Have you ever stepped outside, especially if you live near woodlands, and considered the variety of edible foods that may exist there?  This is something we have tried to become more in-tune to since moving to Red Gate Farm.  This year, we really became curious about the bounty of mushrooms we found everywhere we looked, it seemed.  S is always fair game to experiment and sample things.  Mushrooms, of course, can be dangerous if you go about it wrong, so we knew we had to be careful.

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Did you know most edible mushrooms were determined to be so over the years by men brave enough to sample, wait a few days, and see how their bodies reacted?  Now, of course, we have more elaborate tests available to determine toxins and such, but there is still a great deal of information that has just been taught to the next generation for many years.  As it turns out, there really isn’t even one “best” reference book you can purchase to help you, as there are just too many mushrooms, and more importantly, too many “look-alike” mushrooms.  The more experienced mushroom hunters will tell you to get several books so you can cross-reference and compare.  So, that’s what we did.  S, being the adventurous sort, was willing to taste the possible good ones, to help us learn, since many of the toxic ones have a spicy or bitter flavor (though certainly not all!)

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Some mushrooms are widespread, while others are very regional.  And they can grow almost anywhere!  Lawns, forest floors, dead tree stumps, live trees, mud bogs, leaf litter, animal manure, you name it.  Thankfully, those who have gone before us have taken many excellent notes and recorded their findings in the many books and resource science available.

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Giant Morels! An expensive delicacy in most of the U.S., and valued at roughly $40/lb, yet they grow right in our backyard!

We have had a great time this year learning about our mushrooms.  We have oysters, hen of the woods, chicken of the woods, pheasant backs (which taste like watermelon!), truffles, and the much-sought-after and valuable morel mushroom, among others.

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Pheasant Backs….although edible, these were a bit old and tough. We will try to find them younger next year.  These are easily identified by, interestingly, their watermelon flavor!

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Hen of the Woods Mushroom. We found this one a bit late, so it was tough, but we did enjoy a few meals from it!

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A large winter oyster mushroom. This one is now cleaned, dehydrated, and waiting for the next stew I cook up!

We are still in the early phase of learning about our mushrooms, but it is eye-opening, indeed, just how much food is available in nature.  Mushrooms are barely the tip of the iceberg of the bounty we can find if we but look around.

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We occasionally get asked the question, “Since brown eggs cost more at the grocer, are they more nutritious?” The answer is “NO!” Commercial egg producers often try to set apart eggs with labels like “free-range” or “cage-free” by having brown egg laying hens. They look different, so, to the average consumer, they must be different, right? It’s just a brilliant marketing ploy, and nothing more.

I was making deviled eggs the other day, and thought it was a good example. Notice in my photo, I have all sorts of colored eggs….brown, white, cream, tan, green, bluish, speckled, you name it! The color is only tinting and only on the outside of the shell. In fact, if you scrub, most of the tint will come off! Once peeled, you can’t tell the difference. Even the yolks look the same. The grey on the outer edge of my yolks simply means I steamed them a bit too long.

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Now, I should mention that there ARE differences in the make-up of different type of poultry eggs.  For example, a duck egg is well known for being better for baking, while a turkey egg has a milder flavor.  Like chickens, however, the differences in nutritional content have nothing to do with color of these birds or their eggs, but everything to do with diet and management factors.  In fact, to my knowledge all turkey eggs are the same color, as those birds haven’t been so carefully selected for egg tint like chickens have.

So there you have it. An egg is only as nutritious as the hen’s diet. If you want more nutritious eggs, buy from a pastured poultry supplier….whether it be chicken, duck, turkey, or whatever.  Even in winter, we give our hens leafy green hay to keep up their chlorophyll intake, which contributes to those nice looking yolks and healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Anyone who has a true, working farm knows how critical it is that every animal on the farm earn its keep.  A farm just cannot sustain itself if the animals on it are all pets or companions.  Sure, you can get an outside job, but that’s why I say the farm can’t sustain itself.  That being said, it can get tough sometimes to not get attached to the animals.  We have learned over the years that certain animals are designated as food–be it meat, milk, or eggs, some as service–such as breeding animals or work animals like the draft horses,  some teach lessons to our children–such as a riding horses that has attached responsibilities, and a very, very few are allowed to have the role of “pet.”  Around here, we call it “therapy at the end of a long day!”  For those of you who have followed this blog over the years, you are familiar with our old dog, Will, and the older cat, Callie.

