Don’t Strap on the Feed Bag

I can’t remember the first time I rode a horse. It was sometime in my childhood, before my teen years. We never owned a horse or a pony, but Carl Hoffman, who lived on a farm a short walk up the dirt road, did. It was a work horse, dark in colour, if my memory serves me well.

The horse lived in a grand barn, built by Mr. Hoffman from the trees on the property. The beams had to be twelve inches square. They created a massive structure that would have lasted a century or more if careless idiots hadn’t burnt it down a few years ago.

The barn will live on in my memory, as will the horse and the wonderful smells inside the structure. Hay on a warm day, fresh manure and the general odour of farm life lived in that barn. It was pleasant to sit in it and smell the aromas. If I closed my eyes, I could dream of being in a time when life was simpler and horses depended on fresh grass and hay—set up for the winter—to survive.

Because that’s all a horse needed was hay or grass.

I never rode Mr. Hoffman’s dark horse, though I remember being near it and feeding it grass and perhaps a carrot.

The first horse I rode was owned by a nameless man who rode into our small community of Atholea Subdivision from a farm located along Caldwell Road or Cole Harbour Road. His name was probably Mr. Elliot, or Mr. Sawyer or some other man who held onto his farm until Cole Harbour changed from farmland to commercial district.Haflinger Eating Hay

Gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and retail outlets have long replaced the pig farm, chickens, hay fields and horses. What was once peaceful dirt roads are now paved streets with speedy vehicles.

But before dirt became pavement, a man rode into our community and dismounted as soon as he saw a child approach. After a short exchange, the man would lift the child into the saddle for a ride. The man held onto the bridle and guided his small passenger along the community streets, first down Beaver Crescent and then the length of Atholea before travelling Landsdown and Parkway.

This man attracted a lot of attention with his horse. Before long, he had a parade of kids behind him, talking up his ear and wondering when it was their turn. The man never seemed to tire off lifting one kid off, travelling a dozen driveways only to exchange the rider with another eager child.

You can bet I had my turn every chance I got. I remember feeling very grand perched upon the back of that horse, and each time the man left, I badgered my father for a pony of my own. I never did get a pony, so had to be content with feeding apples and carrots to the man’s horse. Besides a nibble of grass here and there, the horse only received these treats on its journey. The man carried no oats.

A horse only needs grass and hay. Well, the occasional treat of carrots, apples or rutabaga is nice.

This man stopped coming to our community before I was a teenager. I don’t know why he stopped. Perhaps he moved, or his horse died, or…Haflinger Eye

Still, my memories of him and his beautiful horse will stay with me forever. As a dreamer, I often wondered what it would be like to travel by horseback. Of course, I’d need food for me, but what about the horse which ate only hay and grass? Would I need to carry bales of hay on my saddle? Isn’t that a crazy thought? Imagine travelling from Cole Harbour to Liscomb Mills—a four-day journey by horseback—with six bales of hay stacked on the rump of a mare.

If there’s not snow on the ground, a horse can graze and find the food it needs to survive. Of course, apples and carrots make great treats which will keep it happy and fill its belly a little. Hay for the journey is unnecessary.

I apply this same logic to the horses in my novels. My characters would not haul a cart full of hay simply to feed the horse. Nor would a homesteader cutting out for the Oregon Trail two hundred years ago fill their covered waggons with oats to feed the horses on the journey. It would be illogical. They’d fill it with provisions for themselves and tools they’d need to farm once they reached their destination.

Horses fended for themselves when they were cut from the waggon.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a website aimed at writers who used horses in their stories. This person spoke of the needs—oats and grains—of a horse for a long journey. They pointed out that it was crazy to think a horse could survive without such feed, and created a picture of sacks of this food strapped behind the saddle.

Even back then I shook my head. Wild horses didn’t have oats, yet they survived and travelled miles. When I consider an idea, I always revert back to what nature does: Do horses eat oats in the wild? No. In fact, they shouldn’t eat oats in captivity either.

When a horse is fed oats, its stomach begins to shrink. Depending on the amount of oats a horse is continually fed at feeding time, their stomach can shrink to the point where they no longer have the capacity to hold enough grass/hay to provide the nutrients they require. Then they become dependent on feed and need it to survive.

