Making Mistakes: Foxtail

I believe in authenticity. I preach it all over my website and my social media is filled with the daily reality of taking care of a (very) small horse farm in rural Maryland. I also believe in being honest about our mistakes. The equestrian world is filled with images of gleaming bridles, perfectly healthy shiny horses, and luxurious show coats and tall boots. It seems that no one makes mistakes and life is perfect. But, if we’re honest, we know that just the opposite is true.

Last month I ran into an issue with foxtail, that could have been avoided. I’d heard of foxtail in posts on Facebook. I’d run into it in round bales in the past and successfully avoided it. And yet, I still managed to feed hay filled with foxtail to my horses.

That week fell on top of the holidays and I was stressed. Between not being able to see family for the holidays, the financial hardships that always follow Christmas, and various other issues, I was at the end of my rope and quite tired. These are not excuses, but definitely reasons for why I was not paying as much attention to my hay as I usually do. 

A bale full of foxtail

It wasn’t until I threw down a particularly horrible bale filled to the brim with mature foxtail sticking out in every direction that I realized what I had done. I walked out to my field and discovered the ground was littered with the weed– at least a week’s worth. My horses had been eating this hay. I felt horrible.

Foxtail is a type of grass, often used in ornamental decoration. It’s soft. It’s pretty. It’s also life threatening. When a horse eats foxtail, the barbs at the bottom of each soft piece can embed themselves in the gum tissue. These embedded barbs cause ulcers that may expand and cause severe pain. The horse will stop eating and drinking, often colicking. Signs of foxtail ulcers include discomfort with the bit, excessive drooling, and decreased appetite.

horses mouth with foxtail ulcers
LB’s mouth after eating foxtail.

LB and Buzz were immediately brought inside. Buzz’s 14 years of life experience seemed to have paid off as he managed to avoid every bit of the stuff. LB did have three small and mild ulcers in her upper gum line. The dentist was immediately called and her mouth was rinsed with salt water, which she definitely did not appreciate. 

This is how I found myself raking my one acre paddock for several hours, until it was too dark to see. Every swing of the rake felt like a small triumph in a big battle. Penance for the mistake that I made, paid for with some very therapeutic sweat and hard work.

Despite the fact that I’ve worked in barns for the last 10 years, there’s still a learning curve to keeping horses at home. We’re all human. It’s time we were honest about our mistakes as equestrians. Why? So we can learn from each other. So we can be more compassionate with ourselves and with others. So we can heal. 

Good horsekeeping doesn’t allow for mistakes. But the reality is mistakes will and do happen. All we can do is our absolute best. My horses rely on me. I am their sole caretaker no matter the weather, in sickness and in health, in stressful times and in good times. When I make mistakes, my horses suffer as a result. 

I’ve been asked before and will be asked again, “I have this extra land. I want to put some horses on it. I mean, I fed a horse a treat at the petting zoo once. They’ll have grass to eat. I can do that, right?” 

Trying to articulate to these people just how much work and knowledge is needed to successfully take care of horses is difficult. How do you explain the sleepless nights spent walking your colicking horse? The summer days throwing around 50 pound hay bales in a hot loft? The years spent learning about wound care, grooming, and general horse healthcare? And that doesn’t even include riding knowledge! 

When most people see horses, they see beautiful carefree creatures who gallop around and eat grass. The reality is that it takes a lot of hard work to maintain healthy equines. If we’re honest with each other about the mistakes we make in our horse keeping, we can educate each other, including people who are brand new to horses. Who wins as a result of our humility? The horses. And the horses always come first.

P.S.

LB recovered just fine with no issues. I switched to first cut hay and have plans to mow quite frequently this summer to combat the seeds left behind from the foxtail heads. 

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