Will joined our family the year after S and I were married.  He was assigned to us by Guide Dogs for the Blind, and we were to be his puppy raisers.  Technically, he wasn’t ours.  We were just responsible for raising him for 12 or so months, and then returning him to the school.  Sadly, he didn’t quite make the cut for Guide Dog work, so he was offered back to us.  Long story short, Will went on to be trained as my second Diabetes Alert Dog for about 4 years.  He was also my companion at the barn and when I went trail riding.  He traveled the country with us, and was like our first child.  As a service dog, he was much more than a pet, and we had a close bond.  After we had children, Will began to show signs of age, was eventually retired from service dog duty, and allowed to just be a pet.  He got to finally eat crumbs off the floor, lay on the couch, and playfully chew on his best friend, Callie.

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Callie was mine before marriage.  She was actually brain damaged at birth, but the sweetest, most gentle, and dumbest cat you could ever meet!  She never had any official job, other than just to love and be loved.  She warmed many hearts–and laps.

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In 2015, we knew both our beloved pets were getting up there in years.  Will was almost 13, and Callie was 14 or 15.  Will was experiencing some health issues, and Callie was still going strong and looked great, but spent most of her time just sleeping–as any old cat deserves to do.  God was merciful to us, though, and we never had to make the call to euthanize.  In the winter of late 2015, in an unfortunate, and somewhat mysterious accident, Will died.  Just a month or so later, Callie passed away.  We were all heartbroken, and really missed having a pet in the house.  Those two were older than any of our children, and our kids had grown up with them.  Despite all the farm animals that come and go around here, this was the first time our children had experienced the loss of a long-term family member.

Certainly a beloved pet can never be replaced, but an empty space can be filled again.  I only lasted about a month or two before I started to crave something to cuddle up with at night, or during my daytime rest breaks.  I wanted something to greet us at the door, with tail wagging.  We had a barn cat, but she belonged in the barn.  We also wanted to cut down on the hair in the house since N is mildly allergic to pets.

I began contacting our local pet agencies.  Interestingly enough, as it turned out, I was shocked to find we did not qualify to adopt from most animal rescues.  Between military positions and child adoption, we have probably had more background checks than anyone on the planet, yet we were refused time and again.  Either we had too many children, too young of children, lacked a fence attached directly to the house, or whatever.  It didn’t matter that I was an experienced dog trainer, prior vet tech, our vets would totally vouch for us as responsible pet owners, or that our children were good with animals.  They wouldn’t give us a second thought!  Finally, our local animal rescue, who is familiar with us, took in an owner-surrender pup that perfectly fit what we were looking for.  She was a short-haired mutt with no undercoat to shed out.  She was friendly and could keep up on the farm, despite her short legs.  She was cuddly, totally trainable, eager to please, and an absolute doll!  Her ears were too big for her head, her tail wagged non-stop, and she stole our hearts.  We adopted her on the spot!

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Rosa, who we believe to be around 2 now, has settled in well.  We think she is possibly linked to dachshund and blue heeler, Based on her markings and behaviors.  Whatever her genetics, though, she has filled that empty spot in our hearts and home perfectly.  We hope we are blessed with many more years with her!

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I have always loved horses, so it was only natural that M became passionate about horses a few years ago.  Not long after, so did R.  Interestingly, although R is not biologically related, her birthmother also happens to love horses, and has owned a couple over time.  Nature or nurture?  Only God knows for sure.

Nonetheless, we decided it might benefit the younger kiddos to have their own equine to play with, albeit one that was a bit safer, and less potentially deadly like the larger horses. When an acquaintance’s children outgrew their miniature horse, we decided to buy him.

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Clyde, aptly named due to the fact he was raised on a Clydesdale farm, was such a character!  He was a 6 year old registered mini gelding, already fully trained to pull a cart and be ridden.  We also didn’t have to stress too much about introducing him to our little herd, since he already knew his way around big horses.

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A and N played with Clyde a little every now and then, but R absolutely loved him!  She often begged me to show her how to do things, and over the months, became quite good at picking up his feet, cleaning his hooves, and with a bit of help from big sis, they would braid his hair, and generally play with him.  And, of course, she would ride!  She rode every chance she got.  Sometimes she rode bareback, other times she liked to saddle up and join us on the trail.

