Horses in the Old West

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Horses in the Old West

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  • Working on a ranch in 1930s
  • What were horses fed in 1910?

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    07-09-2014, 01:49 PM
Horses in the Old West

In the summer my horses are on pasture 24/7 and in the winter they have hay 24/7. We're lucky to ride 5-10 hours per week and during that time they think you're trying to starve them to death. My question is what were horses fed in the old west when they were really worked. There were no balers, no irrigation, no fertilizer, and no trucks to haul hay around. From the western movies it looks like there wasn't much natural grazing in the desert sw. My question might even apply to modern day ranch horses.
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    07-09-2014, 02:00 PM
1) Don't believe what you see in the movies.

a) Even if you do believe some of it, realize that even if the movie is being shot on a location that's really in the 'Old West', much of the land has been drastically changed by a century and more of human activity.

2) Wild horses survive quite well on natural forage.
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    07-09-2014, 02:10 PM
Just curious how it was done. At most the movies show horses penned in a corral. Machines didn't exist to process and haul large amounts of forage to them and guessing it wasn't practical to turn them loose at night to graze 100s of square miles of range. Guessing they didn't carry the body condition mine do.
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    07-09-2014, 02:46 PM
Green Broke
There has always been machinery to put up hay. Not every place grows grass hay though. Other forages were harvested and stored. Horse were rotated off the large pastures every few days. Those in for work were kept in small pastures or corrals. Horses' "body condition" changed with the availability and quality of feed, just like the cowboys' did.
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    07-09-2014, 02:52 PM
Super Moderator
Even in the "old days" they were able to cut and bale hay, as well as doing loose stacks.

A horse powered baler

Loose stacking is efficient and still used in areas with little mechanization.

Also, working horses were not the fat happy horses we see today, They were small narrow, often scrawny beasts.

    07-09-2014, 02:59 PM
Super Moderator
Horses were largely work animals so even if they did have more grass available they worked it off. The work horses in the UK were mostly kept stabled in the day and if they were in a rural area turned out in small paddocks at night - there wasn't the time to go walking any distances to catch them
The feral horses were probably like those in the UK - they pile weight on in the summer and drop it all off in the winter
Hay making c. 1900 It was very labour intensive
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    07-09-2014, 03:17 PM
A friend has a farm in Utah. Before they could farm the land there (and they have since his great grandfather), canals had to be dug to carry water from the mountains. IIRC, he benefits from 30 miles of irrigation canal dug using hands and horses. He says he cannot grow a weed on his land without watering it first!

Also, cowboys of the late 1800s were around 135 lbs in weight, and the cow ponies WERE ponies - around 13 -14 hands. A cowboy would have more than one horse (typically 5-6 from what I've read) so he could rotate use, and the horses lived hard and rather short lives by modern standards.

These are pictures from the early 1900s. If the cowboys are 5'7", then their horses are under 14 hands (I'm just over 5'7", and the bottom of my chin is 15 hands):

If you want to see working ranches from around 1900-1910, I strongly recommend this website:

Erwin E. Smith Collection Guide | Collection Guide
    07-09-2014, 03:17 PM
We have a mixed forage area that we hand cut with scythes, hand turn with forks, load and stack and then feed later. On my uncle's family ranch though horses in the string were rotated, kept close and grazed during their off time. Those that were off for longer periods were turned loose in larger pastures. Those that were corralled were thrown hay even in the way back when and those stabled were grained with what was grown for that purpose. The movies don't capture the reality. Depending on where you are at you figure acreage per animal. Some parts of the country you have to have really large areas, others parts of the country they can be smaller. The larger the area the smaller the string and the more you intensively grow something that can be fed or hauled in. And yep their horses were smaller, rock hard and scrappy. They were little power houses. Key word little.
    07-09-2014, 03:37 PM
Originally Posted by jamesqf    
1) Don't believe what you see in the movies.

a) Even if you do believe some of it, realize that even if the movie is being shot on a location that's really in the 'Old West', much of the land has been drastically changed by a century and more of human activity.

2) Wild horses survive quite well on natural forage.
I wouldn't say "quite well." They quite often DO get pretty thin by spring.
    07-09-2014, 06:31 PM
Green Broke
Some ranchers/cowboys caught horses off the range and started riding them in the spring and turned them back to the range in the fall when they were out of a job. Then just caught more the next year.

And some of those horses were moved around with the cow herd. Where cattle can live, horses can live. Being herd animals, some outfits ran a bell mare with the remuda, knowing that she would help in getting the rest in when the wrangler went out in the morning. Wrangler kept a couple in, either high lined or hobbled, so there would be something to bring in the day horses with.

And the worst "bunch quitters," if they were worth anything, were kept hobbled until the hands could tell they'd buddy'd up with the rest.
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