Dr. Skelly's Horse Ownership Blog

Advice for happy horse-keeping from the co-founder of My Horse University.

My Equestrian Education–the School of Hard Knocks

Learning horse safety through life experiences is risky!


The older I get, the more cautious I become around my horses.  I had no fear in my childhood – galloping bareback on half broke horses over a pasture.   When I was in college, I loved the challenge of training a young horse.  However, age, motherhood and life experiences have instilled an innate caution that at times borders on fear.   I have worked with students with long term riding injuries, lost a student due to a trail riding accident and had numerous friends land in the hospital with broken backs, hips, legs, etc. due to horse related accidents.  I consider myself lucky (knock on wood!) to only have a few scars to show for my life long equestrian pursuits.

While some horse related accidents are almost unavoidable, there is usually some underlying theme where we can replay the accident and say, “if only I had (or hadn’t) done that”.    So, based on my experiences, I am going to try to describe what I believe are three common errors in judgment that puts horse people in danger.

Mismatching People and Horses

Many accidents happen because we match an inexperienced rider with an inexperienced horse.   When I was nine, my family went on a vacation with some friends and stopped at their relative’s small farm.  Knowing that I was horse crazy, their relatives had saddled up a pretty sorrel mare in their front yard for me to ride.    These people didn’t know me from Adam, but still mounted me up in an open area.  I walked the horse around a bit and then felt the sudden rush of wind blow through my hair as we galloping towards the barn.  The only thing in our way was a clothesline.  I heard frantic shouts of “duck” and thank goodness I did.  All was well as the horse pulled to a stop at the barn and I hopped off.   I can’t blame my parents for letting me ride that day…. at that point my parents had no clue that horses could be that unpredictable or dangerous.  As a nine-year-old horse crazy girl, I certainly didn’t have any notion that I was broaching an unsafe situation.  However, the horse owner’s should have known better than to let an inexperienced rider ride this mare in an open area.  The liability alone should have given them pause.

LEARN MORE Read this article on horse selection from DiscoverHorses.

Not Wearing a Riding Safety Helmet

Growing up in Texas in the 70’s and  80’s, riding with helmets wasn’t really a consideration – especially if you were riding in a western saddle.  Even when riding hunt seat, we had cute velvet caps without the restrictions of a chinstrap.   We were starting two year olds with nothing but a ball cap or cowboy hat on, never thinking about our brain’s safety.  Not that we didn’t have close personal experience with head injuries – there was always a story of someone getting a concussion or worse from taking an unexpected fall.   When I came to Michigan in the mid 90’s, I started noticing that more people where wearing riding helmets – with actual chin harnesses!   At first I just chalked it up to the lack of cowboy influence.  But once I started instructing horsemanship at the university, I started to grasp the importance of wearing a safety helmet every ride.

The point was brought home when I hopped up on our “kids pony” bareback.  She was flighty, thus we hadn’t put my son on her yet, and I was still trying to see if she might settle down with some work.  She proceeded to buck me off right on top of a cement pad in our alleyway.  My head smacked and then bounced on the hard cold cement and I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I am going to have a head injury due to this little pony.”    Lucky for me, besides having a sore lump for several days, I was OK.  I haven’t been on any horse since without an approved riding helmet strapped tight.

LEARN MORE Watch this video series Every Ride Every Time from eXtension Horses.

Taking a Horse for Granted

Finally, we have all taken a horse for granted at one time or another.  I won’t even get started on the dumb things I have done in the past (besides my pony bronc ride!) It is always dangerous to under estimate any horse’s flight response on any occasion.  Even the gentlest horse, when startled can kick out.  I had a friend in Texas who had one of those one in a million good old roping horses.   One evening after a long hot day at a team roping event, he was loading his horse in the trailer for the millionth time.  Evidently, the horse was being a little balky and his owner lightly slapped him with a rope, an action you really wouldn’t expect this particular horse to question twice.  However, on this night the horse kicked out with both hind legs and caught his owner in the gut full throttle.  He spent a week in critical condition in the hospital and another month recuperating from the accident.  As the song goes “this wasn’t this cowboy’s first rodeo’.  He is a great horse person and never would have dreamed of putting himself in that position with any other horse.  However, he made the mistake of getting lax with his tried and true cow pony – something I know we are all guilty of from time to time.

LEARN MORE Brush up on your horse handling skills with Paula Hitzler from My Horse University.

 Horse Sense

If you want to learn more about horse safety check out this FREE opportunity:  Equine experts from Michigan State University’s My Horse University and eXtension    HorseQuest recently released a new course  called “Horse Sense” – Equine Farm Safety Training. This course is designed for youth who currently work with horses or desire to be involved with horses in the future.  Adults are also encouraged to take the course.  You receive a certificate for successfully completing each unit.

Categories: Dr. Skelly's Horse Ownership 2.0, First Horse.

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Blanketing or “au Naturel”

Most healthy horses can handle the cold weather without a blanket as long as the owners follow some basic winter care rules.

My first horse Blue had a very extensive wardrobe.  She had her show sheet, show blanket, her heavy-, mid- and light-weight blankets, and her waterproof  outdoor blanket.   At the first hint of cold weather we would begin the daily ritual of removing the blanket for grooming and riding and then putting the blanket back on once Blue was cool and dry.  Well into her retirement, my mom would religiously blanket Blue.  Mind you, we lived in Fulshear, TX, just a hop, skip and jump from Houston – not considered the winter capital of the free world.  Now that I live in Michigan, I have to chuckle at what we considered “cold weather” and wonder what Blue thought of all the fuss.

Blanketing is a big time commitment that includes daily removal of the blanket and grooming. Photo from flikr By Derrick Coetzee

When my folks shipped my gelding and mare to Michigan, the hauler brought out six blankets that my mom had packed.  Being a good kid, I blanketed both horses before leaving for work.  By the time I got home, I was minus the gelding’s blanket and discovered the mare’s blanket hanging around her neck. Even without Sherlock Holmes, I figured out that the gelding was performing some sort of Houdini act to get rid of his blanket and then trying to do the same for the mare.  That horse just wouldn’t tolerate blankets on anyone!

After that, my husband and I made a deal to store away the blankets and not breathe a word of the travesty to my mom.  In fact, we recently sold the blankets that had become a haven for squirrels to store their walnuts.  My horses do just fine in the cold as long as I follow some simple rules:

1)   We provide our horses with protection from the wind and moisture. We converted two stalls of our old barn into a running shed, so our horses have a dry place to go.  (Well at least the mare does – the gelding’s access depends on the mare’s mood.)

Most healthy horses handle cold weather just fine as long as they have a winter hair coat and shelter from the wind and moisture. Photo from flikr by withdraw


2)   We let our horses grow a winter coat.  That means that we don’t extend the daylight with our barn lights and we don’t body clip. The horses get pretty rough looking, especially the gelding.  But that long shaggy coat provides great insulation when their hair follicles fluff up.

