Work smarter, not harder, management experts tell us. That's easy for them to say--they've never had a barn full of horses to look after. If you're like most horse owners, you devote every minute you can spare to ensuring your horses' well-being. You don't begrudge them the hours you spend pushing brooms, filling buckets and cleaning stalls. After all, you knew what you were getting into when you became a horse owner.
But could you be doing things more efficiently? Is it possible to provide even better care for your horses while still having time for the rest of your life? In other words, can you work smarter, not harder, around the barn?
Sure you can. There are timesaving techniques and tools out there that can help you complete your barn chores faster without sacrificing safety and cleanliness. We've collected some favorites here and arranged them by work category, focusing on the universal (and traditionally time-eating) chores of stall cleaning, watering and feeding, general maintenance, grooming and tacking. Some of our suggestions require specific equipment, but others call for nothing more than changing a routine or two to better utilize your existing resources.
You could immediately reduce your stall-cleaning time by 100 percent--and improve your horses' health in the process--by turning your herd out 24 hours a day. But since that's not feasible for everyone, here's how to cut the time you spend wielding a pitchfork without compromising the cleanliness your horses require.
Switch to a deep-litter system. If you bed on shavings, this European practice can help you establish a thick, clean bed with minimal daily labor. At each cleaning, remove only the visible piles of manure and wet spots--don't dig down to the floor or turn the bedding over. Toss slightly soiled bedding to the sides of the stall, and put a thin layer of clean bedding in the center. Eventually, "banks" of dry shavings will form around the outside of the stall, and you can use these to refresh the center, eliminating trips to the shavings heap. Properly maintained, a deep-litter bed is dry, has no odor and is very cushioning to the legs. You will have to completely strip the stall once or twice a year, however.
Invest in the right tools for the job. A heavyweight pitchfork and a too-small wheelbarrow make for inefficient stall cleaning. Shop for multi-tined, lightweight forks that will allow clean shavings to fall through, along with oversized wheelbarrows that can reduce the number of trips you must make to the manure pile. Consider a mechanized manure sifter that separate clean shavings from dirty, saving both time and money.
Purchase stall mats or other floor coverings. Floor coverings, such as mats and grids, reduce the amount of labor involved in stall cleaning in two ways: by facilitating drainage and by reducing the amount of bedding needed. Properly installed, graded mats or grids channel urine to a drain or through the floor, eliminating the hours you've been spending each month digging out wet spots. They'll also protect floors, cutting down on (or even eliminating) the heavy work of repairing holes or uneven surfaces each year. Mats have one additional advantage: Since they provide cushioning of their own, they require less bedding on top.
Establish a cleaning system. Clean stalls from front to back, back to front or side to side--it doesn't matter what your pattern is; just stick with one method for more efficiency. Simplify waste removal by placing a tarp outside the stall door and tossing everything into the center. When the tarp is full, pick it up by the corners and place it in the wheelbarrow or carry it to the manure heap.
It goes without saying that your horses must have access to ample, clean water at all times. Still, there are some changes you can make to reduce the amount of time you spend delivering liquid refreshment to your beasts.
Add more water containers. The simplest and cheapest way to cut down on the time you spend watering is to add a second water bucket to each stall, as well as additional troughs in each paddock. Fill all the containers in the morning, and you may be able to skip the afternoon refill if the water is still clean.
Extend pipes to stalls. The next level of watering convenience requires a plumber's help. Run pipes from the main water line along the outside of the stalls in the aisleway, above door-frame height. For quick and easy watering, install an on/off valve at each stall, and run short hoses from the valves to just above each water bucket. This kind of pipe system must be drained in the winter to prevent freezing, but during the summer it can save hours of hose-dragging.
A less frost-prone, but more costly, variation is to have pipes installed in the floor of the aisleway, with a spigot at each stall and a "dedicated" hose running through a hole cut in the stall wall above the bucket.
Go fully automatic.If you can afford it, automatic waterers are the way to go. With safety features to prevent shock, insulation to guard against freezing and gauges to measure a horse's water intake, these equine water fountains are perhaps the most common and effective time-savers available to horsekeepers. They offer the added benefit of ensuring that your horses always have access to water and are available for both stalls and pastures.
If your horse had his way, he'd be eating all the time. Grazing on pasture is his natural feeding pattern, after all, and even when it comes to concentrates, experts agree that giving small amounts at intervals during the day is the optimal schedule for your horse's digestive well-being. Still, from a time-management perspective, the "little and often" approach can be tough to follow. Here are some ways you can cut the time it takes to feed your horses without compromising their health and happiness.
Streamline delivery. Instead of running back and forth from stall to feed bin, put all feeds and supplements into a large, wheeled cart with several compartments. With this system, you can roll down the aisleway, stopping at each stall to dole out rations. The process is made even more efficient by adding small, swing-out doors or other openings over the feed buckets.
Make gravity work for you. Stack hay bales in well-ventilated lofts with strategically located "drops" over each stall or hayrack. With this arrangement, you can toss flakes to their destination with minimal time or effort. This also works for feeds stored in the loft. Run individual PVC pipes (six inches or larger in diameter) into each stall, and pour grain down the pipe directly into the feed bucket for each eagerly awaiting horse. Just make sure you inspect the feed buckets daily for signs of contamination or indications that a horse has stopped eating.
Prepare meals ahead of time. A popular time-saver at racetracks is to prepare "bag lunches," thus reducing measuring and scooping time. Whoever makes up the morning feeding also doles out the lunch and/or dinner rations in separate canvas bags. These are hung outside the stall when the morning feeding is delivered. Feeding the next meal simply requires dumping the contents into the bucket.
