Finding More Time for Fun

Working smarter on your horse ranch lets you squeeze in more time with your horse.
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Working smarter on your horse ranch lets you squeeze in more time with your horse.
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Your already-demanding schedule probably includes a job and caring for your family, but you still must find time to keep your horse's environment clean and safe, his body healthy and fit and his training fun and on track. How can you possibly get it all done? Well, sometimes you don't. You get stuck late at work, you bring home pizza, and that muck bucket doesn't get emptied until the next day. And even when you have time for basic upkeep, you may not have any time left over to relax with your horse, teach him a new lesson or improve your own abilities.

But help is on the way. There's a two-fold way to get your chores done and spend more quality time with your horse.

  • Find more efficient ways to handle your essential horsekeeping chores.
  • Find opportunities to incorporate quality time into your horsekeeping routine.

Of course, there are as many ways to achieve these goals as there are horses and horse owners, and you'll have to discover what works best for you. But if you gain efficiencies in your horsekeeping tasks, you'll create extra time that you can spend enjoying your horse. And if you find ways to work a little training and interaction into the mundane-but-necessary jobs, you can turn chore time into quality time. Here are a few suggestions and scenarios to get you started.

Think Like an Industrial Engineer
You probably have a number of tasks you could perform in your sleep. You've measured out grain a million times, tossed in hay at least that often, scrubbed bucket after bucket - and it's likely that once you fell into a habit, you didn't change it too much.

So here's a challenge: As you do those repetitive chores, analyze whether your approach is the best one. It may seem trivial, but if you find yourself walking back and forth a lot - from grain bin to feedbox and back again to feed multiple horses, for instance - you might want to refine your approach. Maybe a wheelbarrow carrying a sack of grain and a scoop could send you down the aisleway more efficiently.

Physical layout also plays a role. When it comes to barn chores, proximity is your friend. If you can bring the items you need closer to where you use them, you'll be able to grab them quickly and consistently put them back where they belong when you're finished. This includes everything from hay to grooming supplies to a hose hookup.

You don't need to go overboard. We're not suggesting you count your steps or time your actions with a stopwatch. But once you start paying attention to how you approach each job, you'll be amazed at how many small adjustments will jump out at you. You'll find yourself asking things like, "Why have I been walking back and forth into the tack room when I could wheel a saddle rack into the barn aisle?"

Marta is Typical
Marta has manure management woes. Her horses live in a three-acre pasture but have free access to a large stall. Not only does she have to scramble to keep the stall clean (the horses spend summer days there escaping flies and winter nights there escaping the cold), she has to keep the area leading into it manure-free because poor drainage will turn it into a squishy mess if she doesn't.

Her routine has been to shovel out the stall and pick the surrounding area twice a day, using a wheeled muck bucket that requires at least two trips to her compost pile - which is closer to her garden than to her barn. The muck bucket gets mired in ruts on a daily basis, too. Marta could save a lot of time and aggravation if she consolidated her trips or found a new disposal method:

  • Marta might graduate from muck buckets to a heavy-duty wheelbarrow that is a match for the mud and ruts she encounters. That could cut her two or more trips to one a day.
  • She might consider investing in a small wagon that she could attach to the back of her riding mower. This would allow her to gradually accumulate a load of manure over a period of several days before driving her wagon to the compost area.
  • She could relocate her compost area so that it's closer to the barn.
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Team Coordination
Josh and Hannah's example shows how two people can actually make for more work without a plan.

These two have a sort of tag-team approach to caring for their four horses, and who does what depends on their work schedules. Usually Hannah feeds in the mornings - but not always. Sometimes Josh feeds both mornings and evenings. The result is a little chaotic: halters and buckets and hoof picks go missing, confusion over supplements sometimes occurs, and at least once, the horses didn't get fed because Josh thought Hannah had taken care of it.

This is a situation where some established routines could really pay off:

  • For starters, they could place a dry-erase calendar or white board in the barn. They could then chart their schedule, add special instructions and leave notes for each other as appropriate.
  • Josh and Hannah could organize their tools and supplies and create clearly labeled or mutually agreed upon locations for all the items that tend to wander off. The hoof pick might still wind up in the back pocket of someone's jeans, but an organizational scheme would be a positive step toward keeping everything accounted for and easier to locate.
  • Because two people are involved, they should sit down and create a checklist that they can both follow to ensure that nothing gets overlooked and that tasks are handled with some consistency. Josh is diligent about scrubbing out and filling water buckets, but doesn't always do a visual check to make sure nothing is amiss when the horses come in from the pasture. Checklist items for observing each horse's condition might help him turn that task into second nature. Hannah occasionally forgets to hang up blankets in the winter and put flymasks on in the summer, so a quick review of the checklist could help her stay on track with those chores.

