My first inkling of the association between tools and riding occurred shortly after I realized my dream of owning horse property. I had no sooner unloaded my horse from the trailer when the first of many manure piles to come sent me to the toolshed in search of a scoop.
I didn’t even own a muck fork. I planned to get one, eventually. I wanted to spend what little money I had on tack and naively figured I’d use a shovel for the time being. That plan lasted about an hour. Not only did I immediately shell out good money on a manure fork (that I still use to this day), I was back at the supply store within a week, blowing right past all that cool tack to get rakes and the basic implements of horse keeping.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the better your tools, the more time you have to ride. In fact, the further beyond 40 I get, the more I appreciate simple things I can haul out and use on a moment’s notice without charging them up or reading complicated instructions. Power tools are great, but I generally prefer the no-nonsense implements that allow me to just get the job done and move on to what I most enjoy: riding.
Of course when it comes to selecting barn tools, as with so many other things in life, the advice of good friends is invaluable. So I brought up the subject during a recent afternoon ride with fellow members of the Gilbert Horse Owners Association (GHOA). About a dozen of us gather monthly to ride the desert mountain trails in the Phoenix area. In the past five years, we’ve explored the Goldfield, the Superstition and the San Tan mountains, as well as parts of the Arizona Trail.
In addition to our love for the trails, we share a special camaraderie as horse property owners in and around the increasingly suburban community of Gilbert, Arizona. Each GHOA member manages a few acres and anywhere from one to four horses; among us are a retired engineer, two retired teachers and professionals from all walks of life, including real estate, finance, nursing and insurance. Many of us have returned to horses after decades away from them, and we predominantly ride Western, although a few of us ride English as well.
We come from different backgrounds, but on any given day we are pretty much the same: We set out feed for our horses, clean up after them and manage our properties and time as best we can. If ever there was a group of horse owners who could advise on the subject of tools, this was it. So as we threaded our way along the San Tantrail, and later, when we stopped in at one of our favorite eating haunts (San Tan Flat Saloon and Grill in Queen Creek) before heading home to chores and families, we talked about the tools and tasks we do as horse keepers. Here is the resulting list of items we think every horse keeper should keep on hand.
1. MANURE OR MUCK FORK
Average cost: $20 to $40 for standard models, depending on model and features; motorized forks can costup to $200.
Shopping tip: Choose the sturdiest model you can afford because you may end up using your muck fork for many tasks.
According to my impromptu survey, the manure fork is the most useful tool you’ll own. Everyone agreed that skimping on this purchase will cost you in the long run, so buy the best you can afford. I’ve owned one very sturdy manure fork for six years now. I coughed up 30 bucks for it, but it has paid for itself many times over. Not only can I scoop up manure, but I can use the muck fork to pick up large debris when the dust pan isn’t handy. I can also turn over the fork and use the tines to rake up the occasional stray leaf or hay strand. Look for a manure fork made of durable plastic. There have been times I even used my muck fork as a shovel, and it’s none the worse for it. I tried doing the same with a cheaper muck fork and ended up snapping off a few of the tines.
Another option is a motorized “shaking” manure fork that helps sift out droppings to save on bedding. And if you need to move large amounts of manure, one of the newer basket-style forks might be a worthwhile investment. In any case, be sure to spend your money on a sturdy, lightweight manure fork. You won’t regret it. Trust us.
2. STRAW BROOM
Average cost: $5 to $10
Shopping tip: If you pay a few extra dollars, you will get a broom with five threads holding the straw together, rather than three.
Everyone in our group agreed that a stable broom with bristles made from cornhusks or straw works best for barn cleaning. These brooms are only a few dollars, and they’re strong enough to sweep up stray remnants of hay that seem to find their way all over the place. Push brooms will cover more ground, but I like upright brooms for getting into nooks and crannies. And, when your broom wears out, as it inevitably will, use it to catch spider webs in all those hard-to-reach places.
3. MOVING DOLLY
Average cost: $30 to $230
Shopping tip: A simple but sturdy dolly can be had for $50, but for $230 or more you can purchase a model that can be converted into an incline truck or a four-wheel platform mover.
Another tool I couldn’t do without is my trusty moving dolly, which has hauled all manner of feed, hay and, of course, the neverending supply of manure. I can easily load mine up with a bag or two of feed or strap my 32-gallon garbage can to it (with baling twine) and roll it around to pick up manure. I can scoot it in front of me or behind, and it can cart a bale of hay without pulling my arms out of their sockets. It’s especially forgiving of my sore arm, which occasionally gives me trouble, because I can push or pull it with my one good arm. Mine is a two-wheeler, but you can get moving dollies that convert from a two-wheel upright to a four-wheel platform.
4. STRONG, METAL RAKE
Average cost: $15 to $45
Shopping tip: Rakes with wooden handles tend to be less expensive than those made entirely of metal.
You’ll find all kinds of uses for a sturdy metal rake, such as gathering up uneaten hay or leveling ground where mud has hardened into ruts. It’s also a great tool for raking out or distributing sand in the round pen, according to one GHOA rider. We suggest getting one of the saw-toothed varieties that is several feet wide; these models can break up and grade just about anything. This was the first thing I grabbed when I needed to scrape wet, heavy bedding out of a stall that had been over run with water after I accidentally left the hose to the trough running. Think you’ll never have a similar emergency? It’ll happen. And when it does, you’ll be glad you have one of these handy. We suggest you invest in a strong metal rake instead of a plastic one, which might not hold up to the tasks you’ll ask of it.