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JR actually took a liking to driving Clyde, so he would occasionally have me harness and hitch up and tag along on a ride through neighborhood streets.

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Unfortunately, as the months passed, JR’s interest waned a bit, while R’s interest soared.  However, as she became a better rider, she also grew….FAST!  We had expected Clyde to suite her for at least a couple of years, but she hit a growth spurt over the summer, and it was clear that Clyde was being outgrown all too quickly.

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We debated hanging on to him and training him to be a work horse for the kiddos, but R’s passion was riding, and she really had little interest in driving.  The boys didn’t have much interest either.  So, rather than let such a great, kid-safe horse sit around and go to waste, we decided to pass him on the next lucky children.  He’ll be missed, but we had a lot of fun with him while it lasted!

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If you read my last post, you can imagine that we had quite a feat on our hands, as we needed to get that mama sow from her new location she had escaped to, deep in the woods, to our house.  There was roughly 1/4 mile, as the crow flies, between the two areas, but the land in between had no trails, lots of brush and briars, several hills and steep ravines, and a couple of creeks running through.  An impossible feat at best.  For the record, if a hog doesn’t want to move, it doesn’t.  Period.  If there is a baby involved, as was the case here, you increase the danger a bit, as you don’t want to risk upsetting mom or baby!  We were in a quandary, and our pigs were on someone else’s land!

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Well, thanks to hog farmer and blogger Walter Jeffries, over at Sugar Mountain Farm, I had an idea!  About 200 feet in a different direction, the woods dumped out onto a cleared trail that would lead home, albeit in a round-about way.  It increased the distance to about 1/3 mile, but it was fairly clear and even the creek crossing was shallow and nicely graveled.

Remember in my last post when I mentioned that we trained all our pigs to come to our voices and buckets of feed?  We do so for times like these.  After I located the sow, thanks to her rooting behavior and a noisy baby making grunting noises, I began to call her.  I immediately radioed S, who brought out a bucket of grain.  When she heard our voices, she came running.  She actually followed me out to the trail, and a couple hundred feet down the trail for some grain.  When she stopped to eat, S and I dropped a pre-shaped hog panel over the top her and jumped on the sides of the panel.  This was an idea I had learned from Walter Jeffries.

Why jump on, you might ask?  Because once a pig realizes it has been caught, it tries to escape.  In this case, the two of us outweighed the sow by about 25 lbs.  We tried this technique to move a bigger sow between pens once before, but had to use three adults to outweigh her.  We stood on that panel for a couple of minutes as she slung herself (and us) from side to side and up and down.  (Who needs to pay for a carnival ride?!)  Finally, she calmed down.  Meanwhile, we had JR handy to keep her baby close to her.  Even though he was on the outside of the panel, we quickly discovered that as long as she could see him, she stayed calmer.

Once she calmed down, we gently lifted the panel about 1/2 inch off the ground, and encouraged her to walk forward with it.  She did.  Hesitantly at first, but she soon figured it out.  We assigned JR the task of keeping the baby pig in front of her, so she would essentially follow him.  As long as they don’t lay down, they tend to want to move in the direction the panel moves.  I cannot explain why this works, when almost no other amount of pushing or shoving works, but it does.  After the initial shock of her realizing she was caught, she was quite calm and relaxed.  We would stop and give me her a quick break periodically, feed her a few treats, and then move on.  Down the trail, up the trail, over the creek, through the rocks, across the front yard, across the sidewalks, and onto the driveway.  Finally, about 45 minutes after we had caught her, we arrived at the permanently fenced winter paddock!

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So, now you know how to move a pig!  You never know….that info might come in handy one day!

Oh, the saga of our pigs!   As you may recall, we decided to raise the heritage breed known as Red Wattles.  They are popular with small farms due to their gentle, social natures, even though they are full-sized hogs.  They also happen to be awesome at living in nature and foraging for much of their food.  Their meat has won many blind taste-tests with professional chefs around the nation, due to its deep, rich, almost beef-like flavor.  Thus, all that info convinced us, and in 2013, we entered the world of raising Red Wattle feeder pigs.

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All went pretty smoothly.  We did our best to learn from others, trained all our pigs to electric wire, rotated them through overgrown woodlands, and so forth.  We trained them to the sound of a bucket, the sound of our voices, and treats like milk to help get them where we needed them to go.  All went quite smoothly, and we increased our numbers of feeders slightly each year.  Then, this spring, we discovered our supplier had retired and sold all their pigs.  So, we decided to take the next step and jump into the world of breeding and farrowing hogs in addition to raising feeders.

