall can be left open, or closed off with vertical aluminum or steel bars that allow the horse to see the horse in the next stall, but don’t allow them to touch each other. The horse is left to walk around the stall as it likes, and usually has free access to a bucket of water, unlike in a straight stall. The floor is usually dirt, which is sometimes covered with rubber mats at least half an inch thick. If the floor is concrete or asphalt, the stall mats should be thicker; it’s more comfortable for the horse. The door should be at least four feet wide. Some stall doors slide on a track parallel to the front wall, others swing outward on hinges. The stall door should never swing into the stall. Bedding- straw, wood shavings (usually pine; never black walnut), shredded paper, or peat- is spread on the floor to a depth between two and eight inches, depending on the horse’s needs and the owner’s preference.
Some horses are straight tied in their stalls, and if you’re writing historical fiction, your characters will most likely use straight stalls. It’s currently illegal in Europe to stall a horse in this manner, which is stupid. A horse in a properly sized straight stall (usually five to six feet wide and twelve to fourteen feet long depending on the horse) has ample room to scratch itches, lie down, and be otherwise comfortable. Some places still use straight stalls; at my alma mater, University of Connecticut, some of the horses are kept in straight stalls for part of the day and turned out in a field for the rest of the time. Straight stalls are equipped with chains instead of lead ropes for tying the horses, since an unoccupied horse will often chew on its lead rope. I’ve seen horses tied with collars instead of halters- I’m looking at you, UC Braveheart!- because the horse has learned how to slip out of its halter and wander around the barn.
No matter what type of stall the horse lives in, the area should be cleaned regularly, which under normal circumstances means removing all manure and wet bedding, then laying down dry bedding. Most people do this once a day. Any less, and the horse’s lungs can be damaged by ammonia fumes from its urine. Barns are constructed with good ventilation to help the fumes dissipate, and some horses are neater than others. When I was a child, my family kept a horse that refused to urinate in her stall. Bandera would take two steps outside and squat, but her stall was always perfectly dry. My brother’s horse always defecates in a neat pile in one corner of her stall. But my horse Penny always had a messy stall; my dad speculated that she was practicing her tap-dancing routine whenever we turned away, spreading dirty bedding and feces all over in a yucky mix of gunk.
I usually mucked out Penny’s stall with a snow shovel; it captured everything, which was more efficient. For neater horses, a plastic or steel-tined pitchfork is more standard and allows the owner to sift clean bedding from feces, which are conveniently molded into little ‘road apples’ about two inches across, unlike a cow’s rather mushy flop. Horse feces do smell, but they’re less pungent than cow or chicken manure, both of which are rather nostril-searing even when properly disposed of in a compost pile.
Entire books have been written about proper composting, so I’ll just say that horse manure makes fantastic compost. If combined with a carbonaceous material like straw or wood shavings, kept moist, and turned periodically, it turns into a rich black dirt in a few months, and can be spread on your garden or lawn. Composting produces a great deal of heat; it kills many weed seeds, snow melts faster on the pile than on bare ground, and I’ve heard of compost piles catching fire if too much carbon is added too fast. It’d probably be a good place to dispose of a body, if your characters ever have to do so.
Horses kept in stalls should have frequent access to more open areas. Daily turnout for at least a couple hours is a good practice to follow. If a horse is kept standing in a stall for too long, it can suffer from edema of the lower legs; this is called ‘stocking up’ and the horse is said to be ‘stocked up’. Outdoor turnout varies according to the space available, the horse’s respect for fencing, and the owner’s preference. Some people turn their horses loose in an indoor arena because there’s no chance the horse can jump out, and the area has a more consistent temperature. Other situations include small paddocks or larger pastures. The turnout area can also be called a lot (usually these have trees) or field (fewer but not necessarily no trees). Pasture is the generic term; if you use it in a story, readers will understand what you mean. You might call it a paddock if the setting is regency or Victorian England; that term has always been a bit more gentrified.
Pastures of all sizes have enormous variety in fencing, usually predicated on the materials available. This was certainly a concern in the past, when non-native materials were expensive to ship. Fencing is usually made of wood, wire, or a combination of the two. Board or split-rail fences are common in small paddocks, though some horses chew on the rails when bored. Square wire or stock fencing can also be used; make sure the squares are small enough that the horse can’t catch a hoof in one. Pipe gates are less subject to chewing and provide a sturdy barrier in small spaces. Barbed wire is used in very large pastures, where the horse is unlikely to come anywhere near it, and must be strung very tightly, lest it come loose and wrap around a horse’s leg. Electric fencing is becoming popular, particularly with recent improvements in solar charging tech. Most horses- even ones who lean on other fences- get zapped once by an electric fence and never touch it again, though it’s important for the owner to keep checking the fence for grounding out or other damage.
Fence posts are usually made of wood, though steel T-posts can also be used, provided they have a covering on the sharp top edges. Many people use tennis balls for this; I’ve also seen car tires draped over the posts. The fence should be at least four feet high- six feet for stallions- and should be maintained so it’s not loose or falling down. Horses are masters of getting into small spaces and not getting back out again. And if you’re fencing in a pony or miniature horse, make sure the fence is low enough that they can’t duck underneath it. Stone walls are also a viable option in some places, though they must be tall enough and kept in good repair so the horse doesn’t try to climb over the wall.
If the horse has enough to eat within the pasture, it’s unlikely to try to escape, unless it’s frightened or seeking company. I was surprised to see horses contained within stone walls on the Aran Islands of Ireland, not because the walls were made of stone- it’s almost the only building material on the islands- but because the walls were one stone thick in many places. It was possible to look through the wall and see daylight, yet the horses stayed put because there was enough grass to distract them.
In the past, horses were staked out or picketed. This means the horse was tied by means of a long rope to a tree or a railroad spike hammered into the ground. It could graze on whatever grass was within reach, and didn’t need fencing. My mother’s childhood horse was occasionally staked out on the lawn when the grass was overgrown and she didn’t feel like mowing. But this is a technique for calm horses only; if it gets tangled in the rope, it could panic and hurt itself. Campers still use a variant where a rope is tied between two trees at head height, a ring is threaded onto the rope, and the horse’s lead line is clipped to the ring. Also for calm, well-trained horses, because the horse can more easily break the hardware if it pulls away, than if it’s straight tied with the same hardware.
We’re getting near the end of A Writer’s Guide to Horses, so please mention in the comments if you’d like more information on specific topics. There will be an installment on harnessing and driving a horse, and one about travelling with and by horse. And if I don’t get to a specific topic, it may appear in the compilation that I’ll be releasing as a book sometime next year. So, tell me what you’d like to know, and keep sharing your own anecdotes; I get a kick out reading other people’s horse experiences.
(Oh, and, the page image is from Pixabay)