After we spent a few weeks at our new property near Pie Town, New Mexico, in October of last year, my husband Kenny and I came home to Texas filled with ideas and inspiration to make our dream ranch come true. We spent many a winter’s evening sifting through building plans and weighing the relative merits of what to build and where and in what order to build it.
As we would discover over the course of the next several months, keeping a flexible outlook was essential for both our sanity and making good decisions.
We’d planned to return in March to meet with local builders and move forward in hopes of spending the summer in the high country with our riding horses. We were delayed, however, and didn’t make the 800-mile journey back until May. We brought two of our endurance horses—Annakate and Jazz—with us, along with building plans crafted by Kenny using a program called
Upon our arrival, we were delighted to discover that our perimeter fence was complete, along with a main entrance double-gate and a secondary “cowboy” gate. A few days later, we saddled up the horses to ride the fence line. The four-strand twisted wire fence was strung tightly and expertly. Corner posts were rough-hewn wood, and T-posts were used for the long stretches. I made a mental note to pick up a couple hundred T-post caps on our next trip to town.
Annakate and Jazz seemed to enjoy the mountain views and fresh, cool air as much as we did. One of our main motivations for relocating from Texas to New Mexico is climate. Escaping the heat and humidity of southern Texas for the higher elevations and cooler air of New Mexico would, we hoped, reduce allergies and exposure to biting pests, especially ticks and mosquitoes. Every spring, many of our horses, including Annakate, would begin rubbing their heads, manes and tails as the temperatures climbed and the rains came. They also developed chronic scratches (pastern dermatitis) and hives.
Horses seem to adapt to changes in altitude more quickly than humans. I found myself huffing and puffing for the first several days of our spring visit. Also, the climate is arid, and the midday sun is surprisingly hot even when temperatures are cool. At 7,400 feet, UV rays burn right through clothing. Sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves would become standard gear.
Staking our claim
On a shopping trip to Show Low, Arizona, I procured 100 two-foot wooden stakes and four rolls of colorful surveyor’s tape, which would help us visualize where our projected buildings would stand on a long, fairly level ridge approximately in the middle of the property’s 55 acres. Some of the elements of our ranch plans included:
• a main house, including mud/pet washing room, greenhouse, offices and guest quarters
• interior fencing for small groups of horses and run-in sheds
• a horse barn, including insulated tack room, feed-prep room, wash rack and one or two backup stalls that could also be used for tacking up, cooling out and hoof trimming
• a metal hay storage building with ample space for parking a tractor and all-terrain vehicle.
Given the delicate nature of the native grama grasses in the area, we’ve decided to keep as much of the property as open and untrammeled as possible and limit free grazing to a few horses at a time. Long, narrow, hilly runs, with salt and water at one end and hay at the other, would encourage movement.
When we arrived in May, the grass was growing and there were occasional showers and even a few snowfalls, but the overall picture was one of dryness. Until monsoon season arrived in June and July, the land would have a parched look.
In hopes of spending much of the summer here, we considered several options. We could acquire a “tiny house” that could be pulled along on a trailer, easily moved or repurposed. Likewise, we could buy a used double-wide manufactured home or small modular home to live in while our main home is under construction, and eventually convert that home to a guest- or caretaker’s house. Or we could trade in our trailer with living quarters for a slightly roomier model that would enable us to live there more comfortably during the building process. Finally, our friend and neighbor Karl Phaler generously offered to let us stay in his guest quarters a short distance away from our property.
One of the biggest bugaboos of living in a rural area is internet connection. Kenny still works remotely full-time as a software engineer, and a reliable high-speed connection is critical. Although he is looking forward to retiring in November at age 66, it is likely he will continue in some capacity as a consultant. We were relieved when he was able to set up a mobile “hot spot” on the ridge of our new property and achieve an excellent connection. So he began “commuting” from the guesthouse to our truck and trailer on our property!