We found a family getting out of hogs, selling 2 sows and their remaining 9, 3-month-old feeder pigs.  We bought the whole lot.  I was so excited.  They even delivered!  They arrived, opened the trailer, and the reality of our decision hit me like a brick wall….or, rather, like the stubbornness of a 400 lb sow!  The sows were huge….comparable to the big barrow we had raised the year prior.  But the difference there was that we raised him and knew him, and he knew us.  We knew nothing about these sows and their quirks.  It was quite intimidating.  We also quickly discovered another issue.  The feeders in the lot included 2 boars (in tact male pigs).  They were already at a size where we couldn’t really handle them to castrate, as we have no special facilities.  Thus, the decision was made to leave them in tact and butcher before they were interested in breeding.  After all, the books said the young boars were too small to breed their mothers, and their sisters would be at least 8 months old before they were really fertile.  That gave us plenty of time to ship the boys to market, right?

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As usual, all went pretty smoothly for a few months.  Since the sows had already weaned the pigs, we were able to keep them all together, which made EVERYTHING easier.  We got to know the pigs, and they got to know us.  We spent extra time loving on the sows to make them as friendly as possible in anticipation of future farrowing.  We even started looking for a nice Red Wattle boar to mate them with.

Then reality happened.  We walked out one day, when the pigs were around 6 months old and discovered those boys getting a bit frisky with their sisters.  Hmmmm….we weren’t prepared to separate anyone.  So we started brainstorming.  We decided to do the unthinkable.  We decided to let nature take its course.  Based on the looks we have gotten from experienced hog breeders, that is not a popular option, apparently.  Then again, we do a lot different around here, so why not?  We figured any gilts that got bred would be shipped off to the processor before they were too far along, so no worries there. It saved us the expense of purchasing an outside boar and then wintering him over.  It also meant we had a chance of having our first litters by mid-fall, which set us up perfectly to offer pork to our customers in the spring.  After the sows were confirmed pregnant, we could ship the boar off to the processor to save the expense of wintering over.  What could go wrong?

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Our RW boar, happy to serve!

Fall rolled around, and with it came a reality check.  We hauled most of the gilts and one boar to the processor.  We hadn’t seen signs of pregnancy in the sows yet, so we decided to hang on to the other boar.  We also didn’t have one of the gilts sold, so we decided to hang on to her for a bit.  If she wound up farrowing, we were OK with that.  Not long after, the processor informed us that EVERY single gilt they butchered was at least half way through her pregnancy!  This meant two things….our remaining gilt was likely due to farrow within the month, and we apparently had a very fertile line of pigs, seeing as how all boars and gilts were apparently fertile and breeding by 6 months of age!  Ok, deep breath…we would stay the course.

We began watching the gilt.  It wasn’t long before her milk came in, and we knew the time was close.  After reading and talking with other natural pig raisers, we took an electric wire and partitioned off a section of the paddock so she could have some privacy.  We set her up with food, water, and shelter.  It was a perfect delivery and post-partum area!  We just forgot to ask her opinion.  She broke right through the electric line and ran to be with the rest of the herd.  We figured we’d try again in a few days.  After all, the books said she would develop wax droplets on her teats just before farrowing, and there was none of that.  Clearly we had time.  Then, she didn’t show up for breakfast.  Or dinner.

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Bad angle, here, but you can just see her milk ridgeline on her belly, and her teats beginning to fill.  Time is getting close!  In fact, she farrowed about 2 days after this photo was taken.

We knew she was nesting somewhere.  We went off in search of her, somewhere deep in the woods and thickets of their 2 acre paddock.  After several hours of searching, we found no sign of her.  Just before we convinced ourselves she was the champion of hiding places, someone spotted cloven hoofprints in the mud…..outside the pen!  They were clearly pig and not deer, as determined by the depth and spacing.  And they were all over the place out there!  She had clearly wandered those woods for hours, stopping occasionally to take a drink from a puddle, and then moving on in search of her perfect nesting spot.  By now, darkness had set in, and we were searching by flashlight, to no avail.  If you have any remote fear of darkness or dark forests, try to imagine hunting for a 300 lb, potentially aggressive/protective sow in the dark, fearing you will stumble on her nest at any moment!  After several more hours, we finally gave up, praying she hadn’t gone too far, hoping she was still on our property, and fearing we were officially responsible for a new wild hog population in central IL.  Of all the ways we could have experienced our first major escape, it just HAD to be a gilt due to farrow!

