You might be surprised at how often I question my own common sense when it comes to owning horses. We have five now, and that puts both Cowboy Dad and me in a sort of panic to justify the expense and trouble that we go to in order to keep them. I think many of my readers believe that I live on a massive expanse of Western range, complete with howling coyotes and grazing cattle, where I train horses all day, bake my family a luscious dinner in my country kitchen, and ride off into the sunset with the love of my life. Well, I hate to ruin that impression, but to tell it a little more accurately….
We rent a house in a small town in a rural area of Iowa. My husband grew up here and his family all live nearby. His grandparents’ farm is where we keep our horses, about a mile out of town. Our cattle live at the farm through the winter, living on hay and cornstalks, and their calves are born in early spring, then we usually send them out to Nebraska for the summer on leased grazing land. Where we live, every spare inch of ground is plowed up for growing corn or soybeans, and rowcrop farming has edged out most of the cattle business. The only pasture you can find here is in the very hilly or tree-lined parts of the country. So our horses live in a small fenced area that has a creek running through it, because the land there isn’t suitable for farming or any other purpose.
I grew up on a cattle ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska, but the home place was sold when I was just out of college, and my parents moved to a hay ranch in Idaho, where they raise cattle, dairy-quality alfalfa hay, registered Quarter Horses, and mules. Most of my six horse-crazy siblings have grown up, moved away, married and had kids, and let their enthusiasm for horses dwindle. We still get together at holidays and ride horses at Dad and Mom’s, but only two of us kids who have left home still have horses in our life. And some days I wonder if the others are the smart ones.
These thoughts seem to plague me worse in the winter time. It’s cold here, a mere 38 degrees when I went out to feed, and we had a full day of rain yesterday. So this morning meant slogging through the mud with the wind whipping our hard-earned hay from my pitchfork, throwing it back in my face as I tried to toss it into the horses feeders. One of my horses is giving the new mare a hard time, so she was trapped inside the run-in shed with the other standing guard and not letting her out to eat, so I had to intercede for her. We just had a hydrant put in out at the farm, and the freshly-dug trench was sticky with wet clay, so my feet instantly picked up two inches of goo that wouldn’t rub off. And it all just stacks up to show that the reality of this cowgirl life is a far cry from the Wrangler ad photograph in my horse magazines, where a pretty girl and her horse gallop freely along a grassy hill with a blue mountain range behind them.
However, in the light of Thanksgiving being just around the corner, I have to count my blessings in spite of my grumbling. For the last six years we have hauled water in a poly tank in the back of our pickup out to the farm for our livestock, and just this week they put a well pump and hydrant in. It is amazing how you take things like water for granted….just lifting the handle on the hydrant is such a convenience, and it’s so reassuring to know that water is there when you need it. In the winter, we had to keep a hose in our basement to run the water upstairs and out to our pickup to fill the water tank and then haul it out to the farm. Often while filling it, the valve to the tank would freeze shut, so you had to take along warm water to thaw it when you got to the farm so you could fill the livestock tank there. I am so thankful that those days are over!
Another blessing is that we don’t have to pay anything to keep our horses at the farm. Since they’re in a spot that has little or no use anyway, they don’t cost us anything, and during summer they can drink and cool off in the creek water. If we had to board our horses, we wouldn’t be able to own any, it would just cost too much. So it’s great to have a spot to keep them that is out of town and out of the way, with no further drain on our income.
We also have had a great year for hay, and have had several bales given to us. We took a couple afternoons during harvest to go through the cornfields owned by my husband’s family, finding spilled corn in big enough piles to shovel and collect by the bucketful. So the horses have cost next to nothing in feed over the last three months, as it has all been free feed that would otherwise have gone to waste.
We have had some wonderful rides this fall, and it is so neat to watch our kids ride with confidence, their little black helmets bobbing in time to the mares’ footfalls, their lively chatter filling the air with a good feeling that this is what makes it worthwhile. And our new horses are doing so well, the colt is halter trained and gentle, and the mare is sweet under saddle, showing so much promise as an easygoing riding horse. When I think of these things, I’m not sorry at all that we bought them. I just need to be reminded sometimes.
I found a quote in a cookbook that my mom has written that inspired me to write this blog post. It says, “We should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting laundry.“ —E.S. White. I have found it to be true that even the muddy work is enjoyable when you’re motivated by a love for horses. And even the cold days aren’t so bad when you consider what your life would be like with no horse at all. Next time I question my own sanity, I will remember that the reason I have horses is because they bring me joy.