Many have idolized John Wayne and given him the “Ultimate Cowboy” title. The swagger, the stellar walk and confident voice give off a romantic glow of a lifestyle that is anything but a Hollywood movie. Besides the cast of supporting actors, most of these films had something else in common, good looking horses.
Often a symbol of the west as much as the cowboy, the horse has endured the test of time; earning the right to stay on part of the daily routine for a lot of ranchers, big and small. Managing the remuda often takes on a task similar to managing the cow herd.
“My family has been ranching for 105 years. We have a lot of ground and one thing that hasn't changed is good horses. We depend on them to get the work done and we have to take care of them,” says Paxton Ramsey, Devers, Texas.
For most, the work load is spread out over time. The difficulty of the task or chore will often lead to the stress or effort each of these four-legged ranch hands has to deliver.
“Each cowboy has between three and six horses in their string. The work load certainly varies from season to season,” Ramsey says. “When we're branding in the spring or shipping in the fall, we'll sometimes use two horses a day, but most of the time they're on a three or four day rotation.”
“The hardest thing for most ranchers is matching the horse's feed intake with their energy requirements. Confining them and overfeeding them without proper exercise is one of the biggest mistakes people make,” says Dr. Steven Cooper, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Larger operations often have a better work load routine making the job of managing the riding stock a little easier to handle. For some operations, finding the right balance will help performance.
“Horses that are confined need to get some exercise on their off days. If they're worked hard one day, then off for two or three days, a lot of management problems can be compounded with no exercise,” Cooper says. “Less intense work like long trotting or doing less stressful chores will help them work out some stiffness and burn excess energy. Each operation is set up differently and no matter what the management program is, there is labor requirement. A mechanical walker will work if that is the only option for the horses to get exercise.”
“We turn out the saddle horses in a 400 acre pasture at the headquarters on their days off. It's important to let them go out and be a horse. We'll gather them and keep up what we're going to use for the next rotation and turn the rest of them back out,” Ramsey says. “Everybody's situation is different. If your program consists of a couple acres, a stall and a mechanical walker, there's nothing wrong with that. A lot of things will work, depending on your facilities. Horses just need to get some exercise on the off days.”
The feed companies have done a nice job over the years creating rations that will fit many different levels of performance. Like anything else, the most expensive brand is not always the best. Many different options will work, but a basic approach will help match the ration to horse needs.
“I like to base our rations on good forage first. Horses that are turned out are on very high quality improved pasture that we over seed with rye grass during the winter months. If you keep good grass under them, they don't have a problem looking good. They usually like it better when they're turned out because we have to ask them to come in the pens, we don't have to ask them to go out,” Ramsey says. “Our using horses may only get grain once a week or once every two weeks in a normal rotation. When we're branding or sorting they have to have a good meal, just like you do, to be at peak performance. My ration starts with a high protein hay, like alfalfa, and I like to feed a high protein, high fat grain when they're working.”
“Free choice hay and a little bit of grain will maintain most horses, unless energy requirements increase significantly. Even with high quality forages, there are going to be times you need to supplement them with grain, but that doesn't mean it has to be a lot. Start with the best quality hay you can afford and then match grain to it for a balanced ration,” Cooper says. “During the times of the year when horses are going to be working hard, they need a good quality energy source, in addition to free choice high quality hay. They need that little extra just because of the type of work they are going to be doing.”
Certain horses will become special needs horses for some owners. Age or medical condition typically is what separates them into this category. Make sure you have defined the problem before reaching for a solution.
“We don't feed horses unless we need to. We'll have some older brood mares we have to take a little better care of if we want to keep getting foals,” Ramsey says. “We spend good money to take care of the number of horses we run. Sometimes we have to change the program a little bit to meet the needs of individuals.”
“There are a lot of supplements on the market. Don't just use a supplement to be using one. A lot of times these will throw your ration out of balance. Some of these products could be very beneficial to horses with a specific condition,” Cooper says. “Older horses might need a little more fat in the ration to maintain body condition. Fat is really digestible and an excellent energy source. It bulks up the density of the diet without putting more feed into them.”
Many different protocols will work to manage horses for peak performance in times of need. There usually is no right or wrong in this area, but finding what works for each operation and fits resource availability is important.
“A horse that's hungry, thin or weak can't do its job. We have to pay special attention to their feet and backs to we keep them working without being sore,” Ramsey says. “You have to know when that horse needs a rest. If you can't keep him fleshy, give him a break.”
“Most of the time people will keep horses up because they can reach over and grab them. It's a hard to change the mind set because people feel like if he's there, he needs to have grain and they end up over feeding based on his energy requirements,” Cooper says. “Sometimes we have no choice, but to keep them up. Confined horses can develop some behavioral problems. Body condition score (BCS) will tell you a lot. Over-conditioned horses are prone to a lot of problems when you try to work them. Horses that are in the proper condition and getting used tend to have better feet. Over-conditioned horses can become sore-footed if the work load is increased too rapidly before they are in shape.”
Rations and exercise protocols will vary. However, most successful management programs have several things in common from a health and maintenance perspective.
“It doesn't matter if you like to feed textured feeds or pelleted feeds, if you notice your horse losing condition it's time to get his teeth checked. Aged or older horses will need this done more often and that will depend a lot on the ration,” Cooper says. “Watch them eat if they are dropping a lot of feed or you're seeing a lot of grain in the fecal material, then chances are they need to have their teeth floated. Two general health care procedures are annual vaccinations and de-worming. This should all be done under the supervision of your local vet, but some of his advice will depend on what part of the country you're in.”
“We'll de-worm the horses four times a year. Our vaccination program consists of an 8-way vaccine and we give every horse a West Nile shot,” Ramsey says. “We're pretty lucky because my wife's a vet and she helps us with a lot of the annual maintenance issues, like checking teeth.”
Different climates bring varying challenges to managing the remuda. A solid nutrition program and monitoring BCS helps horses meet the challenges of changing environments.
“A horse with good flesh will usually manage the climate changes pretty handily. Horses out on pasture have the high quality forage, plus a protein/mineral tub where they get needed vitamins and minerals,” Ramsey says. “We do get a lot of rain on the Gulf Coast. If we need to we'll move horses we're not riding to another ranch to get them out of the mud.”
“There are some simple things that keep you from having lots of problems,” Cooper says. “This winter we have had some dramatic shifts in temperature. It's always a good idea to keep out salt and some trace minerals to help them drink. If they don't get enough water, they could show signs of colic or mild impaction.”
Working ranches that still depend on horse flesh to prowl the pastures, drag calves to the fire, gather and sort during shipping time are the real story the old westerns were trying to depict. No one will ever know where all the dust and sweat went when the hero was riding off into the sunset.
Most cowboys will tell you “I'm only as good as my horse.” This statement is true to the core, and is probably why before they get supper or dry clothes or some rest, they make sure that mount is taken care of. For those few hands that can transform colts into fine-oiled working machines; cowboy is no longer a fitting handle, horseman becomes his title.
“We've done housing studies and most results show forced exercise is better than a turnout. Whatever fits your management program best, horses are better off outside, if possible, when they're not being used,” Cooper says. “Balance rations with high quality hay and don't overfeed grain. Horses that are being used or that are turned out on good pasture have fewer problems than the ones that are over fed and confined.”
“There are lots of reason we manage the horses the way we do. We ride a lot of young horses and a few days rest can make a big difference in their training,” Ramsey says. “Just like my cowboys, horses need time to rest mentally and physically. My cowboys have to have a good breakfast or a good lunch or they'll run out of gas. The horses are the same way, they need a good ration. If we don't take care of our horses, they won't take care of us.”