5. PORTABLE WATER PUMP
Average cost: $40 to $250
Shopping tip: Generally you’ll pay more for models with more powerful engines that can move water faster.
Whether it’s dealing with minor flooding after a rainstorm or emptying a water trough for cleaning, a portable water pump can be a major time and labor saver. One GHOA rider says she can’t imagine maintaining her backyard jumps and dressage arena without hers. In fact, she has two small, submersible pumps that she uses regularly, which says a lot for the usefulness of this tool. I don’t have a water pump, although getting one crossed my mind more than once during my recent stall flooding fiasco.
6. SMALL CHAINSAW AND/OR POLE TRIMMER
Average cost: $100 to $400, depending on size and features
Shopping tip: If you’ll be trimming branches from tall trees, consider a model with an extension that will allow an extra three feet of reach.
Most of the GHOA horse keepers I know use small chain saws to fell small trees or cut away damaged branches. Some of us have manual handsaws too, but we rarely use them. Why spend hours laboring over tree limbs when you can buzz through them in a matter of minutes? You can get a fairly easy-to-use and lightweight chain saw in the 30 cc to 45 cc engine capacity range, either gas-powered or electric, that can cut most of the treelimbs on any given property. I have a gas-powered engine that attaches to a small chain saw as well as a few other tool attachments used for different purposes. For motor-challenged types like me and my friends, having one power engine for multiple attachments makes good sense because there’s only one engine to get to know and maintain. For smaller branches, I also have a manual tree trimmer that has both clippers and a saw mounted on an adjustable 12-foot pole. It’s long enough and lightweight enough (aluminum) to get to out-of reach branches and, like most pole pruners, has a rope that you tug on as a pulley to the clippers for cutting small branches from the ground.
Average cost: $20 to $60
Shopping tip: Generally, the more you pay, the more tines your pitchfork will have. A $60 pitchfork will likely have 10 steel tines.
You’ll need one of these for picking up and moving hay around. A pitchfork also comes in handy when you’re putting down straw bedding, plus it can lift out moist bedding much more easily than a shovel can.
8. WHEELBARROW, MUCK OR UTILITY CART OR WAGON
Average cost: $85 to $230
Shopping tip: More expensive models will usually be larger or made from sturdier plastic materials.
You won’t get too far on a horse farm without one of these. You’ll definitely need a strong set of wheels to move hay, manure and other materials from one place to another. Choices vary and come in all shapes and sizes and product descriptions for hauling and dumping, and you may need to get more than one to up the convenience factor.
Whether it’s a wheelbarrow, wagon or a muck cart, make sure it has a plastic bed or tub that won’t corrode from manure and urine and is easy to spray down after use. Also, we suggest you invest in muck tubs that you get from the horse supply store rather than the hardware store because they’ll hold up to the weight of horse manure better. Many of the ones sold in hardware stores are designed for yard waste, and the handles break off too easily in our experience.
THE HORSEKEEPER'S TOOLBBOX
Every horsekeeper needs a toolbox full of useful implements to use around the property. Whether you keep it in a utility cart on wheels or a small fishing tackle box, you’ll want your toolbox to include the following basics:
• Flashlight for checking on fencing or for late-night herd breakouts or other emergencies. Be sure to get a heavy duty flashlight that will work in all kinds of weather, when you’re most likely to need it.
• Fence tester, if you have electric fencing. You’ll want one of these to test whether your electric fence is hot, rather than finding out the painful way.
• Needle-nose pliers. These are great for holding or bending wire or for retrieving small screws from tight spaces.
• Wire cutters. I have a pair of blue handled wire cutters that if I ever lost, I’d have to replace immediately. Don’t ask me the brand. I just know that they were expensive and could cut through diamonds if need be.
• Hay hook. This is one tool you’ll need if you want to preserve any kind of dignity while schlepping around bales of hay. Make sure, though, that it has enough of a grip to it so it doesn’t slip out at the most inopportune time and send you falling backward.
• Pocketknife or utility knife. Get a Swiss Army knife or an all-in-one utility tool that you can use to slice through feed bags, cut twine and easily grab on those rare occasions when you have an urgent need to file, tweeze or open something.
• Hammer. Get an industrial hammer. You’ll use it to tamp down, pry open and pound on all sorts of things.
• Leather gloves. Leave your garden gloves with the potted plants and get a nice pair of leather gloves for the barn instead. You’ll use them to do any number of hands-on chores involving grease, grime and who-knows what-else.
• Adjustable Crescent® wrench, for getting a grip on things that won’t budge, like those hard-to-loosen bolts hidden behind the automatic waterer.
• Two screwdrivers, one standard flat head and a Phillips, for tightening or loosening just about any screw you’ll find around your property.
Average cost: $10 to $35
Shopping tip: More expensive shovels feature steel reinforcement along the socket and collar, which helps them hold up even when used in rocky soil.
If you’re going to keep horses, you’re going to be doing the occasional shoveling, whether it’s mud, gravel or some other material that needs to be moved. Do yourself a favor. Get a good aluminum shovel or an equally lightweight one that won’t add more weight to the task.
These nine tools are just a few of the many my friends and I have collected as we try to balance saddle time against chores and the other demands of work and family. Sometimes, though, there just isn’t enough time in the day to ride and do chores. Fortunately, the chores will still be there when you return.