A Clean Sweep
There's a reality show that airs on BBC America called "Life Laundry." It's all about folks who tend to keep lots of clutter piled up and lying around in big, sloppy messes in their houses or apartments. Then our team of heroes arrives, sorting between what's important and that which is no longer useful, disposing of the discards, and picking up, tidying up, and restoring order to the universe (or at least, to that particular premises for that particular week).
I think some horse owners could use a team like that at their horse farms, to come in and pick up the junk that risks horse injury and to clean up that which fosters horse disease. I would call that program "Extreme Makeover," only I think someone else already has dibs on that title. This show would feature a panel of experts to advise on the perils of slipshod barn décor and to wag fingers and issue dire warnings about the junkyard wars being waged in their pastures and paddocks.
In our version, those experts include Meghan Boenig, head women's equestrian coach at the University of Georgia (she heads up a big barn and works with lots of young adults); Marisa Morgan Dallman, a real estate agent at Realty Executives of Kansas City (she specializes in marketing horse properties and has seen it all); and Steve Jones, associate professor of animal science at the University of Arkansas (he's a livestock/extension specialist and works with 4-H groups).
Based on their experiences, what problem areas would these experts focus on? Read on!
Interiors: Infections & Injuries
Disparaging over disrepair.
- "The biggest thing I see are stalls in disrepair," says Jones. "Broken and splintered boards, exposed nails and screws, loose latches, and questionably built, makeshift stall fronts. Any of these things can cause cuts and scrapes, exposing the horse to tetanus, bacterial infections, and so forth."
Clutter kills (or, at the very least, injures), part 1.
- "Some owners park tractors, mowers, discs, and other farm implements right at the edge of the barn aisle or in a corner where the horses walk by every day," Jones reports. "They're not secured to prevent horses from making contact with them. One misstep, and you've got a tragic injury." If your farm equipment must share the barn with the horse, make sure the equipment is inaccessible by secured walls, panels, and/or gates.
- Another common problem is finding loose nails and nail heads in the aisles and stalls after shoeing, which is very dangerous, says Boenig. Sweep thoroughly the areas where the farrier has worked, discarding the debris in trash receptacles. "Don't toss them in the manure pile," she warns. "If used as a mulch or spread, the nails will end up back in the environment. Or if the pile is fairly close to the barn or where you walk horses, run-off from rain could carry nails and nail heads back into the environment. These things need to go out in the trash can, because either horse or rider could step on a nail and develop an abscess or infection." One option for getting all the nails is dragging a strong magnet around the area. This will also pick up metal filings that can cause injury.
- Yet another no-no is leaving tack laying around or dangling in the barn aisles, Boenig says. So placed, riding equipment can trip or spook a horse, or damage the tack.
- Fresh manure that accumulates in stall bedding can serve as a reservoir for parasites, attract biting flies, and contribute to thrush and other hoof problems. Copious amounts of dried manure can add dust and spores to the environment, creating respiratory distress, lung problems, allergic flare-ups, and eye irritation in both humans and horses. Urine can give off ammonia, irritating eyes and breathing passages. How often stalls should be cleaned out depends on bedding type and how much time the horse spends on it, Jones says. "Manure should be picked out every day. For sure, as soon as you start smelling urine in the bedding, it's got to go." Don't pile soiled bedding in an unused stall. That doesn't eliminate parasitic or airborne problems from the horse's environment, notes Jones. "Don't put used bedding right outside the barn door, either. This increases manure runoff at the location, so you're still exposing horses to those parasites. You need to eliminate the host from the house!"
Venting about ventilation
- "We tend to build barns that are way too airtight," Jones states. "Consequently, these barns have poor ventilation, which reduces air flow, air quality, and natural cooling. With reduced ventilation, airborne viruses and bacteria can build up, leading to a concentration of disease organisms. Keep doors opened or ajar." Even when barns are built with proper ventilation in mind, some owners thwart that by closing off portions of the barn. Explains Dallman, "People downsize their horse facilities. For example, they have an 18-stall barn and close off one entire side or end. Or they store hay at one end, so now there is only one exterior door being opened." This can impede air circulation.
- Don't forget that your tack room needs attention to air quality, too, to help keep your tack supple and in good shape, Boenig says. "Tack rooms without air movement get muggy and moist in the summer. These conditions promote mildew and fungal growth. I don't want to work any harder than I have to cleaning, so it's easiest to turn on fans and keep a dehumidifier running. In the winter months, the opposite problem can occur, with tack getting too dry and suffering from dry rot. In dry, wintry conditions, use a humidifier in the tack room or bring unused tack into the house for storage. Good daily cleaning and oiling habits are the best methods for ensuring safe and long-lasting equipment."
Darn that dust!
- Dust can exacerbate respiratory problems. Besides keeping the bedding clean and the barn ventilated, you can further reduce dust in the environment by lightly dampening bedding with water and storing hay in a separate building, advises Jones.
Problems with pests.
- These can include rodents, wily horses, and other wildlife. Food attracts animals that are always eager to snack on spilled or unsecured munchies. First among these is the hungry horse that masquerades at night as an escape artist. Rodents, opossums, skunks, and raccoons are also willing to join the party.
