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.
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.