Another problem with oats is that a horse’s stomach doesn’t digest food quickly, and when the stomach gets two-thirds full, it starts to push things through the system. The oats, with its nutrients still intact, pass through without providing anything substantial to the animal.

To counteract this, horses are fed oats and nothing for a period afterwards, so the stomach has time to digest the feed. However, a horse’s stomach is designed to continually accept food, which under normal circumstances it would from grazing.

A horse which has never been fed oats doesn’t need them. Our horse gets hay and grass. That’s it. He’s not suffering from malnutrition, starving or looking for more to eat other than hay or grass (though he does love carrots).

A horse’s stomach is a one way street: what goes in must pass through to the other end. Horses cannot vomit. They are not like sheep, goats and cows which have more than one stomach to process food and regurgitate to chew again (referred to as chewing their cud).

The next time you set your character out on horseback, think of the needs of the horse and stop often for it to graze and drink. It’s all it will want…well, unless you have rutabaga in your pocket.

*There are times when older or sick horses need more than hay and grass, and sometimes a horse which is involved in labour-intense activities (think show circuit) and not allowed to graze freely needs extra nutrients which can be provided by high-energy feeds, similar to the energy bars athletes consume.

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8 thoughts on “Don’t Strap on the Feed Bag

  1. I am a professional rider by trade – I train and compete horses in dressage and I’ve had 2 books published on the subject. I also write fantasy, and some of my novels involve horses, surprise, surprise!
    While I totally agree with you that horses don’t need more than grass (and water) for steady ridden work, they do benefit from a small grain feed for extra calories if they’re doing something strenuous, like a pressurised journey over hilly terrain. My characters carry a small amount of grain – just a couple of handfuls twice a day can make a big difference to energy levels. Crushed oats are easier for a horse to digest and make the nutrients more readily absorbable.
    I also find that when my characters run out of grain, they worry about their horses and their ability to complete their journeys on time!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Debby. I understand some horses benefit from additional sources of nutrients and noted this at the end of the blog. I sometimes feel that people believe horses need oats to survive. I assume they get this from movies. It seems only natural that a horse needs oats. The website I read regarding travellling with horses was way over the top. I tried to find it again but failed.

      My characters don’t carry grain and don’t worry about it. That’s my choice as an author. However, they do get feed the odd treat (rutabaga, apple) and stop to graze them often and get them to drink. One scene in book two shows the main character cleaning the feet and telling another how important it was to keep a horse clean and healthy.

      Certainly it’s up to the author to decide what they want to do with thier horses. Some may decide to feed oats on a regular basis because that is their philosophy. And that’s fine. But it’s also good to know you can go without if a horse is healthy and fit.

      Again, thanks for visiting.

  2. I was raised on a ranch and of course my Dad had horses. For some reason i was afraid of them and didn’t want to ride them. My Dad was dissapointed as he loved his horses. My brothers rode them all the time and my daughter learned to ride when she was two years old. I do love them and think they are beautiful creatures. My Grandmother’s maiden name was Hoffman and I have many Hoffman relations. Loved your description of Mr. Hoffman’s barn.

    • Oh, how I wish I could have been raised with horses. As it was, I had to take every minute I could get with someone else’s horse…which wasn’t often. And your daughter rode when she was three! Wow.

      Carl Hoffman was of German descent. I think he may have actually been born in Germany, but I’m not sure. He worked at the Shearwater Base, the air force base just outside of Dartmouth, NS, in the 1950s and 60s (I’m guessing at the years). I remember he worked with machinery or something. I remember seeing a crate with the base name, or something, in his basement, but I also knew he worked there because my father told me. Obviously, given his ethnic origin, I believe there was some pressure on him at the military base. He married Lillian Phillips, a lovely Micmac woman I had the pleasure of knowing fairly well. Carl died in the early 1980s, I think. Afterwards, I drove Mrs. Hoffman to get groceries and to appointments. Eventually, she sold the property (farm) in the early 1990s and moved to Mill Brook (I think). She died a few years later. She was in her late 80s or early 90s. Mr. Hoffman was old when I was a kid. He was probably in his early 90s when he died. He was a small man who kept a very neat farm. I was always amazed by his tidiness.

  3. We had a fawn colored horse named Bud. I’m not sure if I ever rode on him. I do recall getting kicked by him. I have a scar still. I loved him and so did the rest of our family. He is in several remaining photos.

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