oldhorseman (oldhorseman) wrote,

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Low-Nonsense Doomsteading: Horses. (Part I.)


   This may seem strange, coming from the LATOC's Old Horseman, but horses may not figure into many preppers' plans.

   Our grandfathers switched from horses and mules to trucks and tractors for good reason.  Horses require considerable knowledge and skill not only to work well, but just to keep sound and healthy.  Unlike infernal combustion machines, which can be put into the garage and ignored, equines have to be fed and cared for three-hundred and sixty-five days per year, whether you're using them or not.  They need pastures and paddocks with well-maintained fences.  Properly constructed stables.  Hay, feed, hoofcare.  Etc., etc., etc...

   Fuel, replacement parts, and other things needed to keep tractors and automobiles going may someday become inaccessible, making horses the best solution for rural transportation and farm traction again.  But, if all you really need is a light motorcycle for errands, and a rototiller for the kitchen garden, you might be able to scrounge up a few gallons of gasoline and motor oil to keep them going for years to come, even in the face of shortages or rationing.

   On the other hand, if you need to transport people and cargo beyond what you can move with a cycle, or your doomstead operations require substantial pulling power, equines might make sense.  Riding horses are excellent for long-range reconnaissance, being quieter than motorcycles, better off-road than wheeled vehicles, and having a built-in GPS system.  (Horses are great at finding their way back to the feed trough, no matter how lost their riders get.)

   Whether you have a pressing, practical need for them or not, the opportunity to keep horses may be considered one of the benefits of doomsteading.  If you're living out in the boonies anyway, may as well take full advantage and experience the joys of horsemanship, if you are so-inclined.

   If you are one of the few 'steads in a 'neighborhood' with solid workhorses and equipment, you could find yourself in a position to provide valuable services to your community should the petroleum-fed equipment be silenced.  Hobbies sometime become lucrative occupations.

   Horses do require a substantial investment in treasure and/ or personal effort.  The more equestrian knowledge and skill you have, the less coin you'll need to spend.  Many books have been written on husbandry, training, horsemanship, and farriery.  (Some by myself.) So I'll try to keep it to an overview here...

Speaking the language...

    An intact male, adult (usually over four years old) horse is a stallion.  A juvenile male is a colt.  Stallions are sometimes called studs, especially if they are used for breeding.  Some folks, especially our cousins across the Big Pond, call a breeding farm or program a stud (shortened from stud farm or stud book).

   A castrated male horse is a gelding.  Most colts are gelded, as geldings are generally the preferred gender for riding and work horses.

   An adult female (usually over four years old) horse is a mare.  A juvenile female is a filly.  Mares are very rarely spayed, as the surgery is far more expensive and risky than gelding colts or spaying smaller animals.

   Very young horses of both genders are foals.  Pregnant mares are said to be in foal.  The birth process is called foaling.

   Horse height is usually measured in hands (four inch units) followed by remaining inches.  "15-3" means the horse is fifteen hands and three inches (63" total).  This measurement is made at the withers, the bony protrusion where the top of the neck meets the horse's back.

   A pony is a small horse.  Usually less than 14-2 hands, though breed and show organization standards vary.  A pony under 9-2 hands may be called a miniature horse.  Ponies and miniature horses are the same species as full-size horses.

   The donkey, also known as an ass or burro (especially smaller specimens), is a separate species in the same genus as the horse.  Donkeys tend to be smaller, slower, less athletic, smarter, surer of foot, more fuel-efficient, and tougher than horses.  The go-to beasts of burden in the Third World, they can be prone to some maladies due to easy living here in Cornucopia.  (Like founder from overeating.)

   A male donkey is a jack.  A female is a jenny.  Large donkeys are called "mammoth jacks" (over 14-2) and "mammoth jennies" (over 14 hands).  The largest are up to 17 hands.

   A mule is the result of a mare being bred to a jack.  Being a hybrid of two distinct species, they are almost always born sterile.  A male is a john, and is normally gelded, since he has no reproductive potential, and all the behavioral challenges of a stallion if left intact.  A female is a molly.  In extremely rare cases, mollies have been fertile, but it's a literal one-in-a-million fluke.

   A hinny is the result of a jenny being bred to a stallion.  Generally smaller and less strong than mules, and harder to successfully produce due to the genetic technicalities of having the female parent with the lower chromosome count, hinnies are somewhat rare.

Horse types....