3)   We make sure to provide plenty of hay for the horses to chomp on.  Horses may need up to  25% more energy to regulate their body temperature in extreme cold weather.  Since horses produce more body heat digesting forage as compared to grain, it makes sense to feed them more hay in the winter.

4)   We make sure that they maintain a moderate body condition score.  That means we feel their ribs underneath their shaggy hair coat.  If we can easily feel their ribs, then they are getting too thin and need more energy feeds.    If we can’t find a rib, then the horse needs to go on a weight watchers plan ASAP.

LEARN MORE from eXtension.org/horses How to Body Condition Score Horses

Most healthy horses do just fine without a blanket in the winter if they have a good winter hair coat. Photo from flikr by cwwycoff1


Some of you may be prepping horses this winter for early shows or sales, or like my mom, just want to blanket your horse for your own peace of mind.  Below are rules you need to follow to keep your blanketed horse healthy and happy:

1)   Make sure the blanket fits your horse and has adequate straps to keep it in place.  An ill fitted blanket causes all sorts of rubs on the horse.  In addition, a blanket that is half on and half off can be dangerous, especially if the horse is turned-out.

2)   Don’t over blanket a horse.  Be sure to monitor the outdoor temperature or your horse’s activity level when blanketed.  Sweat that is trapped between the blanket and your horse’s body can cause a loss in body heat loss as well as providing a safe haven for fungus.

A blanketed horse is more prone to sweat when exercising. Photo from flikr by Ayesha Hagerman


3)   Remove the blanket daily to groom and stimulate your horse’s coat.  This is a good time to check for rubs, sweat marks and monitor your horse’s body condition score.

4) Use a waterproof blanket for outdoor turnout.  Anyone who has had their winter jacket soaked can empathize!

Horse with outdoor blanket

5)   Make sure the horse is completely cool and dry, and the hair coat has been groomed flat before blanketing.   The cool down period after exercise is very important during the winter.   If moisture gets trapped between the hair coat and blanket, then the horse will spend a lot of energy trying to warm-up.  Ensuring that the horse’s coat is brushed smooth and free from sweat marks and dirt will help prevent rub marks.

LEARN MORE by reading Horse Blankets 101

Horses that may benefit from a blanket in the winter are:

  • Horses that are under lights for breeding or showing or have been body clipped and need extra help staying warm in the winter.
  • Horses that shiver often.   While shivering is a natural way for animals to increase their body temperature, most behaviorists consider it uncomfortable for the horse.  In addition, horses will spend a lot of energy reserves when shivering.
  • Thin horses (below a moderate body condition score) will need extra help staying warm until they are at a healthy body condition score.
  • Senior horses may also need more help staying warm.
  • Horses that have recently been relocated from a warm to cold climate may  benefit from a blanket while they adjust to their new location.

Some people just feel more comfortable knowing their horse is standing warm and cozy in their insulated blanket during the cold winter months.  Just remember, once you blanket a horse, their natural blanket (hair coat) can’t help them stay warm.  It’s up to you to keep up with a daily blanketing routine to ensure your horse stays healthy and comfortable.  As for me, I say au naturel for my equine pals!

LEARN MORE Read the article Winter Care and Feeding


Dr. Christine Skelly is an extension specialist at Michigan State University where she founded and directs My Horse University, an online horse management education program.  Dr. Skelly developed the free online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101, in partnership with Discover Horses.

Follow My Horse University on FacebookTwitter and YouTube and take the FREE online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101.



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Body Condition Scoring Horses In the Winter

Long winter hair coats can hide both thin and fat horses. Body condition scoring a horse by rubbing your hands along their ribs can help you estimate their body fat cover.

Maybe I just have a heightened awareness right now, but I think I am seeing more thin horses as I drive by pastures through the countryside.  Like many of my colleagues, I am concerned about the status of horses this winter, as hay is scarce and feed prices continue to rise.  Even without a bad economy and high feed prices, we are always concerned about “winter starvation”.  Many horse owners, especially those of us in cold climates, will give horses a break throughout the winter.  This usually means the horse is turned out, riding frequency is nil to none, and basic care like grooming and shoeing slows way down.  Unfortunately, long and shaggy winter coats can easily camouflage protruding ribs or even excess fat.

A winter hair coat can hide thin ribs or layers of fat.


You have probably observed that 150 pounds looks better on some people than others, and the same is true for horses. Body condition scoring (BCS) estimates the amount of fat covering on a horse. Estimating the fat stored on a horse will help determine if the horse is too fat, too thin, or just right. Weight measurements do not consider the body composition of the horse.  Imagine two horses both weighing 1000 pounds each and standing 15 hands (60 inches) high. If one horse is heavier boned and has more muscling, that horse will have less body fat stores than its finer boned, lighter muscled counterpart, even though their weight and height are the same.

Estimating Body Condition Scores

When estimating BCS, look at the horse and  examine the areas where external body fat is stored. Stand about 10 feet away from the horse and appraise the top of the horse’s neck, shoulder, back, and hip. Is there a smooth or angular appearance to the top line? Can you see ribs? Does the shoulder blend smoothly into the horse’s front flank? Can you see a crease running down the center of the horse’s back, or is it flush or tent-shaped with the backbone protruding upwards?

This thin horse is a body condition score of 2. Note the protruding withers, shoulder blade,ribs and hip bones.


Visual appraisal can only take you so far in the wintertime.  You will need to feel through the horse’s winter hair coat to get a sense of the fat covering along their neck, ribs and topline.   Can you easily feel the ribs, or do you have to press and rub hard before you can even imagine the rib cage?

Fat Horse Cheat Sheet

I often use my hand as a reference guide for what I am feeling underneath all of that hair.  Close your eyes and feel the fleshy part of your hand where the thumb attaches to your palm. It feels plumb, soft and fleshy.  It is hard to find the bone as you press your palm. This is a similar feel to the rib cage of a horse with a lot of fat cover over the ribs (BCS ≥7).

A fat horse's ribs will feel similar to the fleshy part of your palm.


Moderate Horse Cheat Sheet

Now make a fist and feel the long bones of your fingers right above your knuckles. While you can make out each individual finger, overall it is still fairly smooth, which is a similar feel to the rib cage of horse in a moderate BCS (BCS = 5).


A horse's ribs with a moderate condition score will feel similar to the tops of your metacarpus.

Thin Horse Cheat Sheet

Now, keeping your hand in a tight fist, run your other hand over your knuckles and notice the jutty, rigid feel. The ribs of a thin horse will likewise feel pointed and distinct (BCS < 4).


A thin horse's ribs will feel similar to your knuckles when you rub your palm across their rib cage.

TEST YOUR SKILLS at Body Condition Scoring by trying this activity from eXtension.org/horses.