During our ride around the property’s fence line, we also noted that no elk had damaged the fence—the area was secure. We untacked the mares and released them to roam and graze. What happy horses! Seeing them enjoy this freedom made my heart soar. The next morning we found them peacefully lying down, in no hurry to get up. Eventually they came up for hay and mash and carrots. I was glad to see they still enjoyed our company!
In early May, our next goal was to lay out the ranch structures and driveways using the stakes and ribbons.
We tramped back and forth until we found the ideal house location (we love the view to the east of Alegres Mountain as well as Horse Mountain to the west). We staked out a 32- by 60-foot rectangle pending our trip to see manufactured homes. Walking further along the ridge, we staked out a 30- by 40-foot area for hay storage. We want to store enough round and square bales to last at least a month at a time, out of reach of elk herds, as well as provide a place to tuck away a tractor and an all-terrain vehicle (“mule”).
The horse barn was initially pegged at 40 by 50 feet. Here we envisioned a tack room, wash rack, tacking up area and hoof trimming area along with one or two emergency stalls. The horses, we’ve decided, will live outside in 50-foot wide enclosures with a long run down the hill. There will be small groups of horses per run, and we’ll use braided electric fencing as boundaries. (Our herd is thoroughly accustomed to electric fencing on our Texas ranch.)
We plan to construct 12-foot sheds at the top of downhill runs with convertible stalls for feeding time. Two runs will share a round bale and water trough. We will encourage the ponies to run up and down the hill by putting hay at the bottom and water and salt at the top. These will largely be “sacrifice” areas to preserve as much of the land as possible. We plan a four-foot walkway along the back side of the shed to deliver feed. The sheds will open to the south to enable good drainage and avoid the stronger east winds that can roar in winter. We staked out enough area for 12 horses (although eight would be ideal for this property). We’ll let a few ponies out onto the main pasture for a few hours at a time, especially when the grama grass is well established during monsoon season.
Along the way, we laid out a driveway with a turnaround. We also marked the spot for the last power pole and the location of the water-storage cisterns.
A change of heart
Then, we had a whirlwind week, with our plans changing as quickly as the winds and clouds. It began on a Sunday with “Breakfast in Datil,” a weekly local tradition at the town’s only restaurant, Eagle Guest Ranch. There we met Tom and Ruth, a retired couple who extolled the virtues of their Karsten manufactured home. After breakfast, we followed them to their place in the Wildwood community a few miles east of town. There we were treated to a tour of meticulously constructed and maintained buildings. Two days later, we headed north toward Albuquerque to check them out.
As we rounded the corner onto Karsten Lane, however, the first thing we saw was a stunning cabin with rustic Hardieplank (fiber cement) siding and a green metal roof, with lots of angles, tongue-in-groove cedar ceiling and large windows. We stopped, looked, and fell in love with the design and layout of this 1,800-square-foot Champion manufactured home. The thought of having an “instant” home was compelling: We could be on our property this summer! We drove home full of anticipation and excitement for our project.
One week later, we made the three-hour journey back to Albuquerque, prepared to purchase the rustic cabin. But when we arrived, we found the entrance gate closed and chained. Was it fate—or practicality—that propelled us down the road the few blocks to the Karsten lot? With time at a premium due to distance and Kenny’s work, we decided it couldn’t hurt to look, and I’d already checked out a few of the homes online that looked promising.
One in particular caught our eye—a model built four years ago that looked like new. As we walked inside, my emotions were swirling. As much as I loved the cabin, I knew in my heart this more economical option could work. Here were hardwood floors, a spacious kitchen layout, well-placed rooms, and it was already set up for a wood stove—our preferred heating source. The best part? It would cost a whopping $60,000 less than the pine cabin, funds that could be put to use to build horse facilities and even purchase additional acreage.
After some on-the-spot soul-searching, I realized this could be a workable solution. Perhaps in a few years, once we sell our ranch back in Texas, we can revisit the idea of building a home from the ground up using structurally insulated panels (SIPs). These panels are top-rated for insulation, especially when combined with a solar-heated slab. Kenny had designed a unique eight-sided home, but at a cost upward of $150 per square foot and months, perhaps years, to build, we came back to the manufactured home.