The next day we searched some more.  When still nothing turned up, we decided to set out some feed in bowls along some paths, hoping she would find them.  We checked off and on through the day, only to find untouched feed bowls.  The third day, I went down to check the bowls, and lo, and behold, there she was!  She was devouring that food like she was starving….and, I noted, she was about 30 lbs lighter!  So, I selected a hiding spot, waited until her breakfast was over, and decided to let her lead me back to the nest.  That was easier said than done!  I cannot tell you the agility, contortionist maneuvers, and other feats I put myself through, trying to follow a 250 lb sow, almost running, under brush, through ravines, across briar patches, and more.  But, she took me straight to the nest…..which was only about 50 feet from her original pen, but surprisingly far from the food bowl where I found her.

Sadly, I discovered 2 dead pigs outside the nest, and only 1 little guy still alive in the nest.  I have no idea what happened, how many there were originally, and never will.  She wouldn’t let us closer than about 5 feet from the nest (yup, I learned just how fast a mama sow can charge!  YIKES!), so S decided to run new electric lines to create a new pen around her nest.  It joined up to the original pen, in the hopes she would want to return there soon.  After all, the books said sows like to return to the group within 3-7 days.

Fast forward a few weeks.  Mama pig and her baby were still perfectly content in their makeshift paddock, and we had no idea how we were going to get her back in with the rest of the group.

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There was still no sign of pregnancy in the 2 big sows, so we took them to the vet for an ultrasound to figure out what our next move would be.  After all, feeding 2, now 500-lb sows and a 300-lb boar can get really expensive, really fast– especially with winter coming.  The good news was that both older sows showed little piggies in their bellies!  The bad news was that, shortly after we returned home, we discovered the mama pig had escaped her nesting paddock.  Guess that was her way of telling us it was time to move on! More importantly, it was clear that electric wire no longer could contain her!  Now we were faced with the problem of finding and catching her, and somehow getting her to a pen 1/3 mile away, over rough terrain, then reintroducing her into the herd, which isn’t as easy as it sounds after a month of separation.

Long, 2-day story shortened (details to come later!), we finally found her, caught her, moved her 1/3 mile back home to a permanent pen, moved all the other pigs to the permanent pen to join her, castrated her little boy to avoid future surprises, and everyone lived happily ever after….at least for now!

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A couple of years ago, I stumbled on an idea that was so brilliant, it was almost unbelievable.  Here at Red Gate Farm, we try to house and manage our animals as naturally as possible.  That includes our horses.  As is the case with most horse owners, we had the idea in our heads that the most “natural” way to manage our horses was by keeping them out on our beautiful pastures, and rotating the pastures regularly to simulate the way wild herds move.  We were so excited to finally have such a beautiful pasture to keep our horses.

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Within months of weaning them onto the pasture, the problems started.  Fevers, abscesses, sole bruises, laminitis, hoof rings, thrush, and more.  Within a year, my work horses were lame more than they were sound.  We consulted with vets, farriers, draft experts, and draft owners.  I read books, researched, and could not figure out the problem.  At the experts’ advice, we fed expensive supplements and high-quality hay when not on pasture.  We finally resorted to shoeing, just to keep the boys working–we are a horse-powered farm after all.  Mind you, I have owned and/or trained horses for almost 20 years, with a few years off here or there.  In those 20 years, I have housed horses in stalls, dry paddocks, stalls with runs, and almost every option available.  I had never had a single issue of unexplained lameness, never an abscess, and never had to shoe a horse.  For a while, I suspected it was an issue limited to draft genetics, but then, one day, our new mustang came up lame as well.  She was as sound as any mustang I’d ever worked with, so this truly baffled me.  Then, it occurred to me.  In my previous years of owning horses, I had always lived in the desert, on sandy soils, or in the Rocky Mountain areas–none of which had lush, green grass.  Usually, the horses lived in stalls or dirt paddocks, and the few times they had access to fresh pasture, it was thin, short, weedy, overgrazed, low-sugar, rough forages, common to many boarding stables around the country.  I realized the biggest change in our horse management was the new, rich pasture.  Furthermore, it occurred to us that the few places in our nation that do NOT have herds of wild horses include the central midwestern region or states with lush forages.  Even the herds that live along the east coast live on sandy beaches and islands.  We were convinced this was the culprit.  We didn’t want to stall the horses, and I didn’t have a dirt paddock large enough to keep several horses.  Thus, we quickly threw together an electric wire paddock on a portion of our gravel driveway to buy us some time.  The photo shows the horses sporting their ridiculously pricey fly sheets, as one of the downsides of confining was that they could no longer escape the vicious and persistent horse flies here.