Optimum Body Condition Score

The optimum body condition score should be determined on an individual basis, considering the horse’s workload, age, and production status as primary factors. A young growing horse should be developing healthy skeletal and muscle tissue. Both clinical and field observations suggest that excess weight can cause a growing horse to have bone abnormalities, especially if there is a genetic predisposition to developmental orthopedic disease. A goal of a moderate body condition score of 5 would guard a healthy young horse from unnecessary fat that would burden developing bone tissue.

Moderate Body Condition Score

This mare has a moderate body condition score of 5. She is in good shape for work or breeding.


A performance horse needs body fat stores to provide energy for exercise. Too much body fat can decrease performance and hinder a horse’s ability to dissipate heat during hot weather. However, a thin horse does not have enough energy stored to maintain a high performance level. An optimum BCS for a performance horse ranges from 5 through 7, depending on its work requirements. For example, a draft horse used for pulling would be kept closer to a BCS of 7 while a racehorse would be kept closer to a BCS of 5. 

A broodmare’s energy demands double once a foal is delivered and begins to nurse.

A mare has her highest energy needs during peak milking period. A thin mare will have a higher incidence of reproductive failure, that is, failure to conceive or early abortion, than a mare kept in a moderate to fleshy condition. Thus a breeding manager should keep a broodmare no lower than a moderate BCS (5) during breeding and gestation. Preferably a broodmare should foal in a BCS of 6 and 7 to ensure that she is at least a BCS 5 during peak lactation. Prior to gestation, a mare should have adequate body fat stores to approach the breeding shed at a moderate body condition (BCS 5).


This mare should be kept in moderate body condition (BCS 5) to ensure she can provide nutrition for her foal and will be ready for rebreeding.

A geriatric horse should be maintained at a condition score of 5.5 through 6.5. An older horse tends to have a more difficult time gaining weight. A horse with Cushing’s Disease may also be harder to score as a result of a long hair coat.

The most important aspect of body condition scoring is to accurately determine if your horse is thin, moderate or fat.  If your horse is in the moderate range, congratulations!  You are doing a good job of balancing your horse’s energy needs with his energy intake.  If your horse is thin, then you need to work with your veterinarian or a nutritionist to get your horse into the moderate range.  If your horse is fat, don’t be smug.  A fat horse is more prone to nutritionally related diseases.  You should also work with a veterinarian and/or nutritionist to get your horse to a more moderate and safer body condition score.


This fat horse depicts a body condition score of eight. Note the cresty neck and fat deposits behind the shoulders and along the tail head.

Categories: Dr. Skelly's Horse Ownership 2.0.

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Spring Has Sprung!

Manage your spring pastures to ensure your horse stays healthy.

Given the prices of hay this past winter, I have been anxiously waiting for our spring pastures to make their appearance.  Unlike my folks in Tennessee, we haven’t even mowed our yard yet.  However, this last month proved to have just enough sun and warmth that I can finally look out and see a roll of green in our hay meadow.


The horses are gazing from their sacrifice lot towards the growing grass in the adjacent field and I am sure they are cursing the fence that separates them from heaven.  However, I need to ensure I have a good 8 inch stand of grass before I turn them out.  Any sooner, and I know I will hurt my overall pasture productivity for the rest of the growing season.  In addition, we have had (knock on wood) some great spring rainfall.  The ground is soft and the last thing I want is thundering hoofs digging up my pasture.  Throughout the grazing season, I want to keep at least a 4  inch stand of grass in my pasture.

Don't start gazing your pastures until you have at least an 8 inch stand of grass. Photo curtesy of Dr. Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota Equine Extension Program

Over or Under Eating

A pony or donkey, being smaller in size and requiring less energy, can easily become obese when given free access to grazing even a moderate-quality pasture. All equines utilizing pasture as their sole form of energy should have their body condition scores assessed frequently (every couple of weeks) to ensure they are not getting too fat or too thin. It may be important to limit grazing during times of lush growth such as early spring in order to prevent obesity or to supplement grazing with hay or grain during low pasture productivity, that is, in times of drought or towards the end of the grazing season.


LEARN MORE at eXtension.org/horses and take the HorseQuest Learning Lesson: How to Body Condition Score Horses.


A pasture should have at least a 4 inch forage stand to prevent over-grazing. Dr. Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota Equine Extension Program


Grazing Muzzles

Grazing muzzles are very effective in limiting forage intake of both horses and ponies.  The hole in the muzzle still allows for taking in small amounts of forage, it just cuts way back on the quantity of grass eaten per bite.   While it may seem like a cruel joke to play, most behaviorist agree that it is indeed kinder and healthier to keep the horse on pasture with their buddies, versus keeping them up in a stall while everyone else is enjoying the pasture party.  Horses can still drink water and the muzzle is safe to leave on overnight.  When adjusting a muzzle to fit, follow the directions and check the horse or pony frequently to ensure the muzzle is staying on properly and is clean of debris.

Grazing muzzles allow horses that require limited grass to still enjoy grazing in the pasture.


Problems with Spring Pastures

If horses are kept on pasture year round, they usually adjust to the new foliage as it grows in the early spring. Most management problems occur when horses have been confined, fed a hay/grain ration, and then abruptly turned out to pasture in the spring. The lush spring growth of pasture foliage, either grasses or legumes, is high in moisture content (75-85%) but also relatively higher in protein, vitamins and minerals on a dry matter (DM) basis than during other seasons of the year. The energy and protein content of foliage can be as much as 50% higher in early vegetative growth compared to that in vegetative growth twelve weeks later. 

Horses kept in stalls through the winter and abruptly allowed free access to pasture might overeat because of the palatability of the lush green foliage. This over-consumption can put a horse at risk for certain nutrition-related problems.


1. Overweight/obesity – Depending on individual metabolism, some horses can gain significant weight on pasture alone.


2. Diarrhea - Higher moisture content and the change in ration can trigger a “loose stool.” The feces usually become firmer as the horse adapts to the pasture, but in some cases a horse must be confined temporarily and put on a hay-based ration to restore normal bowel function. In a small number of cases, a horse might require medical treatment to clear up the diarrhea.


3. Colic – Although colic is not common in these situations, any change in the ration if done rapidly can cause excessive gas or an intestinal upset in certain horses, leading to colic.


4. Founder (Laminitis) – Risk of this disease is always a concern when the ration is changed abruptly, especially when going from hay-based ration to pasture. Even though as a group, ponies are more susceptible to laminitis from early pasturing, horses are also at risk.


Laminitis (also commonly referred to as founder) results in a rotation of the hoof's coffin bone, rapid hoof growth and the separation of the lamina of the hoof wall.

Managing Spring Pastures


There are management practices that can prevent or minimize problems when introducing horses to pasture in the spring.


1. Restrict the grazing time. Allow horses on the pasture for 20 minutes the first day and increase the grazing time by five minutes per day over a two-week period until they have adapted to the new feed source.