   There are countless breeds and types of horses on the market today, each with their ardent fans.  Since the focus of this book is doomsteading, I'll be omitting horses bred for show, novelty gaits, and racing.  We're looking for animals who can get enough useful work done to justify their upkeep around a self-supporting farm.

Quarter Horse.

   The American Quarter Horse got its name for being bred for the equestrian version of drag racing; quarter-mile races from a standing start.  Their explosive acceleration and agility made the breed dominant in cutting, reining, rodeo, gymkhana, and similar competitions.  Handsome in form, calmly alert in disposition, muscular but compact in size, the Quarter Horse became the default ranch horse...  But the primary breed registry, the American Quarter Horse Association has a long history of tossing the breed standard out the window in favor of generating revenue for the organization, so there are horses of such broadly ranging types with AQHA papers now that registration is virtually meaningless.  There is little wonder that, in recent years, "quarter horse" has come to denote any generic riding horse between pony and draft size, including paints and appaloosas.

   Quarter horses are your basic American riding stock.  It's easy to find tack, equipment, and everything else to fit them.  Most are pretty durable and easy keepers.  And they can do a very wide assortment of things well in terms of riding styles and activities.

   Quarter horses can be trained to harness, and many do quite well.  But sudden acceleration and turn-on-a-dime agility are definitely not desirable between cart shafts or in a plow row, and the 'rear wheel drive' conformation of the quarter horse is not ideal for pulling.


   The old-school Morgan is like the quarter horse's even more blue-collar cousin.  Not quite as athletic, but strong, compact, rugged, and utilitarian.  Unfortunately, Saddlebreds (among the least practically useful horses for real work) have been a corrupting influence on the Morgan breed in recent decades, making the classic type Morgan harder to find.

   Traditional Morgans are the quintessential, jack-of-all-trades farmstead horses.  Being a little heavier on the forehand, they generally fall just shy of quarter horses for riding applications, but tend to be superior for harness work.  Their compact size makes them easier to manage and fit with tack than draft horses.


   Draft horses are the giants of the horse world.  Commonly a foot taller and a half-ton heavier than the typical quarter horse.  And they're even stronger than they look.  Because the draft breeds were developed with matching hitch teams in-mind, they tend to be very uniform in appearance.  (American Belgians are usually red with blonde manes, blaze faces.  Percherons are usually either black or grey with stars and minimal white leg markings.  Clydesdales and Shires usually have dark body coats with lots of white on the faces and limbs, long 'feather' hair on the legs.)

   Draft horses are bred to pull heavy stuff.  If one gigantic superhorse isn't enough to move something, they like to work in teams.  Draft horses are usually calm, even stoic. (But don't buy into the 'Gentle Giant' thing too much. They can spook like any horse.  Some know their own strength and get pushy.)  Most are fairly fuel efficient, needing no more feed than quarter horses, and only a bit more hay.  When it comes to pulling deep plows through tough ground, big combines, or freight wagons, draft horses rule.

   Draft horses can be ridden, and doing so has become quite popular lately.  But, honestly, they aren't very good for it.  They're slow, lumbering, and lack endurance.  Their height makes them difficult to mount.  Their size can be problematic all-around.  The horse world is geared for quarter horses.  Harness and tack for full-size draft horses often has to be special ordered.  They may not fit into horse trailers for transport.  They require double-doses of dewormers.  Draft shoeing is widely considered a specialty, and farriers competent to do it properly may be expensive and hard to find .

   In the Deep South, the square-cube law, which dictates that bigger horses have less skin surface per pound of body weight, hits draft horses hard.  (Darn you, Galileo!) They have considerable trouble coping with the heat and humidity of the Dixie Summer.  In my own experience, top-quality bred drafters have had a distinct inability to bounce-back from infections the gigantic Petri dish that is the southern environment can throw at them.  Perhaps due to inbreeding.  They don't seem to get sick more often than other horses, but they tend to die (despite massive veterinary intervention) when a quarter horse would have recovered.


   Once upon a time, some Belgian draft horses got so dirty that their people washed them with REALLY hot water, and they shrank somethin' fierce!

   Okay.  The Haflinger is an old and storied European breed.  But they do look rather like one-third scale Belgians.  Usually large pony to small quarter horse height, around fourteen hands.

   With their modest size, strong build, and tractable nature, Haflingers could fill a farmstead role similar to the classic Morgan.  They are about the least intimidating mounts for inexperienced riders due to their modest stature, sunny look, and friendly disposition.