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Meanwhile, I continued researching the best option for permanent housing.  I stumbled upon a great study of wild horse herds, and the research resulted in a domestic-horse management concept called ” Paddock Paradise.”  Essentially, it was designed by farrier and wild-horse expert Jamie Jackson to simulate the diet, eating habits, herd dynamics, and movements of the wild horses.  First, the horses are removed from free-choice pasture, and put on a diet of low-sugar, high-roughage hay.  Ideally, the sugar content is less than 10%.  Then, rather than stalls, runs, or small paddocks, the horses are given a track to live on.  Similar to a racetrack, the track is designed in such a way as to encourage movement and stimulation of the horse.  Many build the track around the perimeter of their pasture, while some zig-zag  or meander the track through their terrain.  Most tracks are some form of continuous loop, but others dead end into a wide area and force the horses to turn around.  Either way can work.  Most of the track is narrow–about 10-15 foot wide.  It may get a bit narrower in some areas, and wider in others, but for the most part, that standard width encourages forward movement.

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Our little herd traveling from their water station to one of the hay stations.  This section of track is 15 feet wide–our standard for most of the track.

Then, “stations” are set up along the track.  There is a water station, a hay station, a mineral station, and in the case of long tracks, there may be several of each.  You can also get creative.  There can be “stations” for rolling and lounging, obstacles, water crossings, different surfaces along the track, and more.  The imagination is the limit, but the idea is to keep the horses moving to meet their needs–just like horses in the wild.

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By using a high electric line, it still allows the horses to graze a little, but not enough to cause health troubles. One extra benefit….a nicely grazed strip means I never have to trim around my fence posts!

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One of our”obstacle” sections, where the horses learn to pick up their feet to cross over the logs along this stretch of track.

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This area of track can be closed off to double as a round pen where I can train as desired. Otherwise it stays open with the track passing through, and the horses selected it as their favorite rest and rolling area. Notice there is no manure in this area, even though they have had access to it for over a year (we have NEVER cleaned the manure in that year!).

In our case, we eliminated the expensive supplements, switched to the low-sugar hay, eliminated the sugary grains (oats only for the working horses), and moved the horses into the track.  The mysterious fevers and sudden bouts of lameness stopped immediately.  Within 2 months, the hooves began looking different, and within 4 months, we were able to remove their shoes for standard farm work.  With regular trims, the hoof flares began disappearing, the cracks began growing out, and the thrush and white line issues became almost non-existent.  After a year, the only issue we really dealt with was occasional sole tenderness when we worked the horses on sharp gravel, which made sense considering most of their track was our wet clay soils (too much moisture results in softer soles and hooves).

Other benefits we have seen include a change in herd dynamics.  The “herd” traveled together along the track, established a predictable routine, designated bathroom areas (known as “stud piles” in the wild) for manuring, and our horse who NEVER laid down previously began laying down to rest on occasion.

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Moving as a herd along the track.

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In the lower left corner, you can see one of the herd’s designated “stud piles” for manuring. This photo was taken over a year after putting the horses in this track, and we have NEVER cleaned the manure. Notice, however, that there is no manure anywhere else in the photo. The horses can be seen resting in the shade of the trees at the far end.

I had several concerns when we first opted to try it out.  I was very concerned about one of our horses, Bud, losing condition.  He was atypical of most drafts, in that he was a “high-maintenance” horse or “hard-keeper.”  He required almost twice the grain and hay of the other drafts, and it seemed I was always fighting to get him to gain weight.  When our work season really got busy, we had to increase his feed further, and he still looked a bit thin with ribs showing within a couple months.  I wasn’t confident this new system would work well for him.  Boy, was I wrong!  As it turned out, I was always battling adding a fat layer to him.  The increased movement caused him to muscle up, and improved his metabolism.  That’s about the only way I can explain it.  He has looked awesome every since, despite the fact his work load has more than doubled from that first year!

