Friday, June 29, 2012

Hay Is for Horses


 As soon as I decided to write this post on another horsey subject, the title phrase started echoing in my head, and I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it or what it meant at the time. At last! As I type, it comes to me that my grandmother used to say that whenever my sister or I had the temerity to use, “Hey,” in her presence. Today it may be a common form of address, but not that long ago, it was slang and unacceptable in nice young ladies.

My actual subject here is misconceptions about hay vs. straw in western romances I’ve read recently. I know several others on the CK schedule come from farming and ranching backgrounds and know the difference, but evidently research doesn’t make it clear to some.

Hay is an actual crop and is raised to feed horses and other livestock. Grasses or legumes are cut at a time to ensure maximum nutrition and palatability. Good hay, even decent hay, retains a green color.

Straw is a by-product of a grain crop such as wheat or oats. After threshing to remove the desired grain, empty, mature stems are used for bedding and other absorbing purposes. Straw is golden. Yes, a bored horse with nothing else to do will eat straw, even though there’s little to no nutrition in it, and it can cause digestive problems. Nowadays, a horse that eats straw gets something else for bedding.


So our intrepid heroine should not be spreading hay knee deep as bedding in a stall for the hero’s great black stallion (or any other more realistic creature). Maybe if she’s supposed to be some dummy from the East, but in the 1800s I’d think you’d have to have lived your life in a New York tenement not to know the difference.

I know that for many romances are escapism, and each of us has to decide where to draw the line between romance and reality, but in case you fall on the reality side....

I’m not going to confess my age, but the man who taught me to ride was with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a boy. When the show went to Europe, his parents (who had probably emigrated from there not that long ago) refused to sign permission for him to go, and so he went on to other things, work as a mounted policeman among them. In other words, he was an experienced horseman who knew and liked horses.

The stable that Mr. Landi owned and operated in the mid-Twentieth Century featured, if I remember correctly, twenty-two stalls total. More than half were what we called straight stalls. A straight stall is a three-sided slot six feet wide. A horse is led in and tied there, and that’s where he spends his non-working time. Other barns where I boarded my horse after Mr. Landi’s death had all box stalls for boarding horses, but their livery horses were kept in straight stalls.

I think I’ve mentioned that my mother was Canadian. We used to visit her relatives every summer. When I was very small, they still worked the farm with draft horses and kept eight of them. When kept up for work, they stood in straight stalls. The advantages of the straight stall are use of space (half as much as a box) and labor. In a straight stall, horse manure is all right there in a heap behind the horse. In a box stall it’s spread wherever it falls and wherever it gets kicked as the horse moves around.

Those draft horses never met bedding. The horses in straight stalls in Mr. Landi’s barn got a little straw laid down in the back half of the stall at night that was carefully picked through and put to one side during the day.

What I’m getting at here is that if you’re going to have a scenario where your intrepid heroine is spreading that straw in a nice box stall, and if you want to be realistic, you need to set it up carefully. In those times, your average working stiff horse never saw a box stall and never experienced bedding.

9 comments:

Paty Jager said...

Horses are pampered these days. But then they don't do the work the horses did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As a rancher anything that has to do with animals and is portrayed wrong makes me shake my head. When I was editing I had a writer submit a story that had a farm woman milking a cow.The whole scene was too sterile to give any credence to her being a farm woman. I've milked cows and helped her give realism to the scene.

So, if you aren't a farm/ranch person or haven't been around animals or land products it is a good idea to find someone who has to give your scene the accuracy it deserves.

Good post, Ellen.

Ginger Simpson said...

Being an historical author is getting harder and harder. Readers are really scrutinizing our books for mistakes, so I really appreciate this information. I don't believe I've ever had a character feed a horse anything other than oats in a feedbag. Am I wrong there? Having always had a fear of horses, I really rely on the Internet to help me know more about them...such as measuring them in hands, their parts, etc. Maybe that horse in the riding stable who kept trying to bite me is the cause of my phobia, and now that I better know their diet...perhaps someone fed him straw. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks for this info, Ellen! Good stuff to know. When I think about stalls in my stories, they're always the straight kind. That's what naturally comes to mind. Never saw a roomy box stall in my life until I visited a farm where they raised high-dollar horses. When I had horses, hubby and I built a mini-barn for them. One side was for tack and feed. The other side had straight stalls. I don't remember ever buying straw. The only time I remember my horses lying down was when they were rolling in the loose dirt or just relaxing in the sun. My grandfather once told me that if a horse could turn all the way over to the other side when it rolled, it was worth a lot. Old wives/farmers tale. Another great post! :)

Alison E. Bruce said...

I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that western horses had the same relationship with oats as English horses. Oats were what the nobs gave their hunters and carriage horses to optimize their performance (hence the phrase "feeling his oats"). Oats weren't the common food of farm horses or most other draught animals, so far as I know.

Alison E. Bruce said...

My Aunt Ruth had a box stall for the calf she'd buy every spring. That animal was pampered right up to the day it visited the local abattoir.

I never gave any thought for box versus straight stalls. With the exception of my aunt, I only saw straight stalls on farms and I only saw box stalls at the Canadian National Exhibition. As a kid, I just assumed the horses had rooms so the owner could bunk in with them.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Hey (ho ho) Paty - I'm also old enough to have milked a cow by hand. My Canadian cousins had a general farm, but it included dairy cows, and they also didn't get a milking machine until I was older. And I can remember seeing bits of manure or other crud occasionally getting into a pail and being flicked out before the milk went into the separator. They only sold the cream. The rest of the milk went to pigs, barn cats and the house. Modern folks would run screaming if they could see one of those old barns or experience the flies.

Ginger - My guess, and it's only a guess, is that feedbags would have been used in the old days the way I once saw one used. The horse was out at pasture with other horses. So to ensure that that horse got what was intended for it and that the others could get it or fight over it, the one horse got the feedbag. Since using one means being there to take it off when it's empty, if there was a practical way to see a horse gets what's intended without that bother, I bet it was used.

Allison - People were undoubtedly just more practical back then. A horse doing heavy work isn't going to keep condition without some high energy feed, which would usually mean grain (oats, barley, corn). But if a horse was a necessity, you kept it anyway you could and if you couldn't afford good feed, the horse suffered. And of course some people have always cared more than others.

Devon - Most horses I know do lie down at night to sleep. Maybe having bedding tempts them to do it more. The legend I was raised on was that a horse was worth a hundred dollars for every time it rolled completely over. We used to count and needless to say no horse we dealt with back then was ever worth today's prices.

Just today there is a thread on Kindle Boards about horse savy writing. Interestingly, it's addressed to fantasy writers who have silly things in their books. Since I don't read fantasy, I've don't know.

http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,118956.0.html

The recommendation was for a Smashwords book that supposedly helps fix these problems. I haven't read that book, of course, and one thing that always strikes me is how hard it is to judge whether something is helpful or correct if you don't know about the thing to start with.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/173368

P.S. You can't believe the aggravation having an apostrophe in my last name is causing. I had it all worked out, and they've changed the Comment as options. Heaven knows what's going to come up this time. I'm experimenting.

Jacquie Rogers said...

I had to laugh because I read a book just last week where the hero fed straw to his blooded horses. Snort. And then you wrote this post.

The other thing is, you just do not feed cattle and horses the same stuff. I guess, since they both are four-legged, people think they require the same nutrition.

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