Real-life Horsekeeping

Pasture management is a big topic among horse keepers. you can Google for information by county, how many acres it takes to support a horse or cow or goat on native pasture in a particular area. You can improve pasture by regular maintenance, mowing and seeding. it's typical to cross-fence and rotate pastures - all this can be Googled. Cows - as far as I know - are pretty straightforward, (Google again) but horses have such a complex social system that they take a little more management.

I have two largish pastures, a medium sized one, two smallish pastures, a 'run' that's really an alley between two pastures but easily accommodates an occupant. In addition to all that I have a barn with three pens designed with sheds, a holding pen and a riding area.

When I sort the horses into their pens and pastures, I consider their own statuses within the herd, their pecking orders... who gets along with who. I try to keep buddies together and separate trouble makers. If I have any skinnies or fatties, they have to go where they can be fed according to their special needs. Of course, the stallion has to be were he can't get to the open mares. Fencing is another consideration. We have some old fence, some new fence, some solid pipe and horse fence and some electric fence .... I have two generations of foals that were born and raised during our recent drought conditions that have learned they can slip through electric fence because for those years there literally wasn't enough moisture in the ground to conduct through their little hoofs - ...soooooo ... what's the bottom line in how the horses are sorted?

When all the machinations are done, and everyone is sorted, it finally comes down to the number of feed buckets I can carry at one time. That's where reality rears it's ugly head. Depending on if they get one, two, or three scoops of grain per feeding raises or lowers the number of buckets I can stack and carry and still open and close gates and, one-handed, pour the grain from the buckets into the feeders.

It seems to me that, when we research for our novels and stories, that we need to remember that things don't always work in real life they way the manual says thye're supposed to, and that there are usually circumstances that the manuals don't take into consideration - like how someone could possible carry 25 lbs in six buckets through two gates without the donkey tipping them out of your arms or the mares getting into the alley next to the stallion.

In the horses' eyes

I often see horses in stories that are just kinda hanging around in the background; too many authors tend to move them around like cardboard cutouts being placed around a set.

It doesn't have to be that way. It's not that hard to get inside a horse's head and let them add a little flavor and depth to your scene.

The main thing to remember is that horses, while they can be aggressive, protective and dominant, are prey animals. Their instincts are geared toward survival: food, water and protection from predators.

A horse's first line of defense from predators is escape and so you have to consider that anything that inhibits that escape - in the horse's mind - puts that horse's life at risk. Domestic horses have to be taught to let their handlers pick up their hoofs for cleaning and farrier work - remember that with one leg off the ground, especially if someone is holding it, the horse has no escape should a wolf pack round the corner. So, effectively, holding a horse's hoof in your hand is - in their mind - the equivalent of holding their life.

The same with the ears. There are times that the horse's ears must be handled, for cleaning or bridling, but without their ears being free, again - in the horses mind - they are placing their life in the handler's hands ... trusting the handler's ears to hear the scrap of a claw on a rock or the whuff of hot breath on the breeze.

Any time the wind is high, that also inhibits the horses' abilities to hear an approaching predator. If you need a normally well mannered horse to give your hero grief, whip up a thunderstorm with some high winds and the horse will be dancing around in the breeze, trying to do triple duty with his eyes since he can't hear or smell predators from downwind.

In these photos, the year-old
TELPE has just been released back into the pasture after a couple of days of being stalled and she's eager to reaffirm existing relationships. Specifically, who will protect her from predators, who will she need to protect. See how she's flaring her nostrils and perking her ears? "I can smell and hear very well," she's saying.

Notice that both TELPE and MIREE are moving, while SHAHIN, the red mare, has all four hoofs firmly planted. That's quite deliberate. SHAHIN is the 'boss mare' and as such, she moves her feet for no one. With the simple act of being immobile, she reassures TELPE that she'll lead her to feed and water and protect her from predators.

Always remember that your hero may be able to quiet a skittish horse simply by being still and strong.