Trainer's Tip: Good Manners Make Everything Run More Smoothly

Teaching your horse to respond to your requests on the ground pays off in countless ways. It improves your partnership and communications with your horse; it helps him develop habits of calmness and cooperation; and it makes handling him safer and more pleasant for everyone concerned. But there's another bonus: A well-mannered horse saves you time.

If your horse won't let you catch him, hasn't learn give-to-pressure and can't tie safely, fidgets and paws when you work with him, turns trailer-loading into a morning-long endeavor and won't allow vets and farriers to do their jobs, you're going to be facing an awful lot of delays. By contrast, a horse who catches, leads, ties, stands patiently, loads quietly and generally works with you instead of against you is going to make every aspect of horse care go much more quickly.

Keep Up Instead of Catch Up
If you've ever had to let a few things slide, you probably discovered that keeping up is a whole lot easier than catching up. When you fall behind, there's just more to do. But the catch-up game has a more subtle downside as well: With some jobs, the longer they're left undone, the more labor-intensive they become. Here's just a sampling:

  • Cleaning: Left unchecked, those spider webs turn into spider condos, spider cities and eventually spider empires. That thin layer of dust takes on a life of its own, getting over, under and inside your tools, tack and supplies. Before long, it develops an adhesive quality that requires scrubbing rather than dusting. Wiping down your saddle and rinsing your bit after a ride takes seconds; removing encrusted mud and dried grass may require a chisel.
  • Groundskeeping: During growing season, grass can get out of hand seemingly overnight, and that manageable fencerow can suddenly turn into a jungle. The job of getting it back under control will take far more time and effort than simply keeping it in check. Weeds can sneak into your pasture, too. Ignore them too long and the next thing you know they've gone to seed. Snow offers its own challenges. If you can keep your pathways relatively clear and get rid of it before it turns to ice, life will be far easier.
  • Maintenance: Nails pop, boards sag, hinges and latches become uncooperative. Keeping your facilities in good repair not only promotes a safer environment for your horse, it also heads off problems that compound when little things start accumulating. For instance, that patch of loose shingles could be repaired quickly, but left unattended, it turns into a small roof leak, which in turn starts rotting boards and generating mold. Eventually, it becomes a serious leak that dampens your tools and tack and requires you to move your hay to avoid spoilage.
  • Develop a routine: Do you remember the last time you had to learn the ins and outs of a new job? At first, it probably seemed awkward and time-consuming because you had to stop and think about each step. But once you grew familiar with the process and developed your own system for getting things done, you were able to fly through tasks that had initially taken all day. The same phenomenon occurs with horse care - and you can make your work go even faster by consciously developing efficient routines to follow.

"Creating" an Extra Hour or Two Each Week

You may be pretty well organized, with a to-do list that reminds you of what has to be done and in what order. But you still find yourself having to postpone chores (or worse yet, forgoing the fun stuff) because you simply run out of time. Here are some general tactics that may help you create a little extra time.

Break large tasks into smaller pieces - Big jobs can be daunting, since you know they'll take a significant chunk of time. You may be looking at your busy week and thinking, "How will I ever get that fallen tree off the fence and make repairs so I can use that field for turnout?" But if you can work on those projects incrementally - completing the first step (sawing up the fallen tree) in one session, tackling the next step (shoring up damaged fence posts) when you can, and maybe finishing the job (replacing broken boards) over the weekend - you will get it , and often much sooner than if you waited for the opportunity to do the entire job in one sitting.

Break even medium tasks into smaller pieces - Some chores aren't overwhelming, but they can still take longer than you have at a given moment. You may also run the risk of starting them and getting so caught up, you forget about the other five things you needed to do before fixing supper. These chores are good candidates for subtasking. Let's say you need to clean several shelves that hold miscellaneous tools and first aid supplies. You can break the project into steps you perform while you're waiting for something (your horse is finishing his grain, the farrier is coming in 20 minutes, rain is pouring down and keeping you from heading back to the house). Your first step might be to get a basket and put the top-shelf items in it. When you have another few minutes, you can clean the shelf itself. Then at your next opportunity, you can wipe off each item and return it to the shelf. If you follow that plan with the rest of the shelves, you can perform a 45-minute job five minutes at a time.

Double up tasks - You probably multitask already, but it's worth mentioning here because there are always new ways to put it to good use. While you wait for the stock tank to fill, you can muck out a couple of stalls and pick your horse's feet. While your horse works on his hay, you can measure out his grain and do some pre-ride stretching exercises. While you wait for the vet to arrive, you can put away stray grooming tools and tack and rake the barn aisle.