2. Feed hay immediately before horses are turned out on pasture during the adjustment period. They fill their stomachs somewhat, thus helping to prevent overeating. This practice curbs their appetite and allows them to discriminate between appropriate pasture foliage and weeds. There can be potentially toxic weeds in some pastures and, if horses are very hungry, they may not be selective about what they eat.


3. Supplement grazing with hay. If pasture foliage is sparse, supplementing with hay might be necessary to provide sufficient energy and other nutrients. This practice also helps prevent consuming weeds because under some pasture conditions the weeds outgrow other foliage.

Supplementing the pasture with hay will help prevent overgrazing. Dr. Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota Equine Extension Program

4. Avoid grazing early spring pasture. If a horse has a history of founder, avoid grazing in the first four weeks of spring growth; then follow Rules 1 and 2 when introducing a horse to the pasture.


5. Use a grazing muzzle. If a horse that is susceptible to founder must be turned out on pasture, use a grazing muzzle to limit pasture consumption.


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Weighing In On Feeding Horses

Feed horses by weight, not by volume of feed.

I just started a new diet based on replacing fatty and sugary foods with good old protein and high fiber options.  Actually, besides missing sweets, I enjoy eating vegetables (with the exception of broccoli) and whole grains.  My biggest problem is with proportion size.  I don’t have a kitchen scale to actually weigh 3 ounces of chicken breast, so I am using the “no bigger than my thumb” rule for my meat portions.   Basically, I am looking at volume to estimate the calories of the food.


Horse Industry’s Measurement Standard


Horse owners are notorious for eyeballing and estimating how much they should feed their charges. As an industry, we typically use the standard measurements of “a scoop of this”, and “a flake of that”.  Eyeballing feed or feeding by volume often leads to over or underweight horses or wasted feed.

Horse people often make the mistake of feeding by volume instead of feeding by weight.


How much WILL a horse eat?


We have all used the saying “I am as hungry as a horse!”  Horses will eat to meet their energy needs and if the feed is tasty enough, continue to eat. Overeating doesn’t apply just to grain. Horses will also overeat on lush pastures or high quality legume hays.  Horses should be fed according to their nutritional demands that will be determined in part by their age, activity level, reproductive status and their weight or conditioning.


How Much SHOULD a Horse Eat?


A horse will eat between 1.5 – 3 % of its body weight in dry matter (DM) intake, depending on its energy demands. All adult horses should receive at least 1% DM intake of their body weight in forage, that is, a 1000-pound horse would need at least 10 pounds of forage per day on a dry matter basis.


Even for high performance horses, forage should make up at least 50% of the total ration. Remember that the 1% body weight rule and the 50% of the total ration rule are minimal forage requirements, not necessarily optimum requirements for most horses.   Below is a table from the 1989 NRC for horses.  It gives a good estimate of how much forage and concentrate (grain) a horse should eat based on their work load or reproductive status.

*Air-dry feed (about 90% dry matter). Source: NRC 1989



Weighing Your Feed

When you feed your horse, be sure to feed by weight, not by volume.  Different feedstuffs have different energy concentrations. The same volume of corn (a scoop), will weigh more than a scoop of oats.  In addition, the digestible energy content of corn (Mcals per pound) is expected to be about 15% more than oats.  Because of both weight per volume and energy density differences, a scoop of corn may actually provide close to twice the amount of energy as compared to a scoop of oats. If you feed the horse the same volume of corn as you do oats, you would be feeding the horse twice as much grain as it needs. If you feed the horse the same amount of oats as you usually do corn, you would be underfeeding the horse.


You can still use a scoop or coffee can to measure your grain, but weigh out the desired portion of grain, put it in the scoop or can, and mark a line so that you know where to fill the can to. When you change feeds, even to one similar to what you already use, be sure to weigh the new feed and adjust the amounts if necessary.  Remember, if you switch to a concentrate that has added dietary fat, you can feed less of the feed to maintain your horse’s weight.


Feed grain concentrates by weight, not by volume.

Don’t forget that different types of hay have different weights, too. For example, a flake of grass hay can appear the same or larger than a flake of alfalfa but still weighs less. So initially weigh out your hay. When you feed hay, just as with grains, it’s a good idea to weigh the new feed to see if you need to adjust the amounts accordingly.


Flakes of hay can vary greatly in weight, based on baling techniques and species of forage.

Helpful Hint: Changing the type of grain or forage should be done slowly over a period of 10 days to ensure the microbial populations in the horse’s digestive tract have a chance to adjust to the new feed source.


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Get a Jump Start on 2013 Pastures Now!

Preparing your horse pasture for the winter will maximize your pasture's output for the spring.

This weekend’s fallish weather was a reminder that old man winter is lurking around the corner.  Being originally from Texas, I am still caught unprepared when cold weather is at our doorstep in the midst of September.   I was hoping to get some more growth from our hay meadow before we harvested our second cutting.  Typically, it would be twice as tall this time of year, but the summer drought and the onset of cooler weather have really taken its toll.  With hay at an all time high for Michigan, we are going to harvest the meadow, even with an expected low yield.

I recently spent some time on the phone with our county extension educator and realized if I had fertilized our field earlier this year, it would most likely have endured the summer drought better, giving us a higher yield for our second cutting.  So, lessons learned, we are now planning for next year’s pastures and hay fields While my plan is for my Michigan acreage, there are some tools that you may be able to use as well.

1.  Get Soil Tested

My first step will be to take a soil sample of our hay field.  With the high costs of fertilizer, it doesn’t make any sense to buy nutrients that you may not need.  Also, as long as we are going through the mechanics of fertilizing our field, we should get the right quantity of fertilizer for fall application.   The soil sample analysis will give me a tailor made recipe for fertilizer along with how much to apply per acre for my field.  You should have your soil sampled in your pastures and hay fields every three years so you can evaluate your soil fertility both to maximize your forage yield and provide soil nutrient information for your manure management plan.    For Michigan, I will send my soil samples to the Michigan State University Soil Testing Lab.  Most land grant universities have soil testing labs.  If you don’t know where to send your soil samples, contact your county extension office or ask your local grain elevator.

WATCH THIS VIDEO from Rutgers University.  I love these two guys!

2. Apply Recommended Nutrients

Pastures, whether you are feeding livestock or harvesting hay, will need nutrients over time.   My field is primarily orchard grass, one of the cool season grasses we use in Michigan.  Considering we haven’t fertilized in nine years, there is a good chance it is deficient in nitrogen.   While we have spread composted manure in this field, the nutrient availability in our compost will be quite a bit lower than a commercial fertilizer.

If there was more legume type forages in the field (like clover or alfalfa)  the need for nitrogen would be lower.  Legumes fix nitrogen back into the soil.  That is one of the reasons you will often see clover in a pasture mix.  However, a lot of horse people don’t like clover in their fields.  It is also harder to dry when harvested and prone to mold issues that can cause photosynthesis reactions in horses.

