Making a Home for the Horses

Over the years, I’ve built many a fence for horses and with each one, I swore I’d dug my last posthole, ever. So here I was again, needing another horse fence. Only this time, there was no hope of digging postholes. When you live on hard lava rock with very little soil cover, it’s time to look for other options. But when your horses are just two and a half feet tall, some of the traditional fencing methods for regular horses won’t work anyway. Openings need to be smaller, height can be lower, and hardware doesn’t have to be industrial strength. Still, the basics are the basics. Health and safety of the horses come first and just like their larger counterparts, they need fencing that won’t fall apart when they scratch or lean against it, shade and shelter from the elements, latches that can’t be pried open by inquiring lips, dry footing, adequate water and feed, places to roll, and enough room to run.

My rule of thumb for larger horses has always been to fence at least half an acre per horse. That much space means your horse can get up to a gallop, but you will always have a dry lot without grass. Dry lot feeding instead of pasture has some advantages – you can always tell exactly how much your horse is eating and there is no chance of colic from too much wet green grass. The down side is that your dry lot becomes a muddy mess with rain or snow and you have to provide enough feed and hay to keep your horse’s need to forage satisfied, monitoring the horse’s weight daily to ensure he’s getting enough, but not too many, calories. Horses are meant to forage for their food, eating small amounts but all day long. A horse that’s fed in a dry lot needs multiple feedings per day and runs the risk of boredom which may manifest in some bad habits like pacing, pawing, fence-chewing or other undesirable behaviors.

The rock wall on the east end of the paddock serves as one side. The upper terrace includes our septic tank – this works for us, but in some places livestock is not allowed on a septic field. Check your local regulations.

I found that the recommended rule of thumb for miniatures is, not surprisingly, much less than regular horses – at least 600 square feet per horse. While our house construction project was underway, we converted a slope in front of the house pad into two terraces with the aid of the earthmoving team and equipment that put in our septic tank. This allowed us to have two level areas comprising about 2000 square feet in a roughly square shape. The rock wall that created our house pad eliminated the need for 50 feet of fence, another bonus of creative thinking about the available space we had.

The bottom rail rests on the concrete block that supports the post. The 2″x3″ grid on the coated fence is small enough so that the minis cannot get their feet caught in it. Note Mr. Bean’s nose intruding on the right side of this photo – it’s hard to take pictures when they want to be in each one.

To build the fence, we scaled down my favorite horse fence design with a few modifications to accommodate our unique landscape in Hawaii and the size of our horses. The basic design is a top rail and bottom rail with wire horse fence attached to both. I like this design because it keeps the horses from getting legs or heads in awkward positions between rails. It also keeps dogs out and foals in. Ordinarily, I would run the bottom rail with just about an inch or two of clearance off the ground, but since we couldn’t reasonably dig postholes, we opted for setting the posts in concrete blocks and filling in the gap with rocks from the property (an ongoing process).

Because we needed both affordability and ease of maintenance, we used treated 4”x4” posts with a coat of paint and 2”x6” Trex composite decking for the top and bottom rails. We capped the posts to discourage damage from bugs and rain and used rolls of 36” coated fencing to avoid the rust that eventually attacks anything metal here on the island.

Post caps at the gates have solar lights while the rest of the fence posts have simple metal caps.
Post caps at the gates have solar lights while the rest of the fence posts have simple metal caps.

With regular sized horses, I’m always careful to sandwich the fence between the rails and posts with the rails on the inside of the posts, so that if your horse leans or rubs against the fence, he’s pushing the rail against the post instead of off the post. With the minis, I thought we might be okay with the posts on the inside which admittedly is more aesthetically pleasing when you’re on the outside of the enclosure. Either way, I always use screws instead of nails to attach the rails to the posts and lots of fence staples to attach the fence to the rails. All in all, this makes a strong, attractive, and affordable fence that lets you see in and the horses see out. With the height of the cement post blocks added to the width of the fence and rails, the entire structure is just about four feet tall.

We had a hard time finding gates of any sort here on the island without having to ship something in at great expense. So although we’ll probably replace these at some point with something more substantial, we opted to go with a simple paneled garden fence found at Lowe’s.

