Keeping Horses at Home

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Horses at Home

This article won the 2021 GMO Newsletter Award for a general interest article for GMOs with 75-174 members. It originally appeared in the St. Louis Area Dressage Society newsletter, Hoofprints, April 2021.

The USDF Group Member Organization (GMO) Newsletter Awards are designed to recognize outstanding efforts by GMOs that produce newsletters. Awards in two categories will be presented for exemplary articles. Nominations are due by August 31st. Only an official representative of a GMO may submit the nomination. For a nomination form follow this link.

By Taffy Ross

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of keeping horses at home. I’ve heard conflicting things about the practice. Some say there’s no greater pleasure than, say, gazing out your kitchen window and seeing your horses happily grazing. Others point to the amount of work involved, especially in winter, and claim that it’s hard to make time to get in a ride. I decided to track down some SLADS members who do keep horses at home and ask about their experiences. In this article, I’ll share the stories of Colleen Rull and Sarah Szachnieski.

Both Colleen and Sarah are lifelong equestriennes. Colleen recalls riding with her grandfather and mother as young girl, while Sarah’s infatuation began when she attended a girl scout camp with an ambitious riding program. Later both, as young women, enjoyed the perk of keeping horses on their mothers’ property. However, their journeys to having horses at home diverged, as Colleen and her husband Brian ended up buying and significantly renovating a horse property, while Sarah and her husband Jason bought acreage and created their horse haven from scratch. Both farms are named for the bodies of water that flow alongside the property.

I set out on a lovely Spring morning to visit Colleen at her Green River Farm in Pacific Colleen told me that she and Brian had always wanted a farm. For 8 years after their marriage they lived in Brian’s house in Wildwood, perched high above Hwy 109. Finally, they decided it was time to realize their dream and put the house on the market. While their home was listed for sale, Colleen and Brian found and attempted to buy two equestrian properties in Union, each sitting on around 5 acres. They lost both because the purchase was contingent on the sale of their Wildwood home. Nearing the end of their listing contract, in a serendipitous moment, a buyer materialized just as their listing agents, Upchurch Realty, told them about a 25-acre farm newly coming on the market.

Colleen and Brian became the 3rd owners of Green River Farm. They have worked long and hard to lovingly restore the property, which is now an utter paradise. They have done almost all the work themselves. Brian tells me that they relied on YouTube videos as well as counsel from Missouri Ag Extension. Colleen also kept a list of smart ideas from various boarding facilities over the years she wanted to incorporate in their farm. Examples include Porta Grazers in stalls, safer paddocks gates and infrared heaters to warm up and dry horses during cold weather riding. The pandemic proved a blessing in disguise, as working from home allowed Colleen and Brian to devote more after-work time and energy to their reclamation project.

Driving into Green River Farm, one passes a gorgeous 7 stall barn with enough room to store the horse trailer, a run-in shed on the left, a 5-acre lake dead ahead, and the farmhouse atop a rise to the right, with a quaint outbuilding at the foot of the hill. Colleen told me that the barn floor was totally hidden under a layer of congealed shavings. The floor was excavated, the stalls cleaned, all the wood newly stained, barn insulation and new wood paneling added along the side of the barn facing the outdoor lean-to. Stalls were equipped with new fans and window casings. The spacious office is furnished with comfortable leather furniture and decorated with framed montages of spectacular show ribbons. The room was so inviting I was tempted to ask permission to move in. The barn also houses a tack room, hay storage, and a hot-water heater, designed for camping, permanently affixed outside.

The 4 horses who inhabit this paradise – Colleen’s mare Selah, 7years old, Selah’s half-brother (same sire) Simon Sez, a newly started 3-year old, Colleen’s bronze medal horse Axel, now returned at age 23 for retirement, and Brian’s mule Ben – are out for about 12 hours each day, but stalled at night. Colleen can rotate the horses among a choice of pastures and dry lots, all fenced with thick braided electric fencing powered by solar chargers. The pastures are carefully planted with different blends of grass, including fescue-free plots should Colleen decide to breed Selah and one paddock planted with rye grass to ensure the horses stay svelte.

Putting in the drainage

Just beyond the barn is a regulation size outdoor arena. Colleen and Brian’s neighbor, who owns an asphalt company, brought in excavating equipment to level the surface. After researching many competing types of footing, Colleen settled on a pre- cycled textile and fiber additive from a newer company, Tru Tex. She drove the flatbed to Indianapolis to bring home the compacted bales that were spread over the arena and mixed with the sand. Unfortunately, some of the additive washed away in the first heavy rainstorm, necessitating a new French drain system and gravel berm to secure the perimeter where the arena abuts the pasture below. There are also 10 lateral drain pipes installed within the base layer to draw water away and prevent it from pooling. Colleen said that aside from our brief arctic freeze, she can count on one hand the number of days weather made outdoor rides untenable.

In addition to the barn, the paddocks, and the arena, Colleen and Brian have laid down a network of gravel paths that wind through the property and invite both foot traffic and rides in their motorized Side-by-Side. Here too, Colleen and Brian did everything themselves. There is a quarry a mere 8 miles from the farm, and they made repeated trips with their dump trailer to bring back the stone for the paths.