WATCH THIS VIDEO.  Another great video from my friend Dr. Martinson from the University  of Minnesota.


N, P & K

While being the most expensive nutrient, Nitrogen (N) will help drought stressed plants take-up more nutrients through their roots to prepare for winter.  You should notice that your grass stands thicken up after fertilizing with the recommended nitrogen.  Additional phosphorus (P) and/or potassium (K)  may also be needed to help prepare the plants for winter and ensure the nitrogen is being utilized successfully.    Talk to your county extension agent or COOP about the best way to apply your fertilizer.  Often, splitting the recommended fertilizer into 2 or even 3 applications will help-out your pasture more in the long run.

Soil pH

Fall is a great time to add lime to the soil.  The soil’s pH should range from 6.0 – 6.5.  To acidic (below a pH of 5.5), and the plants productivity will be negatively effected.  Farm grade lime is relatively inexpensive when compared to nitrogen fertilizer so it only makes sense to apply it if you need it.  Lime is non-toxic to horses, so even if you are spreading lime on a pasture that is being grazed, you won’t need to remove your livestock.


3. Rest the Field

Plants need a healthy stand to withstand harsh weather conditions.  It is important to let a pasture go into winter with at least a 6 inch stand so that it can collect moisture and nutrients.  Resting your field will allow some late growth and uptake of nutrients while the soil is 45 degrees F or above.  Horse hoof damage is particularly hard on a pasture.  Make sure you remove your horses when the pasture is wet.

While you are resting your field is a good time to take check out your pasture productivity and see if you need to reseed.  Walk your fields and check for the ratio of edible grasses to nonedible plants (weeds).   Measure the plant height and thickness of your edible plants.  If they are less than 4 inches tall and you see a lot of bare ground, you may want to consider reseeding your pasture in the future.   Talk with your county agent about frost seeding in the very early spring to help thicken up your pasture and decrease the weed competition.

WATCH THIS VIDEO from Rutgers University. I hope these guys don’t think I am stalking them!


Dr. Christine Skelly is an extension specialist at Michigan State University where she founded and directs My Horse University, an online horse management education program.  Dr. Skelly developed the free online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101, in partnership with Discover Horses.

Follow My Horse University on FacebookTwitter and YouTube and take the FREE online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101.

Categories: Dr. Skelly's Horse Ownership 2.0, First Horse.

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Hosting the Metamora Hunt

The heritage of foxhunting is celebrated with bold horses, enthusiastic hounds and regal riders.

September 14, 2012 – Every year my family hosts the Metamora Hunt on our property before they depart for their morning ride.  I bake sweet and savory breakfast treats, we check our stock of Sherry, and we ensure there is easy and safe access to the back trails behind our land.

As hosts of the Hunt, my family provides refreshments including the traditional Sherry, and breakfasts treats delivered to the mounted riders while avoiding a greedy hound or two.

The Food

Last Saturday morning I was making mini blueberry muffins following Martha’s recipe and using Michigan blueberries my son and I picked earlier in the season.  I topped them off with a strudel topping before popping them into the oven.  I also whipped up some super easy but always a crowd pleaser sausage cheese balls.  By prepping my kitchen the night before, I could get everything out of the oven in about an hour to serve warm baked goods by 9 AM.

Get the Recipes:

Martha’s Blueberry Muffin Recipe

Sausage Cheese Balls

The Hunt

Metamora, a small town in Michigan, is known to horse people throughout the state as horse country.  Metamora is home to some of the most elegant horse farms, ranging in discipline and breeds from hunter/jumper, dressage, carriage driving, gaited horses and stock horses.   As a new landowner, we were soon approached by members of the Hunt too allow access to our land for their scheduled rides.  For my family it was an enthusiastic “YES!” followed by “What can we do to help?”

The Metamora Hunt was established in 1928.  In the early 1900’s, foxhunting took place near Detroit.  But as the surrounding area grew in housing and businesses, the sport relocated into Metamora’s beautiful rolling hills, enriched with wildlife.  Today, the Hunt is a symbol of our town and countryside.

Learn More about the Metamora Hunt

The Hunt prepares for their morning ride in Metamora, Michigan.

The Fox 

Before I go too much father, I want to say that while the Hunt does chase either fox or coyote, they do not hunt for the “kill”.   Once their prey goes underground or in their den, they call off the hounds and the chase ends.    Back in the day, small terriers went along on the hunt carried in leather satchels that where either tied to the saddles or person.  Once their prey had gone to ground, the small tenacious terriers were let loose to drive the fox out of their den, so that it could be shot.  In Metamora, the fox is considered a precious participant of the hunt, and is never chased to kill.  In fact, as the fox population continues to diminish, the hunt usually ends up chasing coyotes.

Now I don’t buy into the line of thought that the fox actually “enjoys” the chase, or you can see him smile before he goes into hiding. My guess is the fox is running like a bat out of Hades and trying to figure out how to out fox the hounds.  But it is the chase that hounds, horses and their riders enjoy most.  From the dogs’ standpoint, they are doing exactly what they have been bred to do for centuries.  Horse and rider are getting an adrenaline rush as they ride gallantly forward, encountering natural obstacles to scale.   From our porch, you can hear the hounds’ enthusiastic cry, the Huntsman’s horn and glimpse the mounted riders in their formal hunt attire through the adjacent cornfield.

The fox is a celebrated participant of the hunt. Efforts are made by the Hunt and many landowners to preserve his natural habitat. Photo by Archimandrill from flickr

Learn More about foxhunting from DiscoverHorses.com

The Hounds

I have visited Metamora Hunt’s kennel and have gathered some nutritional information for their feeding program.  What a friendly bunch of dogs!  They always look happy, have a large clean yard to exercise and are taken out to work often.   The sight of 30 or so foxhounds, weighing approximately 70 lbs each, frolicking in your pasture is a sight to behold!  Being a terrier person myself, I love the rough coated hounds. Even when they are let loose for a hunt, they are well behaved and on the job.  They gather around the huntsman, anticipating the hunt, noses to the ground and tails wagging.  That’s not to say that I haven’t experienced the incorrigible hound trying to sneak a sausage and cheese biscuit from my delivery basket!

The foxhounds look to the Huntsman for direction.

Learn More about the Metamora Hunt foxhounds

The Horses

Foxhunting seems to be an equal opportunity employer for a variety of horse breeds.   There are the Thoroughbreds, Appendix Quarter Horses, and Warmbloods as well as the cropping up of some unexpected breeds (at least by me) of Haflingers and ponies.  Whatever the breed, I am always impressed by their beauty, intelligence and workman like manner.  They load off the trailers early morning, and politely make their way to the gathering point with hounds at their feet.  They stand patiently for tack adjustments and wait for their riders to drink their Sherry and eat their breakfast snacks.  At the sound of the horn, they trot or gallop off in full control, without any hesitation or high jinx.  This is not a sport for the flighty or anxious equine.  They must have common sense and courage, all traits that are valued by most equestrians.