Turn Your Chore Time into Quality Time
Sometimes it's all you can do to get your horse fed, turned out, watered, brought back in, groomed and safely tucked into a clean stall. But if you can turn some of those tasks into training and bonding opportunities, you'll be able to combine practical necessity with fun, teaching and relationship-building.

For example, your horse may come running in from the pasture at breakfast time, which is certainly a timesaver for you. But suppose you take an extra five or 10 minutes to walk out and halter him, leading him once around the pasture before bringing him in. This gives you the chance to:

  • Reinforce (or establish) the practice of catching and haltering your horse.
  • Inspect the fencing or look for holes and other potential hazards as you walk to the barn
  • Help your horse practice his leading manners
  • Work on a few ground cues and maybe ask your horse to stand quietly despite the lure of breakfast
  • Develop your horse's ability to pay attention to you and walk calmly to the barn when he really wants to gallop back as fast as he can

Or consider the routine task of grooming your horse. Sure, you can buzz through the basics, removing mud and burrs and quickly picking your horse's feet. If that's all you have time for, your horse still benefits.

But contrast that lick-and-a-promise approach with a quiet, relaxed grooming session that's as soothing as a massage, relieves a dozen annoying itches, allows you to thoroughly examine every inch of your horse for things like ticks, bots and scrapes, and shows your horse that hanging out with you can be downright pleasant and undemanding: Bonding at its finest! (For details on how to get the most out of a grooming experience like this, see "10 Tips for Mannerly Grooming," February 2004.)

It's unlikely that you'll have time to turn every task into a training or relationship-building opportunity. But you'll be surprised at how many tiny lessons and enjoyable moments you can incorporate into your routine.

And there's one more significant benefit to this approach: Taking a small, positive step whenever possible shows your horse what you do want him to do - which is far better than allowing him to take the initiative and develop his own habits that may turn into something you don't want him to do. Does he crowd you in the stall when you're trying to clean it? If you can take the time to teach him to do something else instead, you'll have given him a better direction and possibly headed off unwanted behaviors down the road.

Keep Weather Changes in Mind
What works around the barn during one season may not work in another. Those of us who live with severe winters have even more time challenges. But we can't hide in the heated house when our horses depend on us for care. A little advance planning, however, can keep winter chores manageable.

Sally's example provides a few tips.

Sally doesn't have too much trouble knocking out her barn chores during warm weather, but when the temperature drops, watering her horses becomes nearly unmanageable. She has a 90-gallon stock tank at the edge of the pasture for her two horses, and filling it is a matter of dragging 50 feet of hose from faucet to fence.

The problems are the usual cold-weather ones: Although she drains the hose after each use, it can still become brittle and uncooperative when it freezes. And if even a little water is left undrained, it can turn into an impenetrable ice plug. Water freezes in the stock tank too, and she finds herself out there on many wintry mornings with a sledgehammer trying to bust out an opening that will allow access to the water beneath the ice.

She's been putting up with this for several years, but there's hardly any time left over for anything else once she finishes responding to the challenge of watering her horses. Here are a few possible solutions for Sally to try:

  • To keep the hose functional and unfrozen, she could keep it on a hose reel and store it someplace above freezing. For instance, she might fill the tank, wind up the hose, detach it from the faucet and wheel the reel into her walk-in basement or mud room. Or she could leave a lamp on in the tack room. A simple 60-watt bulb might warm that enclosed area enough to keep the hose manageable. It should be a spot that can tolerate a residual drip or two, though. Whenever she needs it - regardless of the temperature outside - it will be pliable and free of ice blocks.
  • To make it easier to handle the hose, she could use quick-attach units (inexpensive and readily available) to simplify hooking/unhooking from the faucet, adding hose sections for more reach and disassembling sections for faster drainage. Some quick-attach units include a water-stop feature, which will stop the flow of water when the hose is disconnected. It's also handy to attach a shutoff valve to the end of the hose so that water can be turned on and off without walking back to the faucet.
  • To deal with the problem of the frozen stock tank, she should, at a minimum, try to place it so that it gets the most sunlight possible. Beyond that, of course, the best approach would be to use a tank heater. And perhaps the most trouble-free solution would be a de-icer that attaches to the drain plug, since that eliminates the possibility of her horses turning a floating device into a Frisbee.

Yes, finding time can seem an almost impossible task. But if you examine your routines to find more efficient ways to do things, stay ahead of the chores that become worse over time, use tasks as training exercises and plan around bad weather, you'll be amazed at the extra time that will emerge. And you can use that extra time to do what you really want to with your horse.