Healthy Horse Habits

By Vicki Schmidt

Not all of us can depend on luck and good fortune to keep our working horses healthy. A quality vaccination program, timely hoof and dental care, along with a few good barn-keeping rules, will help keep your draft healthy and nonroutine veterinary bills at bay.

Sun-dry clean water buckets and feed tubs before putting them back in the stalls for a mild and natural sterilization of their surfaces.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

A good habit to get into is to always inspect your horses' water and feed areas anytime you are near them, especially anytime you move a horse into or out of an area. Once you get into this habit, it becomes second nature and you'll have a mental inventory of which horses are drinking and eating properly. This will also send up a red flag when you notice a horse has not eaten their feed or consumed an appropriate amount of water.

Keep water and feed areas clean, dry and free of debris

Daily scrubbing of buckets in most cases is not necessary, though every bucket in every stall should be dumped and rinsed daily. A weekly rinse in a mild bleach solution isn't a bad idea if buckets or water tubs get slimy or otherwise contaminated. If you use any kind of soap or cleanser for your tubs and buckets, make sure to rinse them thoroughly and let them dry in the sun before placing them back in use. The same goes for feed tubs.

For those with drafts and straight stalls with hay cribs, be sure to inspect the cribs as part of your daily routine. Weeds, dead rodents and litter often get baled in with hay. Your horses will most likely ignore these in their crib, but contaminants, especially when exposed to moisture, can decay and cause a number of physical ailments, some of which can be deadly. Remove all debris from your horse's crib on a daily basis, and clean the corners of accumulated dust and chaff as well. Whenever your horse is not in the stall, leave the crib free of hay so it can air out and stay drier.

Outside feeding areas are another source of possible molds and contaminants. Layers of hay with bottom moisture will harbor deadly toxins. While in dry weather these might make nice beds for your horse to nap on, after a heavy summer rain they will heat up and often mold. Any disturbance of hay in this condition will release the toxins in close proximity to where your horses graze and rest. As a precaution, rake and remove excess hay from your pastures and paddock feed areas once a week. Allowing the feed areas to dry in the sun is putting nature's most perfect sterilizer to work as well.

Fly and parasite mitigation program

Controlling flies and other insect parasites is not just a seasonal task. Steam clean, dust and otherwise keep animal areas clean on a routine basis. Rotate and move manure and compost piles so fly eggs are killed by the heat of decomposition. Promote barn swallows, bluebirds and other avian species that are known for their fly and bug-eating appetites. Promote bat populations by using bat houses. Bats are great for nighttime irritants such as mosquitoes. If you have ponding areas or parts of ungrazed pastures that stay wet and soggy, consider sprinkling "skeeter bits" in these areas on a biweekly basis to control emergent populations of mosquitoes.

Work to discourage and remove seed-eating birds and vermin from your barns and feed storage areas.

Invasive English sparrows arrived in the U.S. decades ago and, along with pigeons, can wreak havoc with the best of barns. These aggressive birds will displace many insect-eating birds and make an extreme mess, especially in areas where hay chaff, seed and grain are stored or fed. Birds of these species, along with opossum, rats and mice, carry diseases that are dangerous to horses. A good barn cat is often worth its weight in gold to control vermin. If that is not an option, contact your local farm extension service for more information on permanent solutions to an invasion of English sparrows or other vermin.

While horses seem to naturally find ways to get into trouble, here are a few other ideas to help keep your horses as trouble-free as possible.

Do not allow anyone to feed your horses within 10 feet of a fence line. Horses and fences don't mix. Feed horses in the center of pastures and paddocks as much as possible. While it's easy to just toss hay over a fence, it all too often ends up under the fence line due to the wind or the normal moving of the hay as horses feed. If you use nibble nets or other hay containers, move these away from the fence lines as well.

Flies and parasites carry disease and cause discomfort to your horses and livestock. Biting flies can cause wounds that can swell enough to cause lameness or that fester and become infected. Consider the use of a premise spray in areas where horses congregate, but not where they eat or graze. Rotating horses and keeping their paddocks and pastures mowed, clean and dry will also help reduce biting flies and irritants.

Use nature to help keep vermin at bay. If possible, establish and maintain a 10 to 12-foot perimeter path around your pastures and barns. Rats and mice prefer not to travel in open areas, and cats, birds of prey and foxes will capture mice and rats as they travel these areas toward your barns. Of course, if you have free-range chickens or other small livestock, nature of this sort may not be welcome. However, for those of us with horses, this is an ideal way to help establish a cleaner barnyard without the use of poisons or other toxic methods of vermin control. In addition, a perimeter path gives deer and moose a travel option when they emerge from the woods. This open pathway will often keep them from crashing or running through your pasture and paddock fence lines.

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The 100-acre working farm specializes in drafts and crosses for work, sport and show.