Ode to the Stalls
by Kim Sanford
How under-appreciated is the task of cleaning stalls? I wonder how many people find that along with the maintenance of their horses living areas they get a mental health workout…I know I do, every time. While psycho-therapy is a valuable tool I think that spending time alone in the barn can sometimes be just as good. The majority of my emotional/mental healing has occurred at the business end of a pitchfork.
Interestingly enough horses produce about eight piles of “poo” a day which is about 50 lbs. each day and about 3/4 of the total weight of that manure is water! This means one horse will create about nine tons of manure per year. Multiply that number times how many horses you care for and wowser…it’ll blow YOUR mind never mind that of your non-horsey friends. Thus giving me plenty of time to solve my issues and theoretically the world’s as well.
First and foremost what you find or don’t find in your horse’s stall can be a great indicator of their health and well-being. You can also get an idea of their condition by noticing what state the stall is in. Often when something is a little bit different it will trigger a “red flag” and you will begin to look for other signs that something could be amiss. Paying attention to the daily habits of your animals will ALWAYS give you a jump on any issues that may be cropping up.
What is it about horse manure? I do not find it offensive at all. Is it because I love horses that my tolerance for it is high? I love kitties and dogs but whew, their excrement is never anything I would have a preference for inhaling but not so with horse. I love the barn smell, I really do. OK, I recognize that not everyone does so I DO make an effort when feasible to be showered and fresh smelling when going to town but sometimes I have been known to go in my barn clothes and not even notice if there is a plume around me.
Manure can tell us so much about our horses can’t it? A simple fecal test will let you know if your deworming program is effective. If it is harder than normal s/he may not be drinking enough. If there is a significant amount of grain in it then your horse may have issues with its teeth and you should call an equine dentist or the vet. Of course it goes without saying that if you see parasites in the manure that needs to be addressed ASAP because your horse is overloaded with worms. Particularly foul smelling manure could be caused by a rapid change in diet, too much fat or protein in the diet, among other things. Any change in its consistency makes us pay closer attention.
Cleaning stalls…what is considered a “necessary evil” in basic horse care and one I moan about having to do from time-to-time have more often than not become a source of much needed therapy throughout my life. So many times it seems like a thankless task…mundane, one that is never really done because it seems as soon as you get them finished, you have to do it all over again. It is a daily job if you bring your horses inside (sometimes 2x a day depending on your situation) for any length of time, in all kinds of weather and temperature variations, 365 days a year. Although maybe “thankless” is not the best description because seeing our horses contented in clean stalls really is immensely satisfying no matter what the day has brought. Many years ago we had a thoroughbred stallion that showed us his “appreciation” every time his stall was freshly bedded. We called it Nominee’s clean sheets routine. He would come in from turn out and immediately drop in the middle of the stall and roll several times in celebration of his “clean sheets” even when feed was waiting in his bucket for him. He did this without fail and it always made us laugh. I like to think it was his way of saying thanks.
The chore is not quite so tedious if you have a horse that is neat and tidy in his/her elimination habits, and boy, you are blessed you if you do. However, if you have one who makes it their mission to grind it into the bedding, defecates willy-nilly wherever the mood strikes (often in the feed or water buckets), or the one with the teeny tiny nuggets that more often than not slip through the tines of your fork, the stall cleaning chore becomes much more of a pain. While chasing those nuggets of poop around the stall, trying to separate them from the good bedding because I am trying to save as much as possible (within reason because I only have so much time I can spend on this task) I am often reflecting on something relatively important…at least it may seem so at that point in time. One thing I find interesting, at least in my case, is that the energy I spend bemoaning the fact I have to get out to the barn to do the stalls sometimes seems to be more than the energy spent actually doing them. I can talk myself into a poor attitude before I even get my boots on and head out the door. My daughter Jill once made an astute observation about the barn and its correlation to our mental health. She observed that even when we were at odds with each other, chores still had to be done and it was generally shared by us both from the time she could at least drag a hose from stall to stall…I think she might have been seven or eight when she acquired her own set of responsibilities in the barn. Anyway, her point was that no matter how angry/upset we were with each other (every mom and daughter can relate to this) by the time the horses were fed and tucked in, we were all good with each other probably 99% of the time, no exaggeration.
Back to the therapy provided by the horses and their stalls…I have analyzed my childhood, my poor decisions, the good decisions, and all kinds of relationship issues…personal, familial, friends, professional; pretty much everything life has to offer. I “talk” to God (aka praying) there too. I have also wrestled with my share of demons too, all the while sifting through the shavings. Self-awareness is something that is very important to me and I try very hard to be honest with myself. For me there is no hiding in the stalls. None and that is not a bad thing. I still have a long ways to go but I am a better person because of the opportunity I have had to care for the horses I have through the years…and through it all, I have never felt that I was “above” picking up that fork.
Frankly I believe that fork is one of the things that helped save my life...or more accurately, the horses who I needed the fork for, gave me something to hang onto when my life became dark. I needed a reason to go on and they were it. Even when doing the stalls became so physically demanding that it took me two hours to clean only six stalls, having to sit down for a minute between each stall never mind the trips to the manure pile, I kept doing it. Thank God. I am now in better shape physically than I was only a year and a half ago. I can clean the stalls, bed them, and set them up for the night in less than an hour…that includes the little extra things you do to keep the barn neat and tidy. Everything here is done by hand, no mechanization and while I would not say no to a UTV or something like it, it is a blessing (even when I have been immersed, literally, in manure after a tumble off the ramp into the depths of the manure pile) because I can still do it.
My dreams are often born there and some have died there too. I also compile lists of projects to stretch my creative muscles. I am full of so many ideas that are percolating waiting to come to fruition. Paintings, paper Mache’ figures and masks, as well as crafts based on glass and horseshoes are being planned. All these ideas are inspired by the horses. Oh and the memories, so many walks down memory lane have occurred while hunting the fecal nuggets. Remembering friendships that cover 37 years of working in numerous barns and on farms is one of my favorite stall cleaning pastimes. Some of my favorite memories are of the years when I was actively involved in 4H and when I was teaching riding, hauling to the local shows with a handful of kids and their parents. Some of whom have remained close friends even now, cherished and appreciated.
I have even earned a living, albeit a meager one, doing stalls over the years. In fact my equine “education” was not garnered in Equine Study programs that are now offered, but my “degree” came from hands on experience beginning in those stalls. I like to say that I graduated from the school of hard knocks with a master’s degree. I know what it is to pay your dues and work your way up. As earlier, I have never been “too good” to hunker down and clean the stalls, a job that too many young people wanting a job in the equine field feel is beneath them. Well, I have news for them, it isn’t and if that is their attitude I would have to say they may not be good enough to be a horseman.
Never forget, there is so much to be learned in the stalls…whether it is about your horse or about yourself, don’t miss out. I had the opportunity to visit NYC this past spring and talk with the carriage drivers there. I was struck by the connection they all had to their horses and it made me long for the magical feelings I had for the horses in my youth, something that I feel like I lost for a while. Well, in the barn working in those stalls for the comfort and well-being of our horses I get that feeling from time-to-time now. It is coming back, slowly but surely. I like myself better at 55 than I did at 30, thanks to the time I spend with the horses and myself in six box stalls every day. You all should try it if you haven’t.