Install automatic feeders. If you want to spend the money, you can automate your feeding routine. Automatic feeders on the market can hold several days' worth of concentrates, and some even hold hay. Just fill them up once and let the timer do the rest of the work. The benefit of automatic feeders is they can be set to dispense a small amount several times throughout the day, but the drawbacks are the maintenance and extra vigilance they require. You must check that automatic feeders are working properly every day, or risk a hungry--or worse, overfed--horse.
Feed concentrates in the field. Bringing in field-kept horses just to eat their daily rations can be a huge time-waster. If you choose to feed in the field, however, you'll need to make sure that each horse gets his fair share and that no feed is wasted. Feed tubs that latch onto fences are a good start; these not only conserve feed but also prevent ingestion of soil or sand, a possible colic producer. If you're good at construction, you can build standing stalls with individual feed tubs along a fence line. Your horses will soon learn to claim a stall at feeding time, and chains across the back of the stalls will keep bullies in until the slowest eater has finished.
Keep a bale-opening tool handy. Wrestling the twine off a bale of hay can be a real time-waster. Hang a pair of tin snips (special scissors for cutting metal) or a farrier's knife on a nail next to the hay shed or loft ladder; either will safely and easily cut even the toughest baling twine. Be faithful about putting this tool back when you are done.
Maintenance and Record Keeping
The maintenance required around a farm can range from simple daily house-keeping to backbreaking, once-a-year heavy work. With horses needing constant care, these are the kinds of jobs that tend to get pushed to the bottom of a "to do" list. Cutting the time it takes to handle routine maintenance will let you get to the end of that "to do" list a lot faster.
Banish the brooms. Rather than push a broom for hours, invest in a quality vacuum and leaf blower. Use the blower for outdoor jobs only, such as cleaning driveways or gutters; indoors, a blower will stir up unhealthy dust. Instead, use a vacuum for aisles and rafters. A heavy-duty shop vacuum will do, but for really efficient cleaning, try a model specifically designed for cleaning barns or industrial buildings.
Buy synthetic tack for daily use. Cut down time spent on leather care by using synthetic tack for your everyday riding. Man-made materials are easily hosed clean, and your show tack will stay nice for dressy occasions.
Maximize storage space in tack and feed rooms. Spend a rainy afternoon overhauling your storage areas. Prefab shelving, wire racks and cabinetry, available at most hardware stores, will go a long way toward making sense of your mess. While you're at it, hang a halter and lead shank on each horse's stall so they'll always be there when you need them, saving extra trips to the tack room.
Invest in high-quality, high-tech fencing. As much as you may love the traditional look of wooden board fences, they take a lot of time to maintain. Installing synthetic fences made of PVC and other polymers is more costly in the short term, but over time you'll save on maintenance and repair. Properly installed electric fencing--particularly "tape" and poly-cord varieties--is also a mostly maintenance-free option.
Buy an appropriate-sized tractor and accessories. All but the smallest of farmettes can benefit from some sort of tractor for the hauling, dumping and dragging associated with heavy maintenance work. As a rule, it's better to have slightly "too much" tractor than not enough, so set your minimum requirement at 20 horsepower and work up from there.
With the appropriate accessories, a tractor can speed nearly every farm job: Pull the tractor into the barn and muck out directly into a dump cart or manure spreader; cut grass and brush around the barn and in the pastures with mover attachments; drag fields and rings with a chain-link harrow; use a front-end loader to straighten fence posts.
Auto-water your ring. Use a simple lawn sprinkler to water down your riding ring quickly and inexpensively and keep dust at bay. Just remember to move the sprinkler before puddles form.
Start a binder system for your records. For each horse, purchase an inexpensive three-ring notebook, with pocket inserts and loose-leaf paper. Put official documents, such as Coggins test results, into the pockets, and record all other relevant information on the loose-leaf paper: Put veterinary visits on one sheet, show results on another, and so on. The idea is to have all of the horse's vital papers and information readily available in one place. Start a similar binder for farm expenses, such as feed bills and hay deliveries.
Computerize your system. Consider one of the many software programs designed to organize horsekeeping data. Some are intended for large operations, others are better suited for smaller farms, so shop around with your specific needs and computer capabilities in mind. A computer program does require you to enter information on a regular basis, but it also means that records and data are easily and instantly retrievable.
Grooming and Tacking
So the chores are done, and you're ready to ride? Make the transition even faster by streamlining your grooming and tacking procedures. A few basic changes can whittle your pre-ride routine down to 10 minutes or less:
Move everything at once. Elaborate wheeled carts with saddle racks and baskets can bring everything you need for grooming and tacking right to the horse, eliminating extra trips to the tack room.
Vacuum instead of brushing. Not only will grooming go faster with a vacuum, but your horse will be cleaner. It may take a few days to accustom him to the sound and sensation of the machine, but eventually your grooming routine will be pared down to a quick curry and a five-minute vacuum treatment. A good wet/dry shop vacuum will do, but a heavy-duty model designed for horses will last longer and make less noise.
Use both hands. It may sound obvious, but put a tool in each hand and you'll cut your grooming time in half.
Teach your horse to lift both feet from one side. Pick out the left and right hooves from the same side. All but the stiffest horses (and grooms) find this no problem. In fact, same-side picking is standard practice at many racetracks. If you worry about developing "sidedness" this way, alternate the side you pick from.
This article originally appeared in the May 1998 issue of EQUUS magazine.