We bought the Karsten home that very day.
About a week earlier, we had finally connected with Pie Town-based builder Jay Carroll. Annakate and Jazz took turns searching Jay for carrots as we discussed topics such as septic placement, concrete slabs, water lines and solar vs. electric.
As far as whether we would need one or two septic fields, Jay said, “Let’s see how it lays out.” In fact, his general approach to building was to remind us, “It’s a process,” take our time and “think it through” before breaking ground. He’s seen it happen more times than he cares to remember—folks getting in a hurry and then regretting their site-planning decisions.
For example, how far from the house would we want the horse barn and how far from the horse barn would the hay barn be? Not too far, for convenience in winter and wind, but not so close as to feel crowded, hamper access or become a fire risk.
Should we go “off the grid” and all solar? We shuddered at the sticker price of such a venture—Carroll estimated a cost of $40,000 to $50,000 to set up solar to fuel the entire facility. Running electric would involve more power poles as well as underground lines at a cost of about $15,000.
Laying a concrete slab and footers for either hay storage or horse barn would also be expensive—Carroll estimated $20,000 for a 30- by 40-foot structure. The nearest concrete company was 80 miles away, driving costs higher. (See “Cost Considerations,” at left.)
The line from the well to the ridge would need to be at least 1,200 feet long and three feet deep. Such a trench would need to be dug with a backhoe because of the rocks.
These initial estimates were daunting, so we began rethinking some of our plans. We may only be in Pie Town for the summer this year, so we may be able to hold off on building our horse barn. A small tacking-up shed might be all we need to stay out of the wind. As far as hay storage, the main goal is to keep the forage out of reach of the elk. It’s possible a portable building, or even a roof and good tarp, could do the job. The neighborhood elk don’t seem pushy with plenty of open pastures available throughout the neighborhood along with access to a large stock tank nearby.
To better visualize our final site plan, Kenny ventured out with a chain saw to selectively trim lower branches from the trees to enable us to see more of the landscape. First he widened the path that would become the main driveway, then set to cleaning up the area near the house. Our aim was to take out minimal trees, other than those needed to site the home and for fire remediation.
We’ve certainly learned that flexibility is a virtue when building a ranch from scratch!
Creating a horse ranch from bare land 80 miles from resources is not for the faint of heart. Costs are not trivial, and a great deal of coordination is required to ensure proper placement of utilities and procurement of permits. What’s more, the timeline is longer than you might think, even for a ready-to-go manufactured home. Kenny is seriously considering taking on the job of general contractor and builder for our horse facilities. As a mechanical engineer, he knows well the savings that can be realized by keeping labor in-house. This is an area we’ll need to consider very carefully.
As our research of costs, materials and various building options progressed, one thing became clear: We needed a tractor! After scouring Craigslist for used models, and considering resurrecting our ancient backhoe in Texas, I persuaded my husband to look at new tractors. At LR Sales in Albuquerque, we found a versatile 40 horsepower Mahindra with backhoe, front-end loader and multiple attachments—hay spears, auger, post-hole digger and Gannon for grading. We brought it all home on a flatbed trailer, and Kenny got right to work grading the entrance to the ranch as well as the building site, knocking out dead trees and scooping up rocks so our home could be delivered in two weeks.
Meanwhile, our two mountain mares have been thoroughly enjoying their freedom, grazing and trotting up and down hill and dale, and coming up twice a day for soaked mash, treats and hay. They are lean and fit and content while remaining alert and vigilant, often gazing off into the distance. What are they watching, we wonder? Vigilance is an important component of natural horsekeeping, advises author and barefoot trimming pioneer Jaime Jackson, so it’s been a revelation to see our horses truly engaging all of their senses.
Next: Some surprises behind the pretty mountain vistas.
This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #480)