The People

The members of the Hunt are some of the nicest people you would ever want to meet.  Always polite, complimentary, and grateful for our time, they are delightful to host.  You see all ages riding and supporting the hunt.   Through rain or snow, they arrive before dawn to get ready for their sport.   Both their dress and their horses are meticulously turned out, giving an air of respect and importance to their sport.  They are strong riders supporting an athletic and balanced position.  They give back to the community by sponsoring a landowners picnic and horse show each year.  Everyone looks forward to watching them ride downtown in the Metamora Country Days Parade with their hounds.

The Land

The hunt begins their season in early fall and hunts well into the snowy Michigan winters.   They experience the deep green foliage of late summer, the spectacular color palette of Autumn and the sparkling wonder land of our early winter snow.   They sponsor an area wide land clean up on Earth Day and help clean debris off of the trails during the year.  They have a real passion for the preservation of open spaces in the countryside.  Equestrian sports like foxhunting and trail riding all play a role in showcasing the importance of conserving our land not only for equestrian activities but also for wildlife, agriculture and everyone’s enjoyment.

Learn More about the land conservation efforts of the Equestrian community


Dr. Christine Skelly is an extension specialist at Michigan State University where she founded and directs My Horse University, an online horse management education program.  Dr. Skelly developed the free online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101, in partnership with Discover Horses.

Follow My Horse University on FacebookTwitter and YouTube and take the FREE online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101.

Categories: Dr. Skelly's Horse Ownership 2.0, Uncategorized.

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Going Back to School! Learning Never Stops for Horses and Riders

Horses “learn to learn” so it is important to always have something new and interesting to work on in your training program.

Just sent my son off to school from a long summer break.  My biggest hope is that he continues to enjoy learning.  I figure that if he likes school and enjoys learning new things, his academic performance will take care of it’s self.

School is beginning for everyone, including your horse. Photo by corsi photo from Flickr


Young Horses are Learning to Learn

Horses learn to learn.  During the early training stages, a horse is learning to trust the handler.  As the horse learns to trust the handler, he will show more “try” when presented with a new learning situation.   If the horse actually is “enjoying” his training program, learning should come that much quicker and easier.   Riders and trainers that focus on keeping the young horse relaxed and their mind engaged will turn out a more dependable horse that will learn quicker and try harder than a horse that is trained under stressful and redundant/boring conditions.


Learning is a Step By Step Process


Recently, I learned how to swim the breaststroke.  I had always had my own rendition, but knew it really wasn’t correct.   I had to reteach both my brain and my body the new movements and timing, piece by piece.  I practiced the leg kick first, then the arm stroke, and finally put both movements together to focus on the timing.  As soon as I put the movements together, either my legs or arms would fall in to bad habits. When I refocused on my body, my timing would go off.  So it has taken me months to master a slow, methodical breaststroke, thanks to a very patient swim instructor.   But one great reward is that all of my swimming has improved!


Learning to swim the breaststroke is a step-by-step process. Photo by C-Serpents from Flickr

Training horses with an advanced maneuver is similar.  We break the steps down into pieces and then put the steps back together very slowly.   If we are teaching a horse to side pass, we might first teach a forehand pivot and then rearhand pivot.  Once we have successfully gained control of their front and hind end, we can put the steps together and work on timing.  We don’t expect everything to be perfect.  At first it may look like the horse is zig-zagging across the arena.  With time and patience the horse’s timing will improve and the maneuver will evolve into a smooth and effortless side pass.


WATCH this video from Louisiana State University Ag Center on training a young horse.



Learning Never Stops – No Matter How Old/Experienced You Are


As I get older, I am more convinced that I need to continue learning new things.  Both my mind and my body need the stimulation that trying something new can give.  I think older horses are just like older people.  They need to be challenged with new situations.  We can revitalize our more experienced horses by teaching them something new.  When I was going to school in College Station, Texas, the 4-Hers were very competitive with their senior horses.  Many had titles at both the state and national level in western pleasure and horsemanship. Once these kids mastered the more popular events, they would take their solid show horses and try reining or working cow horse.  Both the kids and horses benefitted from trying something new.  It was great fun to watch the western pleasure champions gallop after a cow, or stop deep and spin hard.  Horses and the kids looked like they were having a great time.


Sometimes a horse can really benefit from a career change.  If your horse is acting bored (pinning his ears, swishing his tail, basically lackadaisical) you may want to throw a different saddle on its back.  I have seen western pleasure horses do cross country and dressage horses try western trail.    When we purchased my first horse Blue, she was a soured out western pleasure horse.   One day I put my friends hunt seat saddle on her, just for kicks, and we never looked back.  Blue turned out to be a great hunt seat horse, and was definitely happier moving forward.

Many kid's show horses turn into mom and dad's team penning horses once the kids go away to college. Photo by California Cowgirl 1 from Flickr

LEARN MORE about team penning from Discover Horses.




WE WANT TO KNOW What training advise do you have for keeping your horses happy and willing to try something new?  Let us know in the comment section below!

Dr. Christine Skelly is an extension specialist at Michigan State University where she founded and directs My Horse University, an online horse management education program.  Dr. Skelly developed the free online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101, in partnership with Discover Horses.

Follow My Horse University on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and take the FREE online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101.








Categories: Dr. Skelly's Horse Ownership 2.0, Training, Uncategorized.

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Harley is for Sale. Are You Looking for that Perfect First Horse?

Several factors should be considered when selecting your first horse including their age, training level and background.

Our neighbors are selling their girls’ horse.  The girls are moving on to fancier mounts and larger shows.  As I read her e-mail, I thought this guy will make a great first horse for someone.  The e-mail read:

We are selling our 18 yr. old Palomino QH, Harley.  He is a wonderful guy, easy keeper, no shoes, sweet, loves to trail ride, low level dressage, 15 hands, utd (up-to-date) on shots/worming.  We’ve owned him for almost 5 years and he was the girls’ horse that they shared.  He’s super special to our family and we would love to see him go to a great home.  It’s a very hard sell for us, but it’s also a shame to have him sitting here not being used.

Leah and Harley at the Win A Gin dressage show in 2011. Harley was reserve champion in training level III.

Leah and Harley at the Win A Gin dressage show in 2011. Harley was reserve champion in training level III.


So, why will Harley make such a great first horse?  To start with, he has a lot of experience under his belt.  At 18 he is well set in his temperament and habits.  A young horse is like a young child, with a lot of learning ahead of him.  Harley is basically a finished product.  What you see is what you get with Harley.  I think a first horse should be at least seven years old but I really appreciate a horse in his teens.  A well cared for horse in his teens can still be active for another 5-10 years with the proper care.  Senior feeds have really extended the lifespan of our equine geriatrics!