   While they are strong enough to carry men, their size does make them more suitable for kids and ladies when it comes to working under saddle.


   The Standardbred was developed for harness track racing at the trot or pace.  Those that retire from or don't make it to racing careers are often picked-up by the Amish and other folks looking for good light driving horses.  They are similar in height to quarter horses, but a bit lankier.  Bred for function, they do tend to be a bit plain in form and coloring.  But that may be considered a plus from a doomsteading point of view.  They are generally less high-strung than their Thoroughbred cousins.

   When it comes to driving the buggy or buckboard into town, the Standardbred will get you there faster and easier than any other.  They are bred to trot or pace long distances, and most get basic driving training at an early age.  They are the size of an ordinary riding horse, and many serve well under saddle as well.

   Standardbreds are a bit light for heavy pulling and farm work.  (Cultivators, hay rakes, and the like should not be a problem for them.)  Under saddle, it may take some work to perfect a smooth transition to the canter, as Standardbreds are trained never to canter on the track.  Some Standardbreds are bred and trained to pace rather than trot.  This is fine for driving, but the pace is not a desirable gait under saddle.  Most can be trained out of it.

Draft Cross.

   "Draft cross" covers an awful lot of territory these days.  The ups and downs of the Premarin market have flooded America with assorted draft and part-draft mares and their offspring.  Essentially, big mares whose previous greatest value was the ability to make copious amounts of urine, and the results of them being bred to whatever stud was handy.  Not exactly a recipe for consistent quality.

   On the other hand, some breeders have crossed carefully selected light and draft horses to achieve an intermediate type, physically similar to European Warmbloods.  Our own program bred full-sized, fancy hitch type, pedigreed Belgian and Percheron mares to extremely sound and athletic American Quarter Horse stallions.

   The better draft cross horses are bigger and stronger than quarter horses, but have better speed, grace, endurance, and hot climate resiliency than full drafters.  The have the mass for fairly heavy pulling and farm work, but don't need to stop and blow too often when pulling the buggy down the road, even at a near Standardbred rate.  They fit well under a big man's saddle, yet you don't quite need a ladder to get onto them.

   While some 'rescue' part-draft horses are surprisingly good specimens, many more are about what you'd expect from such programs, or from breeding Premarin cast-off mares to Billy-Bob's backyard spotted rackin' hoss stud.  Big, intimidating horses originating from situations where training isn't a priority, 'rescued' by well-meaning but not horse-wise people, can be a menace.

   Most draft cross horses can use large or warmblood sized tack and trailers, and can be serviced by general practice farriers.  But some of the larger ones may require draft specialty equipment and services.


   Mules come in all sizes, from miniature to draft.  Their application is generally the same as the corresponding type of horse.  But they tend to be stronger for their size, surer of foot, more durable, and able to stay in good condition on less feed and hay.

   Since mules don't reproduce themselves, quality specimens of working size can be hard to find and sometimes expensive.  Mules also tend to be noticeably more intelligent than the average horse, which may not always be a good thing.   Pretty much all equines can physically overpower their human masters.  We don't need them outsmarting us as well!


   Most ponies today are the outgrown and forgotten playthings of children, who are lucky to find a place as pasture mascot or back yard pseudo-dog somewhere.  But that doesn't mean they can't be useful on a doomstead.

   Ponies tend to be proportionately stronger than horses, as well as tougher and more fuel-efficient.  Their small size makes them suitable mounts for children, less overwhelming for inexperienced handlers, and more maneuverable when working in tight spaces, like short crop rows.  Harness and carts are widely available in pony size, and the little guys can pull a considerable load.  Ponies seem to have an extended life expectancy, though this is hard to pin-down since many have been hanging-around in the background so long that nobody remembers exactly how old they are.  Reasonably healthy, young ponies are often very inexpensive, though training is usually required.

   Ponies have a reputation for bad attitude, though this may be due to being handled by ornery children, then abandoned and neglected.  Short legs don't make for speed or grace.  Size does matter, so they are limited when it comes to how much they can carry or pull.  They can be 'easy keepers' to a fault, becoming obese on just grass in some cases.  Founder is a very common problem with ponies.

------------------------------------ End Part One -------------------------------------

   This is going to be a long one, so I'll be posting it in sections.  Much more to come on doomsteeds.


Tags: doom, doomsteading, horse biz, horses, latoc, low-nonsense doomsteading, peak oil, social collapse

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