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Physical condition is excellent to due to the increased movement.  This mustang is a bit on the pudgy side, in fact, but her muscle development has given her a much broader body type compared to most domesticated mustangs.

Our first big “test” of the conditioning came the following spring.  Every spring, we take the horses to an annual “plow day,” where teamsters from several states come together to enjoy plowing fields with their teams of horses.  The downside of spring plowing is the plowing is one of the toughest jobs you can ask a horse to do physically, and this particular event tends to be right at the end of winter, when the horses are in their worst “winter” condition–otherwise known as fat and out of shape!  That spring, however, was different for us.  Due to personal circumstances, we had been unable to work the team at all for over 2 months.  As usual, we saw teams needing breaks after just 1/2 hour, and stopping completely after about 2-3 hours of plowing.  With just quick pauses to catch their breath, however, our team was still going strong after 4 hours, and hadn’t even broken a sweat!  And for those who are familiar with horse-plowing, my team was pulling a 14-inch sulky plow, dropped about 8 inches in!  I truly was surprised and even amazed at their condition.

GPS tracking studies have shown that horses living on tracks situated along the perimeter of averaged sized pastures (roughly 1-5 acres), can move significantly more than when housed on pasture.  Of course, the longer the track, the more that can increase.  Although horses can still be turned out into the pasture for periodic grazing, the time should be limited to no more than 30 minute periods of time, unless your pasture is very sparse or weedy.  Lush pastures should be limited to about 15 minutes.

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A sketch of our current Paddock Paradise track, which is situated along the perimeter of our 6 acre pasture. Since we no longer use the pasture for significant horse grazing, it is now used to produce small amounts of hay and to graze our grass-fed cattle and pasture-based poultry.

A few other benefits of track housing is that horses do not get bored, and thus do not develop boredom-related behavioral issues such as cribbing, pawing, pacing, and general crankiness.  I do not have to “lunge” or “get the spunk out” of my horses before riding, as they are already exercised and ready to go, both mentally and physically.

So, with all the good that comes from a system like this, could there be a negative side to it?  The answer is “Yes,” though I have only found one downside.  When horses are allowed to live in a herd setting, with increased movement and natural environments, injuries are bound to happen.  Scrapes, dings, nicks, lumps, bumps, bite marks, and chewed-on hair have become quite normal for our horses.  Think of it like children….you can keep them confined all day and protect them from injury, or you can let them out to play at the risk of scraped knees and elbows.  Same principle applies here.  It isn’t terribly unsightly, but it is a fact that might not go over well in a show-barn.  However, in our case, the mental and physical benefits we have observed in our horses make every little scar totally worthwhile.

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Some lumps, bumps, and dings one of our team showed up to breakfast with one morning.

Now that we have used our Paddock Paradise for over a year, we hope to never have to return to any other way of managing horses!  I cannot express to you all the incredible benefits we have seen.  Our Amish friends, whose livelihood depends on their horses, have watched as our horses have changed over time, and they are even considering trying it now.  If you have your own property, I highly encourage you to consider using this system.  If, however, you are stuck at a boarding stable, I encourage you to talk to the stable manager.  Show them this post.  I also wrote an article about it that was published in “Rural Heritage” magazine.  Boarding stables around the world have found success with this system.  It just works.  We purchased an “easy-keeping” little mini horse at one point who formerly ate about 1/8 flake of hay a day while house in a dray paddock, and was still roly-poly fat!  We put him on track, and despite having free-choice access to hay 24/7, he lost the weight and muscled up, thanks to the increased movement!  If you have easy-keeping ponies, hard-keeper horses, geriatric horses, rescues needing rehab, you name it…..you may have to modify slightly to begin with, but ultimately, I’d be willing to bet they would thrive on this system!  There are just too many personal testimonies out there to suggest otherwise.

We are actually in the process of building our 2nd Paddock Paradise now.  We are moving the track to our back acreage, so we can increase the length and the things they are exposed to.  Our new track will be longer, have water crossings, steep hills, long stretches for galloping, more hard surfaces (and less clay), and more!  We hope to move the horses in before the end of the year.  It requires a good bit of land clearing, which is taking time, but we are making progress.  There you have it!