- It's not just a matter of sharing what you didn't want to share. Warns Jones, "Horses can overeat, then founder or colic. Opossums, raccoons, and skunks carry and spread a variety of diseases, including EPM, through fecal or urine contamination of the feed." These animals can also carry rabies, and if they're regular customers of your stores, that increases your horse's risk of exposure and being bitten. Adds Boenig, "Once you have a rodent infestation, not only do they increase the risk of disease, but they can eat through your equipment and rip open and apart your medical supplies."
- Keep your horse from bingeing on stores by locking the door to the feed room plus keeping grains locked inside a metal feed bin or garbage can with a clip or latch-type lock. Don't store grains in their packaging sacks, which makes it easy for rodents, opossums, and raccoons to help themselves.
Clutter kills (or wounds), part 2.
- "One of the biggest hazards outside is junk--metal pieces, broken gates, old equipment, etc.--left in paddocks and pastures," says Dallman. "Often, grass grows up around this debris, and the horse gets cut or scraped trying to reach good grass. I recommend to buyers and sellers alike to haul that junk away to a dump, then get a burn permit, if local ordinances permit, to burn off as much as you can."
Manure stinks (outside, too).
There's quite a list of Do Nots:
- Don't pile manure up near barn exits or where horses congregate (see earlier information).
- Don't spread raw manure on horse pastures during the season of parasite activity, or else you will deposit as many worms as would result from weeks of grazing. Spread and harrow horse pastures only in the hottest, driest weather to ensure larval kill.
- Properly composted manure and bedding make good soil amendments and do not pose a problem with re-infesting horses with parasites. (For more on composting, see "Living on the Edge" in the March 2004 issue, www.TheHorse.com/emag.
- Don't site manure/compost piles in low-lying areas (it will turn into a stinky, liquid mess due to fluid accumulation) or within 100 feet of wells or streams (could leach into and contaminate water sources during heavy rains). Divert runoff away from stockpiles and grazing areas to prevent reinfestation of parasites. Especially in suburban areas, either put your bedding in a bin or place it on a concrete surface and cover it with a tarp, Jones recommends. "This will keep it dry and prevent run-off."
Funky fencing follies.
- Do fix those fences, whether they're pasture or property line borders. To reduce the risk of lacerations, impalement, and broken bones, keep all fences, gates, and hardware in good repair, making sure that boards are in good shape, wires are tightened, and nails, hardware, and latches are tight and flush. Also be sure that the type of fencing you use is suitable to the population density of your horses. Says Jones, "The more confined the space, the more secure the fencing should be."
- If possible, install sturdy, horse-friendly fencing two or three feet inside property lines. This allows you to plant a grassy or herbaceous border outside the fence. The reason, explains Jones, is to help reduce the volume of water flooding and soil erosion off of plain land, including dry lots and sparse pastures. "When water runs off of uncovered land, it picks up particles, gains speed, and cuts right through the ground," he says. This is a good way to lose topsoil or create a muddy, perhaps fecal-contaminated mess on your neighbor's property. A plant boundary will slow down most of the water flow and sediment, as well as keep neighbors happy if they live close to your horse fencelines.
- Don't create wet, muddy holes around the horses' watering areas. "Mud is terrible for hoof quality," Boenig warns. "It can cause lost shoes and hoof problems such as cracked heel and fungus." Site water sources in a high, well-drained, dry area. "Typically, we set our water buckets up on blocks, because the height difference to the ground makes it easier to tip out for cleaning. When the bucket is set on a hill and on blocks, water doesn't pool under or around the container and you maintain proper drainage," says Boenig.
- Be diligent about eliminating stagnant water reservoirs, which serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes. "Look at unused feed tubs, unused water troughs, empty buckets, and farm implements that can hold water, such as old discs turned up, tires--anything that collects water," Jones says. "Make sure your ditches are draining properly."
Beware of Environmental Police
Makeover shows should never intermix with crime drama themes, so avoid getting in trouble with the law by keeping up to date on environmental regulations. Says Jones, "Take careful note of local, county, state, and federal regulations. Eventually horse owners are going to have to be accountable for source point pollution; exposed manure or manure/bedding piles exposed to the elements can be a cause of pollution due to run-off." The Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA is a good source to turn to if you are having water run-off problems, as they have environmental plans to prevent pollution from water run-off.
If buying a piece of property with a stream or water source, check the water for pollution, Dallman recommends. "Then decide how to best utilize it. You might have to fence it off if it's unsafe for horses or, if the water travels beyond your property, to prevent your horses from polluting it."
Typically the buyer pays for environmental testing, unless an agreement has been made with the seller. Testing could cover water and land if you suspect or fear contaminants are harbored in the soil. "It can cost several thousand dollars for a Level 1 EPA test," warns Dallman. "You can go on to a Level 2, etc. if oil wells, etc., have been on the property. Usually owners just fence off that specific area and let horses graze around it, but not directly on the previous well site."
Do a Little Now
"Develop good habits," suggests Boenig. "Put away equipment and tack as you use them. That will save you the most amount of time in the long run."
Jones agrees. "Five minutes a day picking up manure out of quality bedding sure beats spending an hour completely mucking the stall out. Plus, it's a potential cost saver, because the bedding can stay in there longer."
Mucking, repairing, picking up, and putting away is a real pain at the end of a long day or when you'd rather be out riding. But short, daily doses could relieve you from long weekend sessions--and keep horses safe 24/7 instead of just the times immediately following a clean-up crackdown. Think of it as starring in the equine version of "Keeping Up Appearances," another BBC America show about...well, never mind.
About the Author
Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.
POLL: Horse Bedding Choices