Karen Melville’s childhood love of horses was reignited when her granddaughter, Emily, got a rescued quarter horse named Bella. It had been 50 years since Melville owned a horse.
“It was mind-boggling how much things had changed,” she says. From infectious diseases to veterinary tests and dozens of demands on a horse owner’s wallet, there was a lot to deal with.
Nevertheless, Melville and her husband, Jay, decided that—now retired—they could make horse ownership a family affair. They fell in love with Gypsy Vanner horses, and bought two, Misty and Tilly. Then they sold their Apple Valley townhouse and bought a property with wide open spaces in Hampton, Minn.—in southern Dakota County—in order to move Bella, Misty and Tilly out of boarding and onto their own land.
Even when you’re boarding, it’s important to be informed to make sure the caregivers are doing right by your animals. But raising horses on your own property requires the mastery of many topics.
In the late 2010s, there was a 400-percent increase in the number of unwanted horses in Minnesota, burdening counties and nonprofit rescue operations.
Hay gets complicated
The Melvilles’ veterinarian encouraged them to look into University of Minnesota Extension’s equine education program. Their first step was going to hear a talk on horse nutrition by Krishona Martinson, Extension equine specialist and livestock program leader. “We found out that there’s a lot more to it than feeding the horse some hay,” says Melville. “You have to know not only about different types of hay, but how to test for nutritional content and develop a good relationship with hay suppliers. It helps to know what your hay supplier might be going through with the weather and the markets and how to find another one when necessary.”
Hay is often in short supply. “Sometimes people might own five or six horses and not be prepared or able to get all of them properly fed,” Melville adds. “That’s one reason we end up with horses that need to be rescued.”
The Melvilles also benefited from the work of three of Martinson’s graduate students. They studied the Melvilles’ facilities and gave them a plan that addressed everything from watering systems and how not to overuse the pastures to feeding and fencing.
“The equine pasture management program is available when enough graduate students are far enough along in their training and can use the on-farm experience to further their learning,” says Martinson, who advises and oversees their work and their final reports to the horse owners.
Online learning and apps mean less hoofing it to class
In 2016, Martinson and her team developed a series of online horse courses. Taking all of the online courses with passing scores and participation leads to a certificate. New courses, such as one in biosecurity, have been added and Martinson expects that more than 500 people will have participated by the end of this year. Considering that 5.1 million people engaged with Extension’s equine program on Facebook, Martinson knows she has room to grow her online course offerings. Horse owners like Melville appreciate the efficiency and cost savings of being able to take the courses from their own homes.
Martinson and her team also developed two horse apps: the Healthy Horse app, for managing a horse’s weight, and the Hay Price Calculator app. Melville’s family uses both. “Since Emily’s horse is a rescue, we don’t know old she is, and she can have trouble keeping on weight,” she says. “The app also helps with Misty and Tilly, who need to be managed not to feed too heavily.”
Using all that they learned from Extension, the Melvilles redesigned their Hampton property. It took a year to complete it, during which they continued to participate in Extension offerings.
With their new knowledge and science-based recommendations, they didn’t spend money beyond what was truly needed to care for the family’s beloved animals. “And that’s important,” says Melville, “because nothing is inexpensive when it comes to raising horses.”