The retention lake and the land beyond are a further part of this paradise. Colleen utilizes a flat field next to the lake for weekly field work and hacks with the horses. A cluster of wooden beehives stands on the near side of the water. Brian plans to produce a line of honey, Benny’s Bees, named after his trusty mule. The lake itself is stocked with fish, and an automatic catfish feeder releases pellets once a day. Colleen said that in addition to the expected Canada Geese, they have a pair of cranes in residence. A small covered dock moors a zippy pontoon boat. One last wondrous aspect of Green River Farm: it lies in the flyway for monarch butterfly migration. Some of the acreage beyond the lake boasts milkweed to feed the butterflies, and Colleen reports that last Summer thousands of these beauties stopped by their farm to break up their travel.

My second visit took me to Sarah and Jason’s Belleau Bend Farm. They had searched for several years find the perfect property for their future farm. Initially unsure whether to look for what Sarah called a turnkey operation, i.e. a fully developed property, ready for horses and people to move in, or acreage they could shape as they desired, they finally settled on a 14 acre tract in unincorporated St. Charles County. Jason had noticed the For Sale sign being put in place as he dropped his daughter off for gymnastics. Their land is bordered by winding Belleau Creek. The use of an additional 8 acres gives them a total of 22 to farm. Their farm currently boasts two adjoining barns containing 5 stalls between them, dry lots, pasture, hay fields, an outdoor arena, and a spectacular custom-designed house.

Sarah doing chores

Sarah and Jason closed on the property in 2010. Gradually Belleau Bend Farm took shape. Since Jason is a licensed professional engineer and since Sarah has a degree in agriculture and works for the USDA as a Resource Conservationist, they didn’t have to rely so heavily on YouTube videos and Mo. Ag Extension pamphlets as did Colleen and Brian. Their first improvement was construction of a barn to facilitate storage of construction equipment as the rest of the property was developed. The barn was built around/ incorporated a number of 8 ½ x 16 foot cargo containers and was finished with reclaimed materials.

Their next project was to construct a house. Because Sarah’s daughter Emma is asthmatic and has endured many late- night visits to the emergency room, Sarah and Jason wanted to create an ideally hypoallergenic house. The architectural firm e+a (Vince Ebersoldt) provided the design for a colorful multi-level house with a metal clad roof with concrete floors throughout and artfully arrayed windows letting in the light and making the house feel closely connected to the surrounding natural world. Jason did much of the work himself and chose the stunning red and mustard color combination that is echoed in the interior of the barns. The main floor living space is open with a 10’ long stainless steel counter with paired farm sinks dividing the kitchen from the rest of the area. A wood stove in the corner at this level provides supplemental heat in winter. The HVAC system is run by laterally bored geothermal lines that run under the pasture field.

While the house was completed in 2012, horses did not come to the property until 2017. When work at Belleau Bend first began, three horses, Skip, Riley, and Tough, lived with Sarah’s mother, Shelley Brubaker, on her property in Foristell. With completion of the second barn in 2017, Skip, Riley, Tate & Nitro, moved to Bellau Bend. Riley was put down in the fall of 2019 at the ripe old age of 23. Tate moved to Indiana and Charlie, a young part-Haflinger orphan foal has since been adopted from Longmeadow Rescue Ranch to be Sarah’s future riding horse. So at present 28 year old Skip, 12 year old Nitro, and coming 3 year old Charlie are in residence.

The horses are managed to ensure they don’t spend too much time on rich Spring grass. Electro-braid fencing and no climb woven wire demarcates grass pastures as well as sacrifice lots. After their allotted time grazing, the horses are moved to dry lots adjoining the barns. Hay nets are affixed to the wall at intervals allowing them constant access to forage. While Sarah keeps stall doors open at all times, the horses have free choice of whether or not to enter. She reports that at times Charlie and Nitro or Charlie and Skip opt to share a stall! Perhaps this is more Charlie’s choice?

Sarah is not fond of winter. No matter the temperature, she comes down to the barn several times daily to fill and affix hay nets and check water. Her frost-free tanks freeze when the temperature falls below 5 degrees, so during cold spells she makes additional late-night trips to the barn to double check the availability of water. Overall the design of her barns and turn-out areas guarantees her horses’ comfort in any weather. 12 and 16 foot lean-tos provide shelter in front of the stalls, and Jason has devised clever fabric-roofed structures to provide shade on hot summer days.

In addition to living areas for humans, horses, cats, dogs, and poultry, Belleau Bend Farm boasts sufficient acreage to grow hay for all of Sarah’s horses and to sell the surplus. Since her federal job involves working with farmers to implement effective land-use plans for their property, managing each year’s hay crop falls squarely within Sarah’s area of expertise.

The dressage ring

Sarah hopes to start her newest acquisition, Charlie, later this fall. X-rays will determine whether the growth plates in his knees have closed sufficiently to allow this. Riding is possible in the hayfields, but Sarah and Jason have also put in place an outdoor dressage arena beyond the barns. Constructed with all-weather footing and a solid base, it is usable on any reasonably dry day.

When I asked Sarah about the overall pros and cons of keeping horses at home, she admitted it is limiting in some ways. Days have to be arranged around the need to feed and check on the horses in the morning, at mid-day, for dinner, and again at night. But then she added “how many people can kiss their ponies goodnight in their jammies and bring a little hay back to bed with them?” Colleen’s and Sarah’s experiences make this feel like a very appealing bargain!

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