Many people would say that Harley being a gelding is another big plus.  It is true that mares can be more temperamental when they are in heat (estrus period that lasts for 4-7 days and occurs about once a month).  My mare Bluebonnet would religiously come in heat every time we hauled to a horse show.  She would urinate a lot and holler at the other horses.  I had to spend extra time in the warm-up pen to get her to settle down for our class.  Over time, as we both grew older and more experienced, it took less time to get Blue to focus on her job.

On the flip side, I have also had geldings that were just as silly as a mare in heat.  Sailor was a perpetual spooky horse, shying at his own manure piles!  My gelding Cat is very cold backed, and at 10 years of age still bucks when first saddled.  So, I don’t really care if a first horse is a mare or gelding–as long as it is NOT a stallion!

Stallions are for experienced horse people who have a lot of knowledge about handling and managing stallions.  No matter how gentle and well trained, stallions are ruled by their drive to breed or fight for the privilege of breeding.  I have known docile, well-trained stallions that, seemingly out of the blue, have bit, pawed or kicked their handlers.

WATCH this video featuring Paula Hitzler, the manager of the Michigan State University Horse Teaching and Research Center, to learn more about managing stallions.


Does size matter?  I think that it is always ideal if the size of the horse can fit the size of the rider, especially if the rider is young, inexperienced or having trouble mounting.  I like to see kids be able to do their own grooming and saddling-up, which could be hard if you are dealing with a 17-hand horse and are only 4 ½ feet tall.  On the other hand, if you are an experienced rider and handler, you depend more on your smarts and skills than your size to work with a horse.  Just look at the small stature of some of the Olympic riders guiding huge warmbloods through the strenuous courses in stadium jumping!

WATCH this NBC  video of U.S. athlete Reid Kessler–18 years old, 5’3” and weighing 119 pounds–compete  in stadium jumping on her Belgium Warmblood in the recent London Olympics.


Not every horse needs to be the Brad or Angelina of the horse world–thank goodness!  But a horse should be serviceably sound (able to do their job comfortably, whatever that job is). The conformation of the horse should be as good as possible, but definitely doesn’t need to be perfect.  For example, we can overlook a little toeing in or out as long as it isn’t so extreme that a horse ends up hitting itself with its hooves when it travels.  Like any “significant other,” you can overlook some physical shortcomings if the personality/compatibility is a good fit.  Just remember, pretty is as pretty does!

In older horses, some degrees of arthritis may be acceptable depending on what the horse will be used for. If your goals are slow trail rides on the weekend, that older horse may be a good fit. However, severe conformation problems that may cause major long-term lameness should be avoided.


WATCH this short video on deviations of a horse’s structure of the front limbs (toes out) from the My Horse University YouTube Channel.

LEARN MORE by watching the webinar on Conformation and Selection of Horses


Harley is a golden Palomino .  You either love the color or hate the color.  Is it flashy?  YES!  Is it important? Only if your overall goal is to show in Palomino shows.  I have seen many people fall in love with the color of a horse and end up with the wrong horse in their barn.  Even experienced horse people can become fixated on a color pattern and make a costly mistake.  If you are really excited about a horse’s color, put up a big red flag and proceed with CAUTION!  Take a picture of the horse, put it in a Photoshop program and paint the horse a dull brown color or whatever coat color makes you sleepy.  Then write all of the horse’s plusses and minuses and make sure you are not being razzle-dazzled by the color of the horse.

Don't be blind sided by flashy color!


LEARN MORE about coat color from eXtension/horses.org


Harley is a Quarter Horse , the most abundant horse breed in the United States.  If you specifically want to show in AQHA shows, you must have a registered Quarter Horse.  By the same token, if you want to show in any breed specific shows, like Arabian, Tennessee Walker or Appaloosa shows, your horse will need to be registered in that breed association.

There are a lot of open and discipline shows where the horse can be any breed and compete.  Obviously, if you want to be competitive in hunter-jumper events, you need a horse that moves like a hunter and can jump.  If you want to compete in reining events, you will probably be looking for a stock type horse that can stop hard and turn fast.

Reiner Tim McQuay. Photo by Waltenberry

Reiner Tim McQuay. Photo by Waltenberry

A good reining horse is agile and balanced, with plenty of strength to stop hard and turn fast, while staying under complete control.

LEARN MORE about reining at Discoverhorses.com.

Your breed or discipline preference might be dependent on your background or even your access to a good instructor, trainer or club that specializes in a certain breed or riding style.  When it comes down to it, all breeds have a lot to offer–the horse’s nature is fairly constant throughout the different breeds.  Still, your more hot-blooded horses like Thoroughbreds will tend to be more active and spirited while your colder-blooded horses like the Quarter Horse will display a calmer disposition.  However, there are so many exceptions to this generalization.  It really comes down to evaluating the individual horse to see if it is the right fit for you.

My first horse was a fairly nondescript grade (unregistered) mare without any breed background.  She was raised by a 4-H family and was being sold to make way for project turkeys.  (There is a lot of money in show turkeys at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo!)  She was the perfect first horse for me and I showed her in both Western and English events.  Everyone loved Blue.  So don’t overlook the unregistered horses!

LEARN MORE about breeds and disciplines from Discoverhorses.com


I believe training and temperament are the most important factors when selecting your first horse.  Your first horse certainly doesn’t need to be a Grand Prix dressage horse. However, he should have a solid foundation in the fundamentals of good horsemanship that can translate to both English and Western disciplines.  Harley’s low level dressage training lets me know that at the very least he can walk, trot and canter a 20-meter circle (hopefully) in a relaxed frame, move away from leg pressure and back up.  His trail riding experience lets me know that Harley gets around and has seen the world.  As a new horse owner, you will want to go trail riding with your friends and see the world on horseback.

WATCH this video of Ravel and Steffen Peters competing in Grand Prix Dressage.

LEARN MORE about dressage from Discoverhorses.com.


Knowing the background of a prospective horse is extremely important.  From a health standpoint, you need to know that the horse is up – to – date on vaccinations, has been on a successful parasite control program, has good dental health and has well maintained hooves.  Beyond that, the horse’s background will give you a sneak peak at how a horse might fit in to his prospective new home.  Harley has been owned by the same family for the last five years.  He has been involved in 4-H, county fairs and Pony Club activities during that time.  He is also an “easy keeper” and is primarily housed outside.  This is a better fit for most buyers than if he were in a fancy show barn under the guidance of a trainer.  Harley would fit in just fine in most situations where he was allowed plenty of outdoor time and TLC.

I know Harley will get placed in the right home and give another family years of enjoyment.  His current owners are being extremely careful in how they advertise Harley.  He definitely deserves a great home where he can continue to teach someone the joys of horse ownership.

What do you think is the most important trait when selecting a first horse?  Please share your comments with us!

Dr. Christine Skelly is an extension specialist at Michigan State University where she founded and directs My Horse University, an online horse management education program.  Dr. Skelly developed the free online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101, in partnership with Discover Horses.

Follow My Horse University on FacebookTwitter and YouTube and take the FREE online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101.




Categories: Dr. Skelly's Horse Ownership 2.0, First Horse.

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Enduring the Summer Drought and Preparing for Winter

Horse owners in drought affected areas should "squirrel" away hay early and find ways to stretch their forage through the winter and early spring.

July 27, 2012 – The long hot summer – that’s how I will remember 2012 in Michigan.  Coming from Texas, you’d think I wouldn’t whine so much about the unusually high heat we are experiencing this year.  Let’s just say one of the perks of Michigan weather is supposed to be the easy going summer (to make up for the snow bound winter).   This year Michigan is experiencing the same drought as many of our neighboring Midwest states.  The high heat and low moisture are negatively affecting our crops and pastures.  That means farmers and horse owners alike are feeding hay to livestock in mid-summer that we wouldn’t usually have to feed until mid-fall.

U.S. Drought Monitor

Find out how your state is fairing this year with the U.S. Drought Monitor.

LEARN MORE by going to the U.S. Drought Monitor.  Click on your state for more information.


Be the Squirrel

As I watch the first cutting hay we purchased in May dwindling down in our barns, I realize that this is going to be an expensive horse keeping year.  Not only do I need to purchase more hay, but I am also feeding more grain this summer to replace the nutrients my horses usually receive from our pasture.  In states with significant droughts, hay production is going to be lower.  Many dairy and cattle farms that usually sell hay will be keeping it to feed their own stock.  Loss of corn and other crops will also drive grain prices higher.  Waiting until you actually need hay will be risky as hay availability continues to decrease and feed prices rise.

So think like a squirrel and search for a variety of hay sources to stock up for the winter.  The trick is to work with area hay producers and buy hay now to meet your needs throughout the winter months.   We have plenty of hay storage with our old dairy barns, but I have many friends who have to purchase hay in small loads due to lack of storage.  If that is your case, see if you can pre-purchase hay with your local supplier, so they will store the hay for you until you need it.  Since less hay will be cut this year, suppliers will have more storage room than usual and may be willing to work with their best customers.  Or, if you have neighbors with storage space, see if you can store your hay in their barns.  If rain does fall in sufficient amounts, we may still get a late summer or early fall hay harvest.  However, I will be hedging my bets and “squirreling” away as much affordable hay now as I can.

Purchasing Winter Hay

Buying hay this coming winter will be risky, as both supply and quality decreases and prices continue to rise.

FIND HAY:  Many states have their own hay sellers list through their Land Grant University or Department of Agriculture.  Hay Net is a national hay sellers and buyers list sponsored by  U.S.D.A.

Be Flexible

Consider stretching your forage supply now to ensure you can feed some long stemmed forage through the winter months.  Horses need to eat between 1.5 – 3 % of their body weight in feed (based on dry matter intake) to meet their individual requirements determined by their age, workload and production level.  Of that total intake, horses should receive at least 1 % of their body weight in forage.  For most horses, optimizing the forage portion of their diet to 1.5 – 2% of their body weight, while minimizing their grain intake, is the healthiest way to feed.   That means the average 1000 lb horse will eat around 20 lbs of hay per day, or one small bale of hay every 2 – 3 days, assuming small bales range in weight from 40 – 60 pounds.  This can be an expensive endeavor if there is a shortage in hay.

Ideally, fiber particles from forage should be at least 2 inches in length to help stimulate the intestinal lining of a horse’s gut.  When stretching your forage, consider supplementing your long stem hay with other high fiber feeds like hay cubes, hay pellets, and beat pulp.  Complete feeds as well as senior feeds are formulated to supply all of the horse’s daily fiber needs.  However, horses will still have the psychological urge to chew – and if they can’t chew hay they will most likely chew your barn, fence and even their pasture mate’s tail!  So by offering long stem forage like hay, along with other fiber sources, you can keep your horses happier over the long winter months.

LEARN MORE by reading the article Six Hay-Alternatives for Horses from Discoverhorses.com

Think Outside of the Box

If you have always fed second cutting grass hay, this may be the year you need to try something new.  Hay, whether cut earlier or later in the season, is more dependent on maturity and species to determine its overall nutritional value.  As hay matures in the field, it will decrease in both energy and protein, regardless if it is first, second or third cutting.  Legume forages, when compared to grass at the same maturity level, are higher in energy and protein.


Hay quality depends on maturity at harvest and the species of the forage baled.


Legume plants are more drought resistant than cool season grasses, and it may be that you will get more quality nutrition with a mixed hay (grass and alfalfa) or even alfalfa hay this year.  You should always feed grain based on the type of hay you are feeding.  So if you are feeding hay with more energy and protein than you usually feed, you will probably need to decrease the amount of grain you are feeding – otherwise you may end up with an overweight horse.  By the same token, if you are feeding more mature hay than you have in the past, you may need to increase your horse’s grain ration to ensure your horse gets adequate energy in its diet.


You can also feed hay that is over a year old, if there is any left.  All hay loses its vitamin stores relative quickly (in about 3 – 6 months of storage).  We always assume that we need to supplement essential vitamins and some minerals based on where hay is grown and the species type.  Hay balancers can help do this or supplementing the hay with a fortified grain ration that is specific for your horse’s dietary requirements can also ensure your horse is getting a balanced diet.  Remember to body condition score your horses often to ensure they are neither too fat nor too thin.

LEARN MORE by taking the short learning lesson from eXtension.org/horses on How to Body Condition Score Horses


Avoid Dusty and Moldy Hay


Finally, avoid feeding moldy or dusty hay.  One year I fed dusty, low quality hay to my horses because it was all I could find in the middle of winter.  It took me several months into the summer to get my horses looking bloomy again.  I ended up spending a lot more money on grain to keep their weight stable and they just didn’t look as good as they usually did coming out of the winter months.  It took a good month on good pasture to get them back to where I like them.  Older horses are particularly susceptible to heaves, a respiratory condition that can be aggravated by dusty, moldy hay.

LEARN MORE by viewing the webcast Hay Selection http://www.discoverhorses.com/all-about-horses/webinar-hay-selection/

Read the Discoverhorses.com article How to Manage Hay Shortages http://www.discoverhorses.com/all-about-horses/how-manage-hay-shortages-html/

Tell us your stories and tips of managing your horses in a drought ridden year in our comment section below.


Dr. Christine Skelly is an extension specialist at Michigan State University where she founded and directs My Horse University, an online horse management education program.  Dr. Skelly developed the free online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101, in partnership with Discover Horses.

Follow My Horse University on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and take the FREE online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101.


Categories: Dr. Skelly's Horse Ownership 2.0, Uncategorized.

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