Amateurs Like Us: Helicopter Horsekeeping

Nov 6, 2018 - 11:20 PM

Fall in central Kentucky usually comes accompanied by drastic temperature swings. Ahead of a recent kink in the weather roller coaster, a fellow boarder and I were musing the best blanketing strategy to keep our mares warm but not too warm. We fretted about colic. We wondered whether we could coerce the horses into drinking more water.

The mares snorted and tucked into their hay.

I didn’t grow up with my own horse, so I attribute some of my “helicopter horsekeeping” to the overwhelming notion that I am solely responsible for the well-being a large quadruped who can’t tell me how she’s feeling, but some of it is probably local culture. Most people I know, including adult amateurs who have their horses on partial or self-care, have two or three outfits for their horses. They have a handful of daily supplements and painstakingly-selected diets of locally-sourced feed. They manage their horses’ turn-out schedules down to the hour, based on the precipitation forecasts.

HelicopterHorsekeepingThere is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but I can’t help think that it’s a little different from the horsekeeping I grew up with. I was a once-a-week lesson-taker at a hunter/jumper barn in central Virginia from ages 8 to 18. It wasn’t the type of barn where you showed up in pristine riding clothes to a fully-tacked, gleaming pony and dismounted after the lesson, dropping the reins off to a groom on your way out.

The owner/instructor encouraged students to show up early enough to get assigned to a horse, walk to the field to catch the horse, groom the horse, tack the horse, fix the noseband you’d put on the horse backward, and ride to the arena in time to begin the group lesson. After lessons, the most horse crazy preteen girls usually hung around to help feed and turn out in hopes of earning a free ride. Many hands, she liked to tell us, made light work.

When I was young, the farm was what I’d call “no-fuss.” Horses were well-fed, with constant access to water and good pasture with sheltering tree lines. If an older lesson horse had an arthritis flare-up or a horse came in with a limp, the owner knew, which was remarkable since she managed a stable of 40 to 60 lesson horses and boarders.

But there wasn’t a great deal of babying—horses spent their off days in the field and enjoyed weekends during summer day camp in lush fields near the James River. When it rained, they got wet. (Actually, so did we. Her favorite refrain was a nod to her native Great Britain—“If you don’t ride in the rain in England, you don’t ride.”)

When it was cold, they grew coats. When it was super cold, they wore the one sheet with their name written inside, unless they tore it up in the field. In those cases, they grew longer coats.


A lot of those lesson horses lived impressively long lives. Many made it well past 20, and several were in their mid to late 30s by the time they were buried at the edge of the back pasture. I remember one pony “running away” with me and cantering an unscheduled crossrail at what I later realized was probably age 34. I don’t remember stress injuries in young horses or freak accidents. I’m sure there were colic cases now and then, but I never knew about them. I can’t recall special shoes or stereotypic behaviors.

Some of it was probably careful selection of the individuals with some durable breeding (many of the lesson horses were mixes picked up at auctions, but many were Arabians or Welsh crosses). Some of it was probably really good grass, good hay and complete diets.

But in hindsight, I’m betting some of it was by design. Most lessons were group affairs, which made them longer in duration but lower impact than short, intense works would have been, which I imagine helped to build fitness and was forgiving on joints.

Copious turn-out time is known to be good for stress levels, digestive systems and dental health. And having an army of eager, adoring teenagers with hands on horses and eyes wide open meant that even with a large volume of horses, there was usually someone around to notice if an animal was acting strangely.

I also suspect that extra horse time was designed to be helpful for us students, too. I learned so much about herd dynamics, equine body language, feedstuffs and the ever-challenging quick-release knot while helping out around the barn, and I still use a lot of that knowledge today. I find myself feeling sorry for people who didn’t grow up putting in nine-hour days at a barn during the summer, and I wasn’t even the farm’s most dedicated barn rat.

I don’t think there’s a single “right” way to manage horses. When I fuss over the clods of mud in my mare’s forelock and measure out her grain to the last quarter-pound, it’s because I care about her. (And, let’s face it, because I have undiagnosed anxiety issues.) But it’s useful to occasionally give myself a reality check, a reminder that as long as her basic needs are met, the rest of my “helicopter horsekeeping” is more for me than for her. And sometimes it’s OK to let it go.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to reread my copy of Who Moved My Cheese?

You’ve gotten to know Jitterbug, the Chronicle’s Quadruped Correspondent, over her years of posting hilarious columns from a cantankerous draft-cross mare’s point of view. And now her “Human,” Natalie Voss, has joined our roster of bloggers to share her adventures as a hunter-rider-turned-eventer mounted on the ever-opinionated Jitterbug


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