The fence design also accommodates changes in elevation easily. The gate has the same grid as the fencing.
The fence design also accommodates changes in elevation easily. The gate has the same grid as the fencing.

We put one panel to serve as a gate on either side of the paddock to allow ease of access no matter which side you happen to be on. These gates would never do for full-size horses, but for the minis, they seem to be working fine. We did have to add a small panel of fencing to close the gap between the bottom of the gate and the ground.

We created closures using chains and snap hooks. This is the only system I have found to be horseproof, especially if you have clever horses that love to let themselves out. Zipties were critical to using the simple garden gates as they were designed to be part of a system that links each panel to the next using a pin system.

Zipties are a “must-have” around the barnyard. If the horses should figure out how to lift the pin out of the eyescrew, the ziptie will hold the gate in place.

To finish out the paddock, we added a loafing shed by attaching plywood panels to 4”x4” posts to make an 8’x8’ shaded area, covered by scraps of the same powder coated steel roofing we used on our house. A coat of paint helps guard against weathering and makes the whole paddock fence and loafing shed look more finished. I included a 4’x4’ tack and feed room at one end so that I don’t have to haul things back and forth from the house, and poured a concrete pad for this room to keep hay and feed off the ground and out of the path of rainwater. Within the feed room, pellets, alfalfa cubes, and treats are kept in half-size metal garbage cans to keep rodents out. I put in hooks for halters and lead ropes, and have a shelf ready to install to hold fly spray, brushes, and other odds and ends. Another panel of the garden fence keeps the horses out of the feed room.

The shed and tack room could probably be a little taller - they're perfect height for the horses, but require me to stoop a little to get into the feed bins.
The shed and tack room could probably be a little taller – they’re perfect height for the horses, but require me to stoop a little to get into the feed bins.

Tim installed a hose bib just outside the gate that allows access to water with easy filling of the water tub. We threw a couple of small goldfish in the water tub to make sure we have no mosquitoes attempting to use it as a nursery. I do have to remove the fish when I clean the tub every other day, but they’re easy to catch with a small net and don’t seem to mind the disruption in their routine. The horses have free access to a salt and mineral block in a plastic tub with drain holes, which is kept under the roof so that rain won’t dissolve it away. I feed them in tubs on the ground so that waste is minimized and they can “graze” in a natural position.

The last addition to the loafing shed will be done next week when we level out the floor of the shaded area with sand and cover it with stall mats. That should give the horses a mud-free option when it rains and provide them with a softer place to rest when they choose to lie down.

Java checks out her new ball.
Java checks out her new ball.

Finally, I’ve provided a Jolly Ball for them to kick and nose around to help keep them occupied. The entire cost for creating the paddock ended up right around $600 for materials. We put it up ourselves over the course of about five days. We probably could have finished it more quickly, but didn’t want to spend too many hours in the hot Hawaiian sun at one time. Now all we needed was horses to put in the paddock.

Moving Little Horses to Hawaii

3. Toyland Comanche and Toyland Java became part of our family in early September 2015 when I made the final payment. But getting them to our farm in Hawaii from their birth barn near Chicago, Illinois was not easy. I started looking into transportation options during the summer. I was hoping it would be as simple as flying to Chicago, putting them in a giant dog crate and flying back with them using United Airlines’ Petsafe program, as we did when we moved our dog, Blue, from Colorado. After all, at 26 and 28 inches tall, they weren’t much bigger than Blue. The representative at United assured me they would not allow horses to fly no matter how small they might be. I asked around the horse owners I knew on the island and they all recommended Young Brothers. I called Young Brothers, but the person I talked to said the horses would have to be shipped to Honolulu, Oahu first then brought by barge to their port in Kawaihae, a five-day trip over what can be rough water. They would only handle the portion of the trip from Oahu to the Big Island, leaving me to figure out all the details of getting them to Oahu, where they would be checked in by a state-approved veterinarian. That led me to further investigation of the quarantine rules but I couldn’t get a straight answer from the Department of Agriculture or other horse owners about what was actually required. Over the years, I had transported many horses to many places, but never to an island and never having to use more than a single truck with a trailer. With what appeared to be some combination of planes, trains, automobiles, and barges getting involved, it was getting more and more complicated, so I called Island Pet Movers, the company that helped take care of transporting my parrot when we moved to Hawaii, since they were so good at handling all the complex details of importing birds to this island. Their advice was to contact Pacific Airlift, a company that specializes in moving livestock on and off the islands.

I immediately called the good folks at Pacific Airlift and left a message. While I was waiting for them to call back, I studied their website and the Department of Agriculture’s rules on importing livestock. It seemed that, contrary to what I was being told by horse owners, horses can be brought into the state at any port on any island, as long as a state-approved veterinarian will be on hand to check them in. Pacific Airlift’s website suggested that they make occasional flights directly to Kona from Los Angeles. I felt like we were finally getting somewhere. When Andee Patterson from Pacific Airlift called me back, she assured me that they would take care of all the transportation and paperwork details from door to door, or at least from the barn in Illinois to the Kona International Airport, including making sure the state veterinarian would be on hand. At this point, I no longer cared about the cost – I had someone who would help me navigate the complexities of the move.

It looked like mid-October was going to be the earliest the horses could be transported. Since they were still very young (both born in April), the delay was probably to their advantage.

The paddock, ready for its new inhabitants.
The paddock, ready for its new inhabitants.

In the meantime, we fenced approximately 2000 square feet of our land into a miniature horse paddock, complete with a five foot tall 8’x12’ loafing shed with a covered feed and tack room at one end. Except for having to lean over to avoid hitting my head on the roof supports, it’s the perfect setup for two or three minis.

Andee contacted Laureen at Toyland Farms and sent all the information related to the required paperwork for health certificates, Coggins testing, and import restrictions (use of fly sprays, etc.). She also arranged with a local van company in Illinois to pick up the minis and transport them to Riverside, California. That portion of the trip cost $1475 with the minis sharing a stall in the van. The van company deposited them at a ranch in Riverside where they rested for a few days while waiting for their plane ride to the Big Island. Then the big day arrived and they were transported to the airport where they were loaded into a shared stall on a cargo plane transporting a number of cattle, horses, and sheep to and from Kona. Pacific Airlift’s service was a whopping $3000 (the same amount they charge for one full-sized horse), but that covered transporting both horses overseas and coordinating the continental travel as well. Add in insurance and miscellaneous fees associated with the week of boarding and getting them to the airport and the total bill for transporting the two horses from the Chicago area to Kona ended up being right around $5000, almost as much as the price tag for the two horses. But it was worth every penny, knowing that they were being handled with care and experience every step of the way.

But getting the horses to Kona was only part of the journey. They still had to go from the airport to our place about 30 miles south. During the weeks we waited for them to arrive, we tossed around various ideas for transporting them.

Java's sweet face.
Java’s sweet face. 

Since they were still so small, and around 120-150 pounds each, we thought we probably had several options. We entertained the idea of large dog crates that we could load into the back of our pickup with some assistance from hefty helpers. We thought about putting up a canine fence between the front seats and cargo area of our Subaru Forester and simply carrying them that way. With a rubber mat lining in the cargo area, how bad could that be?

We renamed Comanche to keep with the coffee theme. Meet Mr. Bean.
We renamed Comanche to keep with the coffee theme. Meet Mr. Bean.

We considered a friend’s offer of an enormous two-horse trailer built for very tall Warmbloods, but that didn’t seem much safer than just putting in some plywood panels to raise the sides of our pickup bed and riding with them to keep them from jumping out on the way home.

But in the way things seem to fall into place here on the island, we happened into the local feed store at exactly the right moment to meet one of the few owners of miniature horses in Kona. Mike, the husband of the owner of a therapeutic horsemanship program, talked story with us a while, made some good suggestions on care and feeding of the minis in this climate, and offered the use of his miniature horse trailer to transport the horses from the airport. A miniature horse trailer – the only one on the island – and we just happened to meet the owner of it in the feed store on a day when we were about out of time to explore options. I chatted with Nancy Bloomfield, the director of Therapeutic Horsemanship Hawaii in Kona, when we got home and she not only gave great advice based on experience with her two minis here that are part of her outreach program, but she also confirmed Mike’s offer of the trailer and hauling at no cost. We agreed to meet at the airport at 2:30 on the appointed day. Everything seemed ready – all